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In her new novel, Sheila Heti opens with a creation myth. God, we learn, is an artist, and he’s populated this “first draft” of existence with three types of people: birds, fish, and bears. Birds are those with fine-tuned aesthetic sensibilities, lovers of beauty and meaning. Fish are community-oriented people who care about social justice and the collective. Bears latch on to individuals, loving their kin fiercely. Though birds struggle with human connection, they are better served in this often cruel and unjust world than the other archetypes because “God is most proud of creation as an aesthetic thing” and has primed them to appreciate the “exquisite harmony of sky and trees and moon and stars.”
Against this cosmic backdrop, we meet Mira, a young “birdlike woman” who struggles to balance her antagonistic desires for creative solitude and human connection. Mira fears that, “if she was loved in a way that warmed her up . . . she would be too hot to handle art, to help pass it down through the centuries.” The main source of her anxiety is her father, whose bearish love is “clinging and itchy; but also comforting, home.” Pure Colour initially announces itself as a coming-of-age tale: Mira leaves her father’s home and goes off to art-critic school. There, she befriends other art lovers, becoming infatuated with the bewitching, effortlessly cool Annie, who “seems to Mira a distant fish.” Annie is an orphan who grew up abroad, in America—two facts that entrance Mira and her friends. What makes Annie’s nature fishlike, or why she behaves so mercurially toward Mira as the two become closer, is largely unexplained. In fact, unexplained describes much of Pure Colour as the novel unfolds. Take Mira’s father’s smothering love, a detail that is insisted on by the omniscient narrator: because we never see these interactions first-hand, he remains little more than a cipher.
The plot—such that it is—is as lightly sketched as the characters. Early in the novel, Mira’s father dies, at which point Pure Colour breaks from the familiar Bildungsroman formula and becomes something much stranger. His spirit enters Mira—or, rather, it is “ejaculated into the deepest cells of her.” The two then transcend their human forms and together inhabit a leaf (yes, like on a tree). In the long stretches of dialogue that follow, which do not differentiate between speakers, the pair engage in a series of situationally ironic meditations on God, consciousness, and the good life. Father and daughter contemplate the world’s creation and its destruction. They speculate about what happens when you die. Eventually, Mira is summoned back to earth by Annie, with whom she tries once again to pursue a relationship.
This surrealist parable makes frustratingly little sense, but then again, you don’t seek out Heti, the author of seven previous genre-defying books, for an intricately plotted tale, just as you don’t study a Jackson Pollock for a lesson in Renaissance perspective. Heti is admirably unafraid to gut the conventions of the realist novel and craft new ways of looking at the world. The results are sometimes baffling, sometimes sublime, but they consistently push the boundaries of what a novel can be.
While Heti got a bit of domestic attention for her first two books—The Middle Stories, a collection of absurdist fables published in 2001, and Ticknor, a 2005 historical novella exploring the mind of its eponymous nineteenth-century author—it was her third, 2010’s How Should a Person Be?, that elevated her into an international indie icon. Like Lena Dunham’s acclaimed TV show Girls, which came out around the same time and to which it was often compared, How Should a Person Be? is an autofictional account of a young woman who attempts to make good art, be a decent friend, have hot sex, and generally live a meaningful life. The book’s loose plotting and incorporation of transcribed conversations (in particular those with Heti’s real-life friend Margaux Williamson, a painter) led some critics to celebrate its formal inventiveness and piqued the ire of others: The New Yorker’s James Wood notably called it “hideously narcissistic” and “messy.”
Heti’s Socratic approach to identity became a kind of authorial signature, which she refined in her 2018 follow-up, Motherhood. There, she once again dispensed with novelistic convention, this time to weigh the question of whether to have a child. The book is a series of philosophical interrogations: of herself, of her friends, of a set of divination coins. As in her previous novel, Motherhood’s speaker is seemingly a fictionalized version of Heti. It likewise uses one person’s experience as an object lesson in the (patriarchal) forces that constrain women, particularly if they are trying to live artistic lives. “There is always someone ready to step into the path of a woman’s freedom, sensing that she is not yet a mother, who tries to make her into one,” she writes, supplementing her previous novel’s recurring, pathologized trope of the man who wants to teach you something.
Pure Colour is no less audacious but departs from this formula in ways that mark it as a new chapter in Heti’s career. Elements of the author’s biography echo in Mira (Heti is also an art lover; she has also lost her father), but the novel feels far from autofiction. Because Heti’s books borrow elements from her own life, in the past she has had to caution readers against treating them as memoirs, which in her view do not offer the same “openness toward symbolic associations” as fiction. There is no such danger in Pure Colour, with its disembodied narrator, allegorical structure, and use of repeating symbols, among them lights, jewels, and the colour green.
