and Santa Maddalena.8050-9472-5 1. New York 10010 www. p. ed. 2002).—1st U. The song “Magic Penny.6—dc23 2011038498 Henry Holt books are available for special promotions and premiums.H48H68 2012 813'. Title. Inc. Used by permission. This is a work of fiction.0. Originally published in slightly different form in Canada in 2010 by House of Anansi Press. Northrop Frye’s writing about Milton helped. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.Henry Holt and Company. LLC. 1959 Universal-Northern Music Company. all rights reserved. Copyright reserved.” words and music by Malvina Reynolds. and events portrayed in this novel either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the support of the Corporation of Yaddo. First U. PR9199. . Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Heti. was used with permission from the author and publisher.” from Matt Cook’s In the Small of My Backyard (San Francisco: Manic D Press. Copyright © 2012 by Sheila Heti All rights reserved. I.henryholt. 1999) and Marie-Louise von Franz’s The Problem of the Puer Aeternus (Toronto: Inner City Books.4. cm. All of the characters. For details contact: Director. So did many other texts. LLC Publishers since 1866 175 Fifth Avenue New York. ISBN: 978.S. Edition 2012 Printed in the United States of America 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 “James Joyce. Ideas about the puer aeternus come from Ann Yeoman’s Now or Neverland (Toronto: Inner City Books. Fundación Valparaiