Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Sheila Heti is famous for writing about herself. His first fictions are abstract, sometimes fables, but his revolutionary novel of 2010 How should a person be? Explicitly comes from his life: It helped kick off the autofiction craze of the last decade and portrays sex, friendship, artistic ambition and uprooting with jarring honesty. His 2018 follow-up, Maternity, contains the same impulse of self-exposure, directed towards the decision to have – or not to have – children. Both books mix granular detail with philosophical questioning; both are written in simple prose that makes even their dirty sections sound oddly naive. Indeed, naivety is key in both novels: it saves Heti’s self-examination from appearing self-obsessed.
But autofiction has lost its innocence. Twelve years ago, it was innovative; now it can often sound derivative, fake, or tired. Its stars – Rachel Cusk, Karl Øve Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Tao Lin – have moved on or are trying to. Heti too. Her hard-to-classify new novel, pure color, abandons both autobiography and detail, while retaining its commitments to philosophy and the spirit of innocence. In theory, her story is both simple and grown-up: Mira, the protagonist, is an aspiring art critic who becomes distracted by grief over her father’s death. In practice, however, pure color may feel less like a real novel than an adult story: it mixes real and surreal elements, often veering into creation myth or Socratic-style dialogue. It is frankly difficult to say how successful the result is: pure color is both wise and silly, moving and inscrutable. It’s also unquestionably working hard to be new. Reading it is refreshing, even when it doesn’t satisfy, which is more than I can say for the majority of conventional novels, which try less hard for lesser rewards.
pure color consists, fundamentally, of two loosely related narrative strands: Mira and Creation. In Heti’s idiosyncratic mythology, God is an artist and our current world is only a “first draft”. Plants, in their infinite silence, are “the public of creation”; humans, who like to complain, are art critics. In pure color, being a critic is like being a rabbi or a sage: a rarefied role, close to God, if properly exercised. (As a reviewer, I’d say this is the most fantastical element of the book, including a long passage in which Mira turns into a leaf.) Critics and artists, in the novel’s cosmogony, were created to be spiritually akin to birds, seeing the earth from above. Everyone is either a bear, devoted to those in their immediate reach, or a fish, committed to improving the situation of the many.
Heti’s tri-animal split is appealing like an Enneagram or Myers-Briggs test: choosing your animal is fun, if only superficially revealing. Much of his mythology falls into this category. Ditto for its explicit philosophy, which covers social media, climate collapse, and various other contemporary troubles and crises. pure color would have no autonomy without the Mira plot, which Heti constructs via the bird-fish-bear device.
Mira, unsurprisingly, is a bird – after all, she stars in a book in which art criticism is the pinnacle of humanity. However, she is not very good at her role and clearly wants to be a bear like her father or a fish like her crush, Annie. Indeed, his bird side is a source of heartbreak and failure. She cannot reciprocate her father’s bearish affection properly; nor can she get Annie, whose attentions are divided like fish, to focus on her. To be fair to Annie, Mira’s efforts aren’t good. She is much more attracted to beauty than to Annie; it should be noted that sex, which seems to confuse her, only appears in the novel as metaphorical language, never as a physical act.
Mira’s confusion and misfortune give pure color his depth, especially after the death of his father. Without him, his world feels “stripped of all arrows, all direction, all meaning”. Her grief takes her in surreal directions and leads her to strange philosophical conclusions, but, even at her weirdest, it is palpable. In reality, pure color works better when it’s weird than when it’s not. Heti is very good at getting readers to share Mira’s sad and bewildered wonder.
Some might argue that Mira is a replacement for Heti herself, on the grounds that Heti’s father died in 2019. But reading Mira as a creator, or as a real person, would be to miss the point of the book. . pure color aims to refresh readers’ perception of the world as we see it: to transform what seems fixed and complete into an “anarchic, disjointed” first draft. His Creation Passes mostly fail to do so, but his Mira Passes succeed. Many times I wish Heti had stuck with the latter. But without the insistent innovation of the former, would I have been ready or willing to look at the world with fresh eyes? Hard to say.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.