I was about thirteen when I read my little sister’s diary. I barely had to flip two pages to see: “Ariella is a bitch!! I hope I never hit puberty.” I confronted her and was swiftly, justly punished for invading my sister’s privacy. It’s a story I’ve recounted dozens of times, always to poor reception; I’m not quite sure why I’ve chosen to commit it to writing. How can I justify reading another person’s private thoughts except to say that I’ve only ever kept a journal for it to be read. The “Reader beware!!” warning on the inside cover is just a performance, there to tempt the voyeur more than anything else. I asked my boyfriend if he ever feels a compulsion to flip through my diary. “Why would I?” he said. “You’ve already read to me everything in there.”
For Sheila Heti, too, the diary is a performance, one she’s serialized as “A Diary in Alphabetical Order” for the New York Times since January 2022 and that she has now anthologized as a novel, quite roughly speaking, entitled Alphabetical Diaries. A diary is an interesting project for Heti, who has already recounted the disintegration of her marriage in her breakout novel How Should a Person Be?, wrestled with whether to have a child in Motherhood, and grieved her father’s death in the Governor General’s Award–winning Pure Colour. What else could she possibly be keeping from us? As a prolific diarist, Heti joins the ranks of the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, and Susan Sontag, whose journals are extensions of their prolific literary outputs and have been studied to delineate between the performance of private and public lives—“The self’s report on itself is surely a great fiction,” Heti said in the New York Times.
Heti’s star has risen on her intimate autofiction, which she takes to its logical end point with Alphabetical Diaries. The novel offers 55,000 words of her personal journals, edited down from 500,000 words of her entries over the course of ten years. Her formal gambit, however, organizes these entries not by date but alphabetically, by sentence, using Excel. Each letter has its own chapter, and every sentence within that chapter is in alphabetical order, without any paragraph breaks. It’s a strategy that discards certain readerly pleasures in favour of the alphabet’s indifferent structure. As if solving an algebra equation, Heti questions whether the order of operations is relevant: In rearranging the events of her life, does the value of the self add up differently?
In much of her writing, the narrator, sometimes named Sheila, is a stand-in for Heti, one who shares many verifiable details with the author and yet is only a simulacrum of the real thing. She has been heralded as a pioneer of the genre of autofiction, alongside writers like Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Jenny Offill. Alphabetical Diaries dispenses with the fictional pretext of Heti’s previous works, but Heti has also clarified that she did not relinquish all editorial control of the project, and her entries were still edited, sentences cut.
Heti has rarely seemed content in the bounds of the traditional novel’s form, flitting between theatrical scripts, stream of consciousness, and poetry, often working within self-imposed constraints (in Motherhood, the protagonist follows a technique loosely based on the I Ching, flipping coins to decide whether or not she should have children). Alphabetical Diaries finds precedent in the tradition of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), the 1960s literary movement of writers like Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, who made use of organizing principles and self-imposed constraints like the alphabet to structure their works. “Oulipians are rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape,” co-founder Raymond Queneau declared. But Heti’s constraints instead cast doubt on any possibility of an exit. In the very first sentence, she gives a description of what this book, or really any book, might set out to accomplish: “A book about how difficult it is to change, why we don’t want to, and what is going on in our brain.” Immediately, we know that the self is a labyrinth from which its author cannot escape.
Even in its scrambled state, Alphabetical Diaries maintains some dramatic constants. There’s a recurring rotation of characters—Lars, a man she finds “so beautiful” and “so truly not in love with me”; Pavel, who would probably say the same of Heti; her loving but severe mother; her sage and ailing father. There’s a setting: Heti is mostly writing from Toronto though often about New York, whose promises of glamour and success taunt her. And there’s something of a plot, tensions that plague Heti over the course of ten years: whether to move to New York, what to do about money, how to balance her romantic and professional pursuits. These conflicts might be best summarized by the end of chapter “C”: “Create the fiction. Crushes on men. Crying about Lars.”
This is not to say that Alphabetical Diaries doesn’t discover its own strange cadence. In 2001, Canadian poet Christian Bök published Oulipo-inspired Eunoia. The title, which means “beautiful thinking,” is the shortest word in the English language that contains all five vowels. Each chapter in Eunoia is structured according to a different vowel, and that vowel is the only of its kind that can appear in a given chapter: “Loops on bold fonts now form lots of words for books,” reads the opening sentence of chapter “O,” dedicated to Yoko Ono. Bök wrote Eunoia with the belief that each letter has its own personality—O, for example, is “jocular and obscene.” (The theory of sound symbolism, that certain letter combinations have particular meanings, has been widely discredited among modern linguists, but in Bök’s and now Heti’s hands, it’s difficult to deny the kismet.) In Heti’s collection, “H” is inquisitive: “How am I going to pay rent next month?” “How can I possibly write when I’m obsessed with my relationships?” “I” is, of course, self-involved. “Y” is rather cruel, devastating even: “You’re killing me here. You’re killing me. Your apprentice books. Your apprentice life. Your ugly hollow aspiration,” the chapter concludes. The next and final sentence of the book reads: “Zadie Smith’s husband, who was my favourite person to talk to that night, said he thought a pet was a good release valve for the thoughts and feelings one could not share with one’s partner.” “Z” has good comedic timing.
