Motherhood by Sheila Heti
Henry Holt and Co., May 2018
304 pages / Amazon
Earlier in the year, I found a sort of refuge in experimental autofiction, especially with women tracing the dissembling sappy end of the affair novel past its traditional ends. These novels address the traditional themes of sentimental novels, but follow them into an era past coherent sentimental experience and expectations.
Sheila Heti published a terrific title called Motherhood, that captures so much about aging that can be difficult to put into words. Heti first came to prominence in 2012 with the publishing of How Should a Person Be? That novel still feels fresh and candid today, even as the author moves on to different concerns. In Motherhood, the eponymous non-narrator, interrogates her paradoxical desires. She seeks clarity, even as it seems impossible. And finds very little. The book’s central paradox has to do with her ambivalent desire for children. Which coexists beside her desire for love, and art, and professional success.
Our end of the year list of best fiction at Entropy uses terms like “courageous” and “keenly felt,” to describe the title. And I think that’s right. It’s a tender book, that is clear-eyed in the descriptions of the emotional crises that arise when we seek out the right choices for ourselves and the people we love.
In one of the clever formal constraints, Heti flips coins to pose an ongoing dialogue with herself and the world that makes her. On art and relationships:
Does one do it for the non audience that is God?
To bring glory to the world?
Out of gratitude for being made alive?
And because art is what humans do?
Are my insecurities going to ruin my relationship?
Is there anything I can do about it?
Will it take a long time?
Will our relationship be over by the time I have overcome them?
Is there any good in that?
Good for both of us?
Miles is making dinner right now. Is the more important thing than writing this to go into the kitchen and be with him there?
Heti described the way there are no clear decisions to be made in life, or correct ways to live. She broached this question more explicitly in her first digressive novel, How A Person Should Be? And as the thinkers and artists of that book slipped away into a more domestic setting for this one Heti continued to seek out a road that produces happiness and intimacy.
But she struggles. She resents her partner. She doesn’t trust his unwillingness to have children, even as she cannot decide if she wants them. Heti struggles with depression and cannot trust her own decisions. She seeks kinship, but is terrified by the sense of self she shares. And through all this, she wants to create greater love and intimacy in her relationships. It’s the most familiar thing in the whole wide world.
2. Isadora Wing
As a journey of ideas across time, these titles recall the Isadora Wing books that Erica Jong wrote over the course of two decades.
Fear of Flying was a sensation when it was first published. It described the radical decision of a woman seeking love and success outside her marriage. It established Jong as a critical darling and maudite. The novelty of an embodied woman writer making explicit decisions against unruly circumstances has worn off a little since 1973, but not a whole lot. Heti’s writerly persona evokes Erica Jong’s even as both leave room for winks and nods. So that the Sheila and Isadora of these books, are not people, but parts of people.
Jong was both celebrated, and kept at a certain distance. The original NYTimes review for Parachutes and Kisses shows a little of this trepidation besides the delight, “When she is not taking herself too seriously, Miss Jong’s Miss Wing is a wonderfully humorous Central Park West character. You can tell her apart from others on the bumpy Connecticut highway of love by her personal license plate – a four-letter word for female genitalia derived from Chaucer. As S. J. Perelman, in admiration, once said: A dirty mind never sleeps.”
By the time Parachute’s and Kisses was published, Jong had documented the emotional turmoil of being brave, seeking and finding and losing the right person three times. She described with intensity all the accompanying heartbreak, and the pleasures of new friendships and children. They are funny books. And we can’t help but cringe at her many paramours: this one is funny and athletic, and yet he has a ponytail, this one is a boy that will never grow up. Things were very different in the 1970s, pity Isadora her long drives on crowded interstates across New England for unsatisfying sex. A lot of the best humor in Parachute’s and Kisses plays out against the backdrop of interstate driving.
Driving down the highway, watching her windshield splatter over with slush, with snow, with muck from the roads, Isadora wondered what on earth a normal person… ought to be thinking at a time like this. Was she blessed or was she cursed? Where was The Divorced Woman’s Book of Etiquette now that she needed it most? What ought a woman to do when, faced with overwhelming financial problems, she meets an astounding young man and wants nothing more than to fuck the days away with him?
Jong’s brilliance is self-evident, even as she is self-ironic, in the persistence of her seeking. And her work is exemplified by this process of never arriving. It’s heartbreaking, and an explicit challenge to both the traditional model of 20th century marriage and the 21st century promise of a perfect match.
She jokes about etiquette, and the silliness of our compulsive desires. In one scene, imagining silly talk-shows for her divorced friends:
Not long ago, while goofing around with a friend who was a TV talk-show host, she had come up with two crazy ideas for game shows. “Shiksamania” was the first. It was a highly competitive game in which Jewish guys had to vie with each other in singing the praises of their resident shiksas… The mirror image of this show would be called “Shaygets-o-Rama,” in which two Jewish girls would appear with their shkotzim.
Jong has an ear for satire, always parodying the faddish ways people age. Both writers arrive at the way seeking destroys people as it heals. And happiness isn’t even a question of having it all, but rather just recognizing the near impossibility of making good choices.
These are funny novels about sex. And there’s tragicomedy in some of the slapstick elements of our unruly bodies; it’s at once terrifically funny and sad to desire and to be desired, and to be always never satisfied.
With Break.up published now from Semiotext(e) Joanna Walsh returns in full force with another kind of novel of searching for intimacy across digital and geographical distance.
Following the end of a relationship, an eponymous narrator travels across Europe. As she travels, she documents her storm of thoughts and memories. She relives some of the excitement and anxiety of an affair conducted largely over the internet. It’s a lovely book, diverse in its influences, explicitly drawing on texts by Kierkegaard, Proust, Breton, and more. And it arrives at a melancholic and essentially unresolved meditation on the possibility of intimacy today.
