Halfway through her latest novel, Sheila Heti asks, “Should I? Should I? Should I choose it? Should I? But the real question is, could you?” Heti is familiar with asking questions. Her novel How Should a Person Be? addressed the query in its title, and Heti holds the position of editor of interviews at The Believer magazine. In Motherhood, Heti uses an autofictional construct to examine a particularly personal question: Should I become a mother?
To resolve this, and various other puzzles in her life, the novel’s protagonist defaults to a game of chance: flipping a coin three times. Two or three heads and the answer is yes. Two or three tails and the answer is no. The exercise is worthy of Wittgenstein: the coin flip allows the book’s protagonist to turn a question over and over again in pursuit of new outcomes. By adopting this approach, Heti creates a structure that ensures the solution is less important than the question being asked. “But it’s useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes or a no. I feel like my brain is becoming more flexible as I use these coins. When I get an answer I didn’t expect, I have to push myself to find another answer – hopefully a better one.”
In a book full of questions, the reader may instinctually try to answer them as they read. (Should I become a mother? Would I be a good mother? Or, more esoterically, “Am I cursed by a demon, sort of randomly?”) The result is claustrophobic, as though the book is holding the reader responsible for its content. The claustrophobia is, thankfully, saved by Heti’s attention to beautiful sentences: “I saw I had not thought, but continued to let myself be whipped about in the waves of life, building nothing.” The author crafts small paragraphs that are more like still lifes: “They were dying, the lilacs on my desk, and I hadn’t even noticed. Now the ice cream truck is outside playing its sad song, and I’m a little drunk from the wine I had earlier this evening.”
If Heti, as a character in the novel, poses a lot of questions, she also has questions lobbed at her: she constantly grapples with external forces that project their thoughts and beliefs about motherhood onto her. But by the novel’s very nature, it is also the reader who ends up asking questions of Heti. Because the book is cast in the genre of autofiction, it is natural for a reader to try to suss out what’s real and what’s not. But as with the coin toss, the answer to this metafictional inquiry doesn’t really matter. The book is much more enjoyable without trying to extrapolate the realities of Heti’s own biography and simply abandoning oneself to the music of her prose.
A recommendation: read Motherhood the first time with pure feeling. And then a second time to notice the details of Heti’s craft.