There must be something nightmarish for Canadian author Sheila Heti in seeing her first book of stories republished in the U.S. more than a decade after she wrote it. The Middle Stories came out in 2001, when she was 24 and Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen had their first big hits. For Heti, four books further into an enviable writing career
The self-conscious despair that haunts Heti’s short prose has generalized in the past decade or so, but without changing much of anything. Most Americans think things are getting worse, and a melange of low-grade magical realism and ironic metafiction are the sugar that make the palliatives go down. We get to choose between sparks of alleged transcendence in the mundaneand pictures of ambiguously cute things behaving cutely. But even if the stories feature miniature mermaids or banally realized fairy-tale archetypes, their fantastic or cheeky elements don’t cushion the blow of the author’s nearly Teutonic bleakness. Living in a shoe, it turns out, isn’t any more interesting than living in a house. Even the personified dumpling in “The Littlest Dumpling” is suicidal, and not in the cute way.
Saying The Middle Stories are sad is like saying life is sad: true, but not true enough. It would be easy to categorize the stories as depressive twee, the kind of book that goes to the Farmer’s Market because it doesn’t know what else to do. Instead, these bits are punctuated fragments of an unbounded hopelessness, without the reassuring container of conventional narrative. Their characters don’t have the narrowing traits that tell the reader, “Don’t worry, this is about someone else.” They’re stripped down for maximum impact. Heti’s expansive shorts recall Thomas Bernhard in The Voice Imitator or Raymond Carver in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? more than David Foster Wallace in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or Eggers in How We Are Hungry. In Heti’s stories, there’s little consolation in life’s little victories; they’re merely the stitching of life’s mesh of voids and disappointments. There’s no morbid self-satisfaction in authorial artifice, only the unceasing approach of the unavoidable. When you wink into the abyss, Heti offers, it doesn’t wink back.
Heti specializes in ending stories that go on forever. Looking at the words, phrases, and affects that appear in the stories’ final lines, above and beyond any individual tale, gets at the collection’s narrative thrust: “wept and wept,” “until I’m happy again”, “strange and awful,” “ways to die,” “on and on,” “outside,” “walked out,” “never” (in two stories), “nobody ever,” “nothing” (in three stories), “uglier than it had ever been,” “no idea why,” “all alone,” “lived with pain,” “nothingness,” “off and away,” “if only,” “alone,” “cried,” “no one,” “failure,” “ugly and forlorn,” “wide and frightened,” “lonesome,” “sorry,” “no home,” “dead sorry,” “life’s sorrow.” Almost all the stories end the same way: unhappily ever after.
Sex rather than death, however, is where Heti most sets herself apart from her celebrated (mostly male) contemporaries. Katie Roiphe has complained that novelists these days can’t write about sex, that they lack “the familiar swagger, the straightforward artistic reveling in the sexual act itself.” Whereas certain male writers (Roiphe lists Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Franzen, Benjamin Kunkel, and Michael Chabon) have turned an inability to deal with gendered expectations into what other critics have characterized as a more nuanced archetype of male sexuality and desire
Despite the collection’s baby-blue cover, Heti’s work is in the feminist literary tradition of brutal sexual realism.
In “The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates,” Heti tells the story of a married woman who attempts an affair with a self-involved poet. His intentions are malicious (“He would destroy her”), but that doesn’t make him any less attractive, perhaps more so. She goes home with him and meets his roommate: “The woman from the cubicle, eyes all aglow, looked back and forth from the one to the other. One was gruff and silent and thick, like a real man! And the other was disinterested and distracted and edgy, like a real man! She was falling in love with them both.” So the bohemian fairy tale goes, but when the poet invites her into his bedroom, it’s to show her two framed letters from Canadian poet Al Purdy “telling me I am good but not good enough.” The novelist rests his hand on her ass while he asks if she sees the bug he sees behind his computer screen. It’s clear where their primary (and secondary) attentions lie, the affective imbalance fueling their work, gender relations a machine built on a scam. As our everywoman returns from fetching the poet one of the novelist’s cigarettes, she tells no one at all: “I dreamed once I was in a room with other people.”
Another story, “The Man From Out of Town,” tells of a stripper who falls for a man whose interests she takes to be somewhat evolved: “Since she had noticed him not noticing the dancers when she returned to the back room to get her clothes, she believed what he was saying, all of it. There were simple ways some women had of telling a good guy from a bad, and her way was as stupid as any.” But when she gets pregnant (as “in their hearts they both expected”), the man thinks of how easy she was to pick up, he tells her to leave town alone. After a few romantically unsuccessful months, he decides to visit her. The story ends with a chilling reminder of gender’s enduring stakes: “Walking past a fountain on his way to the train station, he passed a girl of late teenage years who was blond and who he supposed would like the companionship of a man like him. Dragging her into the park he tore out two-thirds of her hair.”
If sex and romance are rigged games, Heti wants an answer to the uncomfortable question: Are women allowed to love losing? Roiphe might be pleasantly surprised by the sex scenes in Heti’s autobiographical novel How Should a Person Be?
Today the light came through the windows so beautifully that I didn’t know if it was moonlight or sunlight. I just stood there washing dishes and breaking them on my wrists and hands like the long-suffering wife of a great poet, which you are not.
Now you want to go from me into the happy solitude of your maleness, with your need of no comfort from any woman. As you said, “I have finally learned not to need any woman.”
Let my breasts not satisfy you then. Let my cunt bore you completely, so that even all the other cunts in the world can’t distract you from the boredom that comes over when you think of mine.
This question of the sunlight or the moonlight, the origin or the reflection, is a trick. The light is real; how else do we know the moon? Heti’s observation and recording shines brighter than her lover’s work. It’s not his poetry that’s great, but her testament. Like Molly Bloom, her inversion is to make prose out of being made poetry, to voice the subject that objectification requires:
Then, when your heart sinks again, it sinks from the death drive like a serpent creeping in – but from another direction this time; so you thought you had closed up all the stops, but you missed this one. You missed it and the serpent has slithered in. It is death coming, masquerading as life, and blessed is the man who can see the death drive in the woman that masquerades as life. Blessed is he who leaves in the morning without any promise of love. And blessed is she who can answer for herself, What about living? What is it about living that you want?
Heti takes these existential questions seriously, as deserving more than a shrug even if there aren’t any good answers. For comedic writers from Larry David to Lena Dunham