This was my first year reading in public. I mean, I’ve always read books on transit and in parks, ever since I first learned how to attach meaning to the little symbols that make up words. But this year, I kept a public reading journal, where I have written about 50 books. For the most part I read only really good books, because I have never felt compelled to finish reading anything just to say I have. Of the 50, there were only a handful I wouldn’t gladly read again; about seven books that were truly excellent, in both intent and execution; and two that I had to read twice, because they lit my life on fire.
The first in this last crazy-making category was Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, which is a novel, but like a photograph presents an image of real people. Using recorded conversations with her friends, stray thoughts on the nature of genius, and details from her personal and professional life, Sheila Heti has managed to collage these real experiences to create — or perhaps, more accurately, curate — an impressive work of fiction.
To express their love, Sheila and her friends are always trying to make each other feel famous, by taking pictures of each other, writing stories about each other, painting each other’s portraits. If you’re on Facebook, you will probably recognize a little of yourself here. And yet Heti’s characteristically gamine voice cuts through the cloudy sentimentality that can settle over the divide between authenticity and the appearance of authenticity, between fame and celebration. The novel is an attempt at answering the titular question, and the mingling of the real and unreal, the recorded and the ethereal events in her life makes for a fantastically compelling read. Heti’s ultimately a genius for being able to so powerfully and lucidly demonstrate that the answer to the question of How Should a Person Be? is to keep on asking the question, and to keep on committing to being as a person should.
The other book I had to read twice was Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel. I thought I hated it, and I went back to it, just to make sure. It’s actually really brilliant. Like How Should a Person Be?, SLFAA blurs autobiographical events and recorded conversation together to produce something fictional. But there are so many key differences, and I’m only really drawing the connection now, months later. SLFAA chronicles the small adventures of a Tao Lin-type guy named Sam. The book opens with a conversation Sam is having with his friend, Louis, over Google chat. Instead of providing an ugly and vaguely digitized transcript of this conversation, Lin tags these dialogs with the word “said,” which kind of blew my mind. Here was an element of emotional verisimilitude, of experiential recognition, that completely shocked me; because I’m part of the generation that grew up online, I felt like I had found a mirror. The reason that I thought I hated this book was because the rest of the reflection that Lin provides is incredibly vague. SLFAA is full of unmoored things, signifiers unburdened from the responsibility of meaning, and the entire work reads like a staccato surface of the partially observed. And who knew this sort of thing was even possible, let alone incredibly readable? So it’s brilliant, and I still kind of hate it, but holy hell has Shoplifting From American Apparel ever lit me up.
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