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Sheila Heti’s Abstract Love for an Imperfect Universe

The novelist’s latest, ‘Pure Colour,’ is a rare, playful synthesis of the universal and the intimate

Marco Roth
February 01, 2022
TT News Agency/Alamy
TT News Agency/Alamy
TT News Agency/Alamy
TT News Agency/Alamy

In his canonical treatise on abstract art, “Abstraction and Empathy,” the early-20th-century German aesthetic theorist Wilhem Worringer argued that abstraction is the way that the human creative impulse recognizes and represents itself to itself as a form of positive freedom. The ability and the will to participate in a larger universal creation—divinity within a larger divine space, or natural within a larger nature—that’s what artists (when uninfluenced by fame, competition, or the wish to be loved) are generally after. Worringer opposed the self-enjoyment that arises from the contemplation or production of abstract art to the demands of empathy in representational art, which asks us to answer a call for recognition, even if it’s only a single flower saying “look at me and see me clearly!”

Worringer’s theory was at least partly a polemic against the “evolutionist” or “progressive” school of art critics who thought 19th-century empathetic realism constituted an improvement over naive and abstract modes. His argument was that both the abstract and empathic instincts coexisted in human art history, but not in the same individual work of art. Art could be empathic or abstract, but not both simultaneously.

As it happens, novels, like representational art, are not particularly conducive to abstraction. Irony, intended or not, is baked into the endeavor of novel writing. So is empathy. At the very least, there’s supposed to be a story that provides human interest and a world of sensuous objects for the reader’s pleasure, not the coldness of a created universe where God, as the Canadian Jewish novelist Sheila Heti’s apparently omniscient narrator in Pure Colour puts it, “has decided that the first draft of existence contained too many flaws” and is preparing its destruction.

Rather than fighting this tension, Heti seems to have taken it as a challenge to be embraced. Pure Colour both continues and raises the stakes of Heti’s earlier work. With the exception of her second book, Ticknor (2005), based on the lives of historical 19th-century Boston intellectuals, none of her previous works dubbed “novels” participated in ordinary games of realism: Scenes and scenery are spare; history and historical concerns absent; characters mostly present themselves through speech and interior monologue; autobiographical elements blend with fictions; the life of the artist and questions about aesthetics are explicitly thematized.

In How Should a Person Be (2010), “Sheila,” the narrator, and her friend Margaux (based on Heti’s real-life friend, the painter Margaux Williamson) start a contest in their artist clique to make “the ugliest work of art.” Plot, in the sense of action—when it happens—occurs on the borderland with allegory (Heti’s character, in search of her calling, compares herself to Moses and gives graphically described, extravagant blowjobs to a boyfriend known only as “Israel.”)

Pure Colour offers a new variation on Heti’s previous modus operandi, but at the scale of the whole work: Imagine a desire that’s at odds with that desire’s form (like the ugly painting contest, or a woman who doesn’t want to have children, in Motherhood), then use the form to explore that tension to a breaking point. In Pure Colour, it’s the desire for abstraction itself—to be lifted out or up from the world—that crashes against the formal horizons of novels.

Insofar as the book has a plot, it’s a schematic love triangle set in a placeless provincial town that sometimes feels like Heti’s native Toronto or could be a suburb of the end of history, a setting rather than a place. A young woman with vague artistic leanings grieves her father, who’d loved her with an absolute and overwhelming attachment that she didn’t know how to answer, while also realizing that she’s doomed to unrequited love for a woman who’s concerned above all with “collective conditions” rather than individual suffering or pleasure. These characters are made to fit into one of three types: the family-person, the artist, the socialist or communalist, or, in the cosmology of Pure Colour, Bear people, Bird people, and Fish people.

To give a sense of how casually yet seriously Heti takes this world-building, she’ll write things like, “A person born from the bear egg is like a person holding onto their very best doll.” A sentence like this is a mind-twisting mixture of naivety and sophistication. It is anything but “pure.” It sounds partly religious—like saying man was shaped from clay and woman from his rib—but also articulated in the still, small voice of a child possessed of an adult’s psychological perceptiveness. It’s also a sentence written by a 21st-century adult author who knows damn well that her readers understand that Bears are mammals and are not born from eggs. Writing that kind of sentence requires an absolute trust: both in oneself to write and one’s readers to accept. Many of the novel’s sentences myths, and arabesques perform this trust game with the reader. That the voice might be Heti’s or Mira’s, the bird person artist, only adds to the game. The narration is unreliable and entirely reliable.

