Thursday, August 16, 2012

Fox and Heti: Western Coast and How Should a Person Be

Paula Fox. The Western Coast (Norton, 2001) and Sheila Heti. How Should a Person Be: A Novel from Life (Henry Holt, 2012).

I'm back after months and months of hiatus. I hope this signals some return of energy and renewed desire to communicate at the very least, me with my blog! Both of these novels are first person narratives and at least in Sheila Heti's novel--autobiographical. But that is neither here nor there. These are both novels, and it shouldn't matter one way or the other whether they true to life since they are both written in a way to go beyond just the telling of a life. I stumbled on Western Coast, when I was looking for Fox's News of the World, which is perennially checked out or missing from my library.  I am not sure if I liked this book or not and I wondered about it this the whole time I read it. At some point during my reading I read a quote about reading in general. Something like, what is important in reading is working through a text. Enjoying it or understanding it is secondary. It is the struggle or the working out of complexities that is central. I kept this in mind when I wasn't so sure about how I felt about it. So, I finally decided that it was sort of an innocent abroad or Alice in Wonderland kind of tale. Annie, a very young girl, has been left much too much to her own devices with an absent mother and an essentially absent (alcoholic, artist, serial marrying) father. Having had enough of living on her own and art high school, Annie heads out to California before the onset of WW II but not before the European wars had started and rumors of the plight of European Jews had begun to spread. She drives West with a chaotic woman and has plans to meet up with her merchant marine boyfriend. He is a young man, but older than she (everyone is because she is still high school age), who is one of many men who is attracted to Annie so that they can educate her--and have their way with her. Before he leaves on another ship he introduces Annie to his California acquaintances, most of whom are involved to some degree with the Communist Party. Even the people Annie meets on her own seem to have connections to the party.  So, men meet her and want her love and want to educate her. She is prone to do what people expect of her--mostly men. In the end, she leaves a very decadent and confused (Southern) California and returns to New York. When she is asked what happened, she says she was kidnapped, but got away. Part of the difficulty of this book is the grinding life that Annie lives; her naivete combined with her anger and listlessness make for an enervating mix.

As when I was reading Paula Fox's Western Coast, I had to think about whether I was liking Sheila Heti's book. I was reading it during a week when I lacked my own resiliency, and the character Sheila's inability to cope, make progress, to just do the right thing by herself or anyone else, wore on me. Yet, interspersed with her annoying self absorption were little dialogues with her best friend Margaux, and every now and then a beautiful sentence or thought would jump out of the page. Sheila, the main character, is trying to write a play and has spent her life looking for models of being to emulate--in the animate and inanimate. Her friends are artists and friends of artists, she has an abusive boyfriend, and she is unable to write her play. In the end presumably, she writes this book instead of the play.  She does this for Margaux who wants her to finish what she started even if it isn't the play (its more complicated than that but you'll have to read for yourself...). What didn't I like about this book? The intense introspection and self-absorption of it. What did I like about it? Sheila finding her way out of intense introspection and into the light of, I don't know, a clearer vision. There is excellent writing in this book, and the final chapters or segments should be read several times. I'm not sure I completely understand the two final parables, but I am looking forward to talking with Helen (my daughter who alerted me to this book) about it when I have the chance, and, perhaps, learning more.

Back to Paula Fox, I was startled when I read in Heti's book: he was just another man trying teach me something. I'm not quoting exactly, but this exact (or nearly exact) sentence and certainly this theme fills Fox's book. There are other aspects of the novel that are similar. It would be interesting to know if Heti has read this book. Hmmm. The style of writing is completely different in the two books and Fox writes for someone like me whose youth was some time ago; Heti's book is reflective of today's recently post college generation. It is set in Toronto. I kept forgetting that and thinking it was set in New York. When Sheila takes a bus from Atlantic City to Toronto, I'm convinced that she is returning to New York.  The bus trip was 14 hours, and I wondered who the writer thought she was fooling. The bus trip from Atlantic City couldn't be much more than an hour or two. Anyway, Toronto, not New York (although it does figure into the novel).

Read these books and tell me what you think!

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