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The Middle Stories

by Sheila Heti

Despite the numerous death-of-fiction pronouncements made over the last half-century, some writers continue to search for ways to reanimate the form. Toronto’s Sheila Heti is one such writer. In her first collection of fiction she adopts a mode of literary autism, writing with no inclination toward establishing the exact weight of situations or sifting through a series of gestures and incidents for those that are meaningful or essential.

Heti deadpans moments of extreme horror and extreme beauty in a voice that is morally heedless and frequently hilarious:

“‘Do you know this is my seventieth sick day since I started here?’ he asked.

‘But you’re here,’ she said.

‘Yes, I know.’ And he went to the bathroom and peed blood.” (“The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates”)

The cheerful drabness of Heti’s prose – notice: “peed,” not “pissed” – does not simply comment on the characters, it embodies the very nature of their commerce with each other and their universe. The amoral, arbitrary world of The Middle Stories is also the world of children, a point Heti emphasizes by setting many of the stories as fables, as in “The Princess and the Plumber” and “The Littlest Dumpling.” The basic unit of her prose – the unadorned expository sentence – is lifted straight from children’s literature.

Heti has indicated that she has finished writing these kinds of stories, which is just as well, given the inherent limitations of the form. Occasionally – most frequently in the second half of the collection – the tales become so deadpan they forget to laugh. “The Man With a Hat” and “The Man from out of Town,” in particular, feel like unsuccessful parodies of French existentialist fiction, complete with prostitutes and unmotivated suicides. She also has a tendency to let the moral coolness of her prose slip into sniggering cruelty, as in “Mermaid in the Jar.”

When the stories work, however – when she is able to utilize faux naif irony, not as a pose, but as a method of illustrating a kind of unsettled reality that is getting harder and harder to get at by more realistic means – Heti shows impressive talent and an intelligence that belies the superficial glibness of her tales.