By dialling down the personal elements and cranking up the symbolic ones, Heti displays her stylistic and thematic range, contemplating the origins of the universe with the same verve she applied on the individual scale in her last two novels. Whereas those were narrated by a mere mortal asking big questions relatively directly (How do I live a good life? Should I have a child?), Heti moves into an almost hieratic register in Pure Colour, liberally dispensing oblique teachings, as when Mira and her father speculate on the future of human civilization while inside the aforementioned leaf.
That this is the work of a more mature writer is clearest in Pure Colour’s many lessons on loss and grief, winding meditations that are certainly the products of personal insight. It is illuminating to compare the voice in Pure Colour with that of Sheila, the narrator of How Should a Person Be?, who is obsessed with turning her life into “an object of beauty.” That goal is, in retrospect, laughably naive given Heti’s new awareness that,
Over the course of the novel, Mira loses her school friends, the object of her affections, her interest in art criticism, and most importantly, her father. The scenes set at his deathbed showcase Heti’s remarkable talent for distilling complex emotional dynamics into simple formulae, creating islands of psychological realism within Pure Colour’s disorienting landscape. As Mira sits with her father, she realizes how her lifelong need for independence has deprived them both of a closeness it is now too late to achieve. “She suddenly understood how much he had needed that, and now she understood its value, and how lonely it would have been for him not to have had it enough, and now it was all she wanted too, and they would never have it again.” Her grief at his death is poetically rendered in equal measure: “She had thought that when someone died, it would be like they went into a different room. She had not known that life itself transformed into a different room, and trapped you in it without them.”
In a kind of extreme pathetic fallacy, Heti sets Mira’s personal loss against the backdrop of a world on the verge of collapse. The novel—our entire universe, in fact—exists in the “moment of God standing back” from his first draft of creation, an indeterminate pause before he wipes everything out and replaces it with something more perfect. The warming climate and our ecological decay are signs of this looming apocalypse, and Heti summarizes the contemporary ambiance with graveside humour. “It was like being in a plane that was slowly twirling to the ground,” she writes. “The ice cubes were melting. The species were dying. The fossil fuels were being burned up. . . . New things to die of were being added each day.”
Pure Colour’s abstractions are most effective when they are in the service of these larger existential truths. Mira’s union with her father inside the leaf is also an effective metaphor for grief’s isolation: “She didn’t want to be roused. She wanted to be left alone. It was a nice place to be, in the leaf. She was with her father. She didn’t want the company of other people, who meant nothing to her in comparison.” Only when Annie comes to get her does Mira finally find herself “rustling back to life.” Moments like these, when the literal and symbolic dimensions vibrate in harmony, are striking. The novel’s religious terrain gives a similarly numinous sense of a realm lurking just beyond our grasp: twinkling Christmas lights, for example, are dispatches from “another world, the world behind this world, the world of the spirit.” At its best, Pure Colour infuses everyday minutiae with depth and mystery.
Unfortunately, the absurdities sometimes tip over into gratuitousness, as when spiritual experiences are inexplicably sexualized. In addition to feeling the ejaculation of her dead father’s spirit upon his death, Mira experiences a psychological expansion upon first meeting Annie that is likened to “a vagina . . . stretching for a very large cock.” These details feel like vestiges from an earlier developmental phase: both How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood are graphically and unsentimentally sexual, but this makes sense because the particularities of women’s experiences are their themes. Here, in this ode to grief, it feels like a cheap shortcut to edginess.
The shock value of these passages is perhaps an overcalibrated attempt to temper a strand of conservatism that runs throughout Pure Colour, which repeatedly champions the value of tradition, simplicity, and humility. Heti, now in her mid-forties, seems to display a distinctly Gen X nostalgia for the pre-internet era. She is skeptical of the emotional impoverishment wrought by digital culture and social media—the “friendship revolution” that has made our relationships “show-offy.” She is also aware that aging means losing touch with what is hip: you not only get stripped of people but, in mid-life, also “no longer have access to culture the same way you did before. You are mostly shut out. The party is happening behind a closed door. You can barely hear the party, and the scraps of conversation you can overhear are not the entire story.”
One of the overarching themes in Pure Colour is how to be Zen about this transition from the centre of culture to its margins. Mira—who begins her adult life as an aspiring art critic—ultimately forsakes this ambition, having internalized, while communing with her dead father, the value of not striving. After years apart, Mira eventually tracks Annie down and finds, much to her horror, that she has become her antithesis: a therapist, a dreaded “fixer” of people. In a misguided act of simultaneous seduction and self-mortification, Mira literalizes her erstwhile epiphany by donning an embarrassing leaf costume. “She would let any shame come upon her. . . . A leaf remains on the branch on which it’s been grown, it does not change the world around it. . . . She would not go into the world to critique or fix it.” The irony, of course, is that Mira is simply striving in a weirder way, channelling her insights into a carnivalesque performance of equanimity.
And, arguably, so is Heti. After all, she has written a complex allegory extolling the humbleness of green plants and insisting that the purpose of life is “to follow the traditions with faith.” She, too, is trying to fix the world—by giving it richer, stranger art.