After Life

I suspect that most people would rather live in a work of fiction than in reality, but the narrator of Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel, 10:04, fails to appreciate his good fortune. He is lucky enough to find himself in a book by one of the supplest stylists in America, but often, he seems intent on clambering out of art and into life. Not only does he bear such an uncanny resemblance to his non-fictional creator that the two threaten to bleed together, but, on a series of visits to his moribund mentor, he reflects that if he were the one on his deathbed, ‘I wouldn’t even think about literature, would just be asking for morphine and distracting myself, if possible, with reality TV.’

This scene could not contrast more starkly with a strikingly similar sequence in Pure Colour, Sheila Heti’s latest genre-defying effusion. The book’s protagonist, Mira, is tasked with tending to her father in his final weeks, but her loss does not convince her of the frivolity of aesthetics. Instead, ‘it seemed to her the week her father was dying that nothing mattered but art and literature’. Heti’s, whose own father died when she first set to work on the book, is no stranger to the sharp bite of grief, but she is nonetheless unequivocal about beauty’s primacy. Mira’s stifling depression lifts only when she marvels at the Christmas lights in her neighbourhood and becomes ‘choked up with gratitude over all those tiny shining souls that adorned the trees and the falling-down porches’.

Both Heti and Lerner are often hailed as progenitors of the slippery non-genre of novel-adjacent meditations commonly known as ‘auto-fiction’. Auto-fictionalists – are they novelists, exactly? – are defined by their propensity to draw heavily on their own lives, yielding books – are they novels, exactly? – that are potent blends of truth, embellishment, and outright fabrication, not unlike the reality TV that Lerner’s narrator believes he will crave when he dies. Unsurprisingly, autofiction is alternately praised and chastised for its supposed impatience with invention. In his 2012 review of Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010), which declares itself ‘a novel from life’ in a provocative subtitle, the New Yorker’s James Wood cautioned against indulging too greedy an appetite for reality. ‘The writer who is seeking “life”, who is trying to write “from life”, is always unappeased, because no bound manuscript can ever be “real” enough’, he warns. The novelist would do better to make peace with the unabashed unreality of fiction.

Wood has many canny insights into Heti’s work – for instance, that her novels consist largely of what he calls ‘essayettes’ – but, fundamentally, he gets her project backwards. Heti mines her own biography not in order to subordinate fiction to life but in order to subordinate life to fiction. As she explains in a 2019 Yale Review essay about painting and her father’s death, ‘to draw your life is to attempt to transform it with your magic. Your life invariably comes to resemble the depiction layered on top of it’. Accordingly, Heti submits reality to scrupulous aestheticization.

Wood might counter that she is known for formal experiments in which she seems to cede all agency: in How Should a Person Be?, she transcribes a number of actual conversations and emails with her friends, and in her most recent book, Motherhood (2018), she asks questions and then flips a coin so as to allow ‘the universe’ to answer. In truth, however, her work subtly yet ferociously asserts the primacy of the artist at every turn. Dialogue is rearranged, the results of coin flips richly reinterpreted. Nothing – even a chance occurrence – is safe from authorial appropriation. Both How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood are not concessions to randomness but records of a restless intelligence at work. In both of them, and now in Pure Colour, life is justified only as a basis for art.

* * *

If Heti is hostile to fiction at all, it is not in virtue of favouring truth over imaginative acrobatics, but in virtue of preferring argument to narrative. Her books are typically organized around questions rather than events: How Should a Person Be? asks how people in general, and artists in particular, ought to cultivate their identities, while Motherhood asks whether women in general, and artists in particular, should have children. On the face of it, Pure Colour deviates from this model: it is less first-personal, more fanciful, and even less readily categorizable. But its sense of humour and its animating curiosity are the same, and though it is not quite as explicit about the question at its core, it too centres on urgent uncertainties. In various ways, it asks: How important is art, really? Is it important enough to continue to matter at times of true tragedy? Is it the kind of thing we will care about on our death beds, or will we crave reality TV? And perhaps most importantly, as the world is burning, will there be any role for art after the destruction of humanity?

In Motherhood, Heti wondered if ‘art is what humans do’, and the universe, or at least its numismatic ambassador, answered affirmatively; in Pure Colour, she graduates to asserting, ‘we make art because we’re humans, and that’s what humans do’. But this step towards certainty is also an advance into more elaborate confusion. If art is what humans do, what will become of it when mankind is extinguished in a climate disaster? ‘When you are sad about the humans being gone, it’s the art you think of that won’t be seen, not the humans, who maybe don’t deserve to be here’, Mira’s father tells her from beyond the grave. Mira knows – and tries to accept – that ‘art is made for our situation. Whatever comes will be another situation, and our art won’t be needed for it’. But she cannot reconcile herself to the prospect of art’s needlessness, and neither can her creator. The proof is in the pudding – in Pure Colour, a work of art that clearly aspires to endure.

Part theological meditation, part religious fable, it is a book so whimsical and so conspicuously strange that it would court ridicule if it were not so self-aware and, vitally, so funny. Indeed, it is less of a novel than a sort of theodicy, reminiscent of a medieval mystical tract. Its central premise, presented in simple and solemn language, is that the universe is God’s artistic creation. He has stepped away to contemplate it ‘like a painter standing back from the canvas. This is the moment we are living in – the moment of God standing back’. Now that God has a chance to survey His work, He is disappointed. Like all artists, he is incapable of achieving perfection without ample revision. We are unlucky enough to reside in ‘the first draft of existence’, where ‘nothing would be as we hoped it would be’.

All of the action in Pure Colour is staged somewhere in this draft, though the novel’s universe is difficult to place. Sometimes, the book’s characters seem to inhabit a world as ecologically ravaged as our own – a world where ‘all the water had plastic in it, even the safe water that came in plastic bottles’. Sometimes, however, Mira and her father seem to live somewhere distant, surreal, even mythological. ‘Friendships were different then’, writes Heti with dark, vatic emphasis.

Whenever and wherever Pure Colour is located, the events it relates are hazy and allegorical, perhaps because the first draft of the world could not fail to be somewhat roughly sketched. When the book opens, Mira works in a lamp shop; from there, she proceeds to the highly competitive ‘American Academy of American Critics’, where students must develop a ‘style of writing and thinking that could survive down the ages, and at the same time penetrate their own generation so incisively’. Here, she meets and falls in love with a woman named Annie. Then her father dies, and Mira’s spirit joins his in – of all places! – a leaf dangling over a lake. In this unlikely situation, their thoughts are scrambled together: ideas unseparated by paragraph breaks and uncontained by quotation marks run together, sometimes with trite results. Eventually, Mira is coaxed back among the living, but not before she has mustered the sort of New Age musings found in horoscopes, for instance when she reflects that the ‘loving part’ of us ‘shines through us so beautifully’.

But Pure Colour is more concerned with cosmology than it is with the jumbled reflections a dead man and his daughter might voice from within a leaf. It opens with a strange and compelling taxonomy: ‘God appears, splits, and manifests as three critics in the sky’. There is ‘a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle, and a large bear who critiques while cradling creation in its arms’. A bird is ‘interested in beauty, order, harmony and meaning. They look at nature from on high, in an abstracted way, and consider the world as if from a distance’. Fish, in contrast, are concerned with ‘fairness and justice here on earth’, while a bear loves one person in particular.

Which is best? At points, Heti gestures unconvincingly at pluralism: ‘fish, birds, and bears are all equally important in the eye of God’, she writes. But for all her attempts at neutrality, she cannot conceal her own affiliation. Mira is a bird, and Heti is clearly on the side of her protagonist. By her lights, ‘God is most proud of creation as an aesthetic thing’. ‘Those born from the bird egg are the most grateful’, for the world is beautiful, despite its many moral and political failings. People err, kill, disappoint, and even die in droves, but art lasts, undimmed, far outstripping its sordid creators.  

* * *

One reason that a bird appreciates art above all else is that it is less fragile than earthly ephemera, among them the human body. In Motherhood, Heti reasons that a baby is prey to all manner of diseases, whereas a great book is immune. Mira reaches similar conclusions as she watches her father disintegrate. She lies in bed alongside him and thinks

how great art was… and how faithful; how faithful a book was, and how strong, a place you could be safe, apart from the world, held inside a world that would never grow weak, and which could pass through wars, massacres and floods ­– could pass through all of human history, and the integrity of its soul would stay strong.

Yet even if art is more durable than any one of its makers or appreciators, it depends on the continued existence of an audience of some sort. Perhaps for this reason, Heti makes several attempts to imagine consciousness without humanity. In Motherhood, the narrator’s boyfriend urges her to write a book about the French mystic Simone Weil, who yearned to blot out her individuality so that she could be more wholly enfolded into the universe. Perhaps Pure Colour, which envisions consciousness sustained by a sentient leaf, is a version of that book.

It is not clear, however, that a leaf could care about art, even if it could function as a seat of experience. After all, art is what humans do. It responds to human imperatives, not the unknowable needs of a leaf. Despite her devotion to her father, Mira never manages to feel at home in so vegetal an environment. ‘It takes a certain discipline to be dead. She never had much discipline’ – so she returns to navigate the flawed first draft of her life. 

* * *

Does Mira’s departure from the leaf signify resignation? Is the answer to Pure Colour’s guiding question that art cannot outlive us, that it must end when we end? Bird that I am, I do not think so: art is for humans, but not for our contingent parts. Or, as Heti herself puts it, ‘Art is not made for living bodies – it is made for the cold, eternal soul’. Perhaps literature could not survive the demolition of the spirit, but it can survive the demise of the body, whose inner essence, ever avian, swoops up and away. ‘The idea of the thing is so much more shimmering than the thing itself’, writes Heti in her Yale Review essay. Around visible objects hovers something better and more indestructible – namely, their fictionalization. Heti writes to transmute a frail physicality into an ethereal permanence, and she writes about her own life because she hopes to etherize it, saving it from disintegration by transforming it into spirit.

Why should we believe that there is any such thing? We lack material evidence. But as Mira tells her father, ‘I don’t think the scientific method is the only way to prove that something is real’. More real than reality, she proposes, is ‘imagination’. We should believe in the soul’s invulnerability because it is more beautiful to do so ­– and for Heti, beauty is what confers truth. Whether beauty in fact confers truth, then, is of course irrelevant; what matters is only that this is a beautiful idea.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Caution, Metaphors At Work’, NLR 127.