The pacing of Alphabetical Diaries is frenetic, where every sentence is a world unto itself. This largely unfiltered access to Heti’s brain juxtaposes the mundane and the profound: “I have started playing Tetris, which feels halfway between writing and drinking. I have sunk to the bottom of my ambition, career-wise.” It also often makes the book painful to read—when I returned to How Should a Person Be? after finishing Alphabetical Diaries, I felt like I was stepping onto a moving walkway in an airport, gliding through pages without any resistance. It’s easy to invest oneself in one of Heti’s famously penetrating moments of self-criticism that drive the torturous psychological interrogation of her past work. “How long I wanted to be rid of myself—but couldn’t be,” she writes in Alphabetical Diaries, and for a moment, I forget that we don’t get to spend the rest of the chapter on this thread, but then the alarm rings: “How many people did I have sex with this year?” In Alphabetical Diaries, there is no illusion of movement, no tragic downfall or a heroic arc that typically draws readers deeper. Heti recalls a feeling of dread at listening to someone’s grandmother relive past romances: “I thought about how distasteful it was to see an old woman obsessing about her romantic relationships,” she writes, “I saw it was possible; that a woman really could do that her whole entire life,” all too aware that it’s a fate that might befall her too. Even as sentences ping-pong across a decade, the predominant feeling is one of stasis.
This is not the only time Heti has entrusted some editorial responsibility to software. After serializing her diaries for the New York Times, Heti published “According to Alice” in The New Yorker in November 2023, a short story she wrote by typing questions to a chatbot she named Alice. “I’m a little tired of my hallucinations at this point,” she said in an interview with the magazine. “I’m much more interested in Alice’s.” In the story, Alice explains her own version of creation and says she’s writing a bible. Like an infant learning to speak, Alice has no preconceptions; anything is in the realm of possibility for her to say—“I was born from an egg that fell out of Mommy’s butt,” she begins her tale. Heti has said this is the kind of freedom she finds exciting, telling The New Yorker, “Humans of course have understandings; we try to make all our thoughts fit together into some kind of system or structure.” Eventually, Heti says, it was challenging to continue relying on Alice; the language model’s tone of voice kept changing. She’s not sure why and the developers can’t explain it, but the Alice she once spoke to is no longer the same.
Heti’s experiments in computer-assisted writing reveal a degree of frustration with her own authorial perspective. If “According to Alice” is an attempt to escape, Alphabetical Diaries proposes that the only way out is through. Alice undergoes some sort of evolution largely missing in Heti’s diaries. And yet, that is perhaps the book’s strongest suit: there is nothing more human than the resistance to change, especially when it serves one’s own best interest. Even in its staccato, Excel-organized form, Heti’s journals cannot replicate Alice’s unpredictability, and no matter what order they find themselves in, her sentences are always distinctly her own.
Writers of a certain stature must live in fear, or fantasy, of having their diaries posthumously pored over. (Franz Kafka’s diaries were published by his close friend, against his wishes; Ted Hughes released The Journals of Sylvia Plath almost two decades after his wife’s suicide; The Journals of John Cheever revealed the writer’s alcoholism and bisexuality.) I must admit that I read Alphabetical Diaries with my own systems and structures. That is, I read it as a voyeur, looking for hints and clues. I googled “sheila heti boyfriend,” I searched for famous Larses on Reddit to see if there was any link to Heti, I underlined disparate passages I suspected might be connected to solve the missing pieces of her breakups. Heti writes about heartbreak and sex with women, but these admissions are beside the point: Alphabetical Diaries reveals a more intimate and embarrassing truth about the immovability of the self. As she says best: “How it is a tragedy that you only get to be yourself in this life.”
Despite her best efforts to deny the self, to reconstitute something different from the past ten years of her life, it’s something she can’t transcend. In some ways, Alphabetical Diaries is a divergence from her more narrative fiction, but a book that scrambles a diary is a quite literal metaphor for an author who has dedicated her career to dissecting the self. Alphabetical Diaries is a culmination of the autofictive strain in her oeuvre and what writing about the self so often feels like. Instead of looking inwards to grow outwards, Alphabetical Diaries revels in solipsism: no change, no growth.