In many ways, Break.up is a travelogue wholly uncomfortable with the performance of travel. The narrator is an attractive person. She is lively, and available, and moving according to her own volition. And she essentially vacations for all of the traditional reasons: she needs a change in scenery, to recover from a traumatic event.
But her travels inevitably have a whiff of the paradox of the Wizard of Oz, “there’s no place like home,” (even if Kansas is in B + W), because it’s terrible to travel, and there’s nothing more descriptive of privilege in the world today than people having “authentic” experiences abroad. She writes about not wanting to take beautiful photos, but rather to document some of the gutless fringes of America that reach across the world, as if she might capture something of the schizophrenia of the age. Or all the terrible beauty that comes from a really global world.
And in this paradox, she searches for a kind of ethic(even as she performs its own disregard); half hating to see a world as beautiful as any fashion magazine she describes the enduring tyranny of beauty in aesthetics.
It’s all a little dissociative, just as Americans on vacation love to complain about Americans on vacation, Walsh enjoys and endures her experience (luxury and novelty), and all her hand wringing ends up feeling like another kind of erotic solipsism, because in the end it’s fun to be terrible.
Walsh is an Irish writer, she frets about becoming what she derisively describes as “the English abroad.” But it is her foreignness that allows her to use “another country” as a geography of the mind. In a 2016 interview, Walsh quotes Gertrude Stein’s writing about home, there is a sense that writer’s occupy more than one country, “writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.”
Break.up is a movement across this imagination. Because she does not really find the place she dreams about, the place that Godard called, “the total film we carried inside ourselves. That film we would have liked to make, or more secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live.” But rather, she accepts the placelessness of today as being the reality of place in the age of the internet. It’s worth noting that the narrator’s romance transpired entirely within the digital realm. It was intimate, but a very different kind of intimate than the traditional end of the affair novel. Now, within the haunting aura of this digital sense, she travels across Eastern Europe revisiting physical locales she had seen before.
Break.up is a companion piece to her earlier, mixed novel in fragments Hotel. Both pieces show disintegrating relationships against backdrop of tourism in the age of Instagram. And as she moves across Eastern Europe, she is fascinated and repulsed by the beautiful and “vulgar,” children of Instagram and 21st century nation politics. She finds a mirror in a beautiful Eastern European girl that hates the inflow of refugees. There may not really be the possibility of “truth is beauty” anymore. Even as there is obviously still something so seductive and disarming about beauty, especially when it’s curated and magnified through social media streams. The violence of the beautiful endures.
It’s an end of the affair novel, with all the requisite heartache, questioning, and self-admonishment. In a late scene, the narrator received an email from her estranged lover.
Come to Prague, Joanna, you said (you wrote).
Are you mine because you called me back? I don’t know whether I want anyone to be mine the way I wanted to be yours, because I’m unsure I can be yours and my own at the same time, and that’s not something I’d ask of anybody.
There’s an element of the incantatory aspect of loving. Walsh identifies the magic of the calling, and the impossibility of explaining the pull. It’s a spell. Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice. Instead of responding, the narrator soaks in the ambivalence of not belonging anywhere, having no place to go.
One of the most beguiling elements of the novel has to do with the seductive edge of intimacy across the internet; the sheen of immediacy and seeming ephemerality that covers so much of our intimate exchanges today.
It touches on many of the same themes as Melissa Broder’s phenomenal work, Last Sext and So Sad Today, with the same strange recognition that there is pleasure in way relationships break down inside inelegant modes of communication.
She describes her desperate “Facebook stalking,” across different platforms, seeking out unfamiliar faces and tags in her lover’s feed. It’s sad that these experiences are universal.
But even against this malaise, Walsh captures the liveliness of a thoughtful mind. And in her descriptions, I am reminded of certain moments in De Beauvoir’s travelogues, America Day by Day, for example, when the reverie of the excitement, and the heartbreak, and emotion of the writing spill out over the page. There aren’t any conclusions to be made from these novels. But the examination, the searching, describes an ethic worth sharing.
Heti is a successful mainstream writer, and her work is sometimes called memoir. But memoir is not really the same as autofiction. By identifying an eponymous non-narrator or a non-person as the authorial persona, autofiction describes non-reality. This is not unreal, but it’s not real. So that autofiction is often more concerned with the experience of reality than providing any coherent description description of reality. So, to speak generally, if memoir is about what happened mostly, autofiction is more concerned with things that mostly didn’t happen.
As a tradition, it resides more firmly in the mind. It has the realism of Nicholson Baker, or Gertrude Stein or Andre Breton, and while certainly drawing on the prominent traditions within the last fifty years of mainstream literature, it differs from the tradition that is called dirty realism, with the sympathetic exuberance of films by John Cassavetes, or writing by Amy Hempel. This writing by Heti, Jong, and Walsh examines a common territory around thinking about love, thinking about aging, and thinking about thinking.
Each writer engages with the different modes of technology that shapes their communication and thought. Heti used a tape recorder to capture the cadence of spoken conversations, Jong drops business cards as a come on and runs up the phone bill, and Walsh is lost in emails, texts, and the social media multiverse.
And these writers capture the impossibility of thought logic, and dream logic, and also the baselessness of applying narrative logic to the experience of living, growing old, and experiencing trauma. It’s lovely writing, because it’s embodied writing. These works examine a body aging, a body thinking, and a body experiencing trauma. And specificity arises in the specific desires, pleasures, and concerns that women experience. These novels are messy and unruly and generous in the best sense of the terms; sentimental, but clear-eyed in excavating new geographies of sentiment. It’s a privilege to share this seeking.