Given Heti’s involvement in the world of painting and interests in philosophy and criticism (throughout the novel Mira and her fellow “Birds” are referred to as critics rather than as artists, in the sense that Oscar Wilde says that artists are “critics of reality”) the odds are high that she is aware of Worringer’s assertion of the universal coexistence of the abstract and the empathic and the no less universal belief that an artwork cannot serve both. Even if not, she seems to have set out to disprove or outdo him by producing a work that is both abstract and a critique of abstraction, empathic and a critique of the limits of representation to achieve empathic connections.

This is a literary-artistic ambition on a grand scale, but one that comes dressed modestly and speaks often in Mira’s naive visions. Understanding what Heti was attempting here also helped me make clearer sense of what Heti’s editor might have meant when she referred to Heti as “one of our freest literary minds” in her publicity copy. Surely all writers are free in this best of all possible publishing words, but some are certainly freer than others. Yet how as readers do we sense freedom on the page? And what sort of liberty are we really discussing?

The most boring answer remains the conventional avant-garde one: Heti has written herself free of some outworn, still persistent ideas of “how a novel should be.” With a background in contemporary theater, or “performance,” as it’s now called, rather than the usual American MFA mill and its emphasis on “roundedness” and empathic character-based realism, she repurposed a bunch of techniques from the canonical dramatists of the 1960s and 1970s—Stoppard, Sam Shepherd—whose originality is now a half-century old. Heti’s own contribution was to imbue these techniques with a more specifically philosophical sharpness and wit found in Wilde’s dramatic dialogues: “The Decay of Lying,” “The Critic as Artist” and “The Artist as Critic” and the nonpretentious idioms of Canadians who treat these questions with a seriousness that can only come from the good provincial fortune of having escaped the fate of living in New York or Los Angeles. The result, up to this point, has been a kind of circa 1990s “mumblecore” novel of ideas.

Freedom here appears negatively emancipatory, the shopworn act of rebellion against a tradition that then always ends up ratifying the tradition it rebelled against. By this point—we are at least several decades into the post-avant-garde era—this kind of act is an obvious, highly codified ritual. Such demonstrations are what Walter Benjamin said of fashion, “the tamed tiger’s leap in the arena.” The novel as a genre was always a kind of “loose baggy monster,” so the form contains within itself the potential to get looser, baggier, and less overtly “structured”—and ta-da! Do you like my new “novel,” mommy?

What critics now call “autofiction”—reduced to an aesthetic idea—mostly comes across as this kind of run-of-the-mill performance, violations of form that are themselves well-codified and highly formalized forms of rebellion, like those off-the-rack suits where the seams are on the outside and the hems have been left intentionally jagged. Heti has, until now, mostly been celebrated as this kind of autofictionist; the literary world’s answer to reality television.

What Heti adds to the post-post-modern avant-garde story is that her philosophers and aesthetes are women, at least most of the time. Is her artistic freedom somehow then correlated with gender? It would be silly to pretend otherwise.

Heti’s characters are motivated by questions—what makes a good work of art? Is there any point in having children?—and then often treat relationships and situations as experimental sites in the search for answers. The tension inherent in this pursuit is a product of expectations related to traditional definitions of femininity: A male protagonist engaged in such pursuits is entirely familiar, and not in a desirable or even neutral way.

It’s not just that no man could have written Heti’s Motherhood, but that the sort of life in its pages, lived as a persistent philosophical inquiry, the ambivalence acted out in intimate conversations and the making and breaking of promises to partners and friends, what might be called the freedom to revise oneself, has been recently redefined—politically—as a female preserve. When this kind of questioning appears in contemporary fiction by men, it does so—out of guilty necessity—as a kind of pathology, evidence of immaturity, neurosis, or “narcissism” (compare Ben Kunkel’s Indecision, the turgid evolutions of Ben Lerner’s first-person narrator in 10:04, or the Heti-obsessed, self-hating narrator of Sean Thor Conroe’s soon-to-be-published novel, Fuccboi). None of this is Heti’s responsibility. But if her work feels freer to us than similarly themed novels by her male contemporaries, a lot of that is because she’s less constrained by any external pressure or internalized need to perform guilt, or to demonstrate compensatory virtue and social awareness.

Another way to say this is that Heti, to a unique degree among her contemporaries, has an unembarrassed devotion to the idea of “the artist,” and has, like all good modernists, developed her own sustaining mythology of what it means to fully inhabit that persona—and is generally left alone by career-killing critics and political scolds so she can write.

This too, however, is only a limited kind of freedom. “The poet nothing affirmeth and so never lieth,” as Sir Philip Sidney put it, in reply to the Platonists and censors of the Elizabethan age. And to “own” the identity of the artist, in this way, can deprive you of other kinds of freedom, including the freedom to be taken seriously. Also, as the history of modernism and modern art shows, it’s all too easy to become a prisoner of one’s own myth.

The “ne plus ultra” of artistic freedom, however, comes when the artist understands and seems to accept the provisionality of her own work, the restlessness of an experiment that undoes itself, but doesn’t get too caught up in the dynamics of its own experimentalism. This is what begins to happen in the climactic middle section of Pure Colour. Mira is fed up with her marginal existence as a lamp-store clerk (the lamps are Tiffany-style colored glass, one of the novel’s few precise details and a neat one that hints at the relationship between the titular aspiration and reality, the filter and the harsh truth); she’s haunted by what she thinks of as her failure to connect with her father; she feels her life to be a failure and finds her spirit dissolving into a leaf on a tree by the riverbank where she once sat with her father as a child. In the leaf, she feels both liberated and stuck, “The problem in life had always been that she wanted to be bigger, but she didn’t know how ... She didn’t even know what her right size was. But there, under the golden sun, she finally found out: it was the size of a leaf ... But the love of her father had made her think she was great, as giant as the universe and other people should know it ... She had gone into the world without him, thinking she could achieve it, but she achieved only a strange distance from this person she loved.” This isn’t magical realism, it’s a kind of “spiritual realism”: a difficult, human-scaled psychological insight about recognizing one’s limitations in life is literalized as a change of scale. This isn’t exactly allegory, nor parable, it’s an embodiment of a thought experiment. A realization.

Inside the leaf, Mira has an additional series of realizations. She’s able to commune with her father’s spirit and the two embark on an open-ended series of transcendental musings, collectively voiced from no particular perspective. A section on the subjective existence of God begins, “All I’m trying to say is if you want to have a true picture of God in your head, you have to recognize you can have no true picture of him.” The way to picture God, it turns out, is inherently subjective, but that subjectivity, the particularity of God to each person, is presented as a potential proof of a divine absolute, as if each one of us were squares of a Tiffany lampshade.

These meditations are also perspectival tricks that embody the formal risk Heti takes throughout: the conversations and disembodied soliloquies about the existence of God and the end of the world, the ruminations about Bear people and Bird people and Fish people, the thoughts about the proper size of one’s spirit, these are simultaneously “transcendental” and particular ways of narrating an individual consciousness’s awareness of loss, decay, change, and death. Each section of Pure Colour takes the reader up and down this ladder that connects low to high, the everyday to the eternal, the personal to the abstract, without managing to put one above the other. It’s not “merely psychology” nor is it “purely” religion. It’s not showing off and it’s not playing dumb.

But how does Heti manage to perform this rare synthesis of the universal and the intimate? Eventually, Heti lets her character out of the leaf, because the universe of this novel, like the universe it attempts to imitate, is provisional and self-revising. Feelings change along with the climate. If God is preparing to rip up the first draft of creation, we may rip up the first drafts of our own lives, especially when stuck with the spirit of a dead father inside a leaf. Heti’s empathic abstract stems from her acceptance that there is no perfect creation, no absolute, and that all myths are provisional. But in this acceptance, the liberty it gives to play, there’s also a pathos that Heti doesn’t shy from. She allows herself and so also allows us to love this imperfect world that might not return our affections or requite us for the losses it inevitably inflicts, being imperfect.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.