- Motherhood by Sheila Heti
These are good years to write a novel that isn't one—or that might not be one. Through the work of authors like Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jenny Offill, Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner, and Elif Batuman, literary readers have acquired a taste for fictions in which the fun of reading is partly in guessing how much of the author's real life has made it to the page. Novelists have been mining personal experience to fuel their work forever, of course, but never has the incursion of such material into fiction been [End Page 483] highlighted in the way it is today. To properly read a work of autofiction, a reader must have and bring to bear a bit of outside knowledge about the author. In that sense, the genre may be the inevitable outgrowth of an internet culture that places information about public figures at our fingertips and has accustomed us to consuming shockingly intimate tidbits about people we don't actually know in any conventional sense. Autofiction pays homage to the striptease-y way we share and consume each other's lives now.
Sheila Heti made her name with 2010's How Should a Person Be? Subtitled A Novel from Life, the book made classic autofictional moves: the main character, a Toronto-based writer in her twenties named Sheila, suffering from writer's block and the aftereffects of a brief marriage and divorce, went around the city asking all her friends the titular question. The book was blunt, funny, sexual, and divisive. Heti's latest novel, Motherhood, finds an unnamed narrator who is also a Toronto-based writer, now in her late thirties, grappling with the question of whether or not to have a child. Motherhood feels equally close to Heti's life, but conspicuously less "novelistic." How Should a Person Be? had characters and scenes; it read like the product of a challenge to create a formally traditional novel without making anything up. By contrast, Motherhood resembles a series of journal entries. There are few characters and fewer scenes. Dialogue comes primarily from a series of "conversations" between the narrator and an oracular device inspired by the I Ching, achieved by flipping three coins, which answers yes or no to the narrator's questions. The book also incorporates tarot cards, a homeless psychic, and the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Notwithstanding these pseudo-interlocutors, the effect of reading Motherhood is largely one of listening in on a thoughtful, troubled person speaking to herself.
The narrator has a live-in partner, named Miles, who already has a child from a relationship in his twenties. He does not want another but tells the narrator he is willing: "If I want a child, we can have one, he said, but you have to be sure." (If this sounds a little unkind, it gets worse. Later, when the narrator tells Miles it might be nice to have a child, he replies, "I'm sure it's also nice to get a lobotomy." Still, the narrator is at some pains to portray Miles as a worthy and beloved partner, the relationship as a fortunate match with its complement of inevitable human problems, and mostly we believe her.)
There are other considerations: as a young girl, she never wanted children—her own mother, daughter of a Holocaust survivor, was a hardworking doctor and notably un-maternal—and she weighs this early clarity against all the messages, internal and external, which tell her she may always regret not mothering a child, now that her window in which to do so is shrinking. She dreams of babies, and sometimes they're beautiful. On the other hand, she is fixated on her identity as a creative person and her desire to keep writing, with all the investment of time and attention that entails. Would having a child consume her work hours, destroy her focus? The fear runs deep. [End Page 484]
Not all the points Heti makes are new, but the tone and feel of Motherhood are unique. Heti's prose creates a hypnotic...