literary journalism

Sheila Heti’s ‘Pure Colour’

The Canadian author Sheila Heti launched her career two decades ago writing postmodern fairy tales for grown-ups. Her debut collection, The Middle Stories, contained tales such as a plumber wooing a princess, a girl who keeps a mermaid in a jar and a little dumpling who falls to the floor.

Fables traditionally impart moral lessons, but Heti subverted the expectations of the genre by serving up disappointment rather than resolution: the plumber doesn’t get the princess, the mermaid continues to be mistreated and the little dumpling dries up and dies.

Billed as a “philosopher of modern experience”, Heti is best known for her autofictional novels How Should a Person Be? (2010) and Motherhood (2018). She enjoys experimenting with form: her oeuvre also includes a play, a historical novella, two picture books for children, a compendium of a friend’s pop philosophy lectures, a collaborative book on women’s fashion and a free-form podcast. In a quasi-Oulipian project, currently being serialised in the New York Times, she entered the sentences from a decade of her diaries into Excel, arranged the lines alphabetically and edited them to highlight recurrent preoccupations.

In her new novel Pure Colour, Heti continues to pose existential questions but returns to the form of the fable, albeit with a surreal twist. Assessing his first draft of creation “like a painter standing back from the canvas”, God finds it wanting. The world in this novel largely resembles our own, pre-internet; the “earth is heating up in advance of its destruction by God”, who hopes his second draft will go more smoothly. But here, people are born as one of three personality types: birdlike, fishlike or bearlike. Birds are narcissistic artist types; fish are concerned with the collective; bears are fiercely protective of their loved ones.

The book is loosely plotted, with long philosophical digressions. But then Heti has never shown much interest in conventional literary devices. “It seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story,” she told the art critic David Hickey in 2007. How Should a Person Be? followed an aspiring artist and a playwright pondering the titular question, using fragments of real emails and transcribed conversation in an attempt at verisimilitude. In Motherhood, Heti’s fictionalised proxy wrestled with the dilemma of whether to have a child, resorting to divination techniques including tarot cards and a coin-toss spin on the I Ching.

If those two novels documented the concerns of Heti’s twenties and thirties, PureColour sets out to address the next stage of her life, as well as alighting on topics such as climate change and art as creation…

Read the full review online at the Financial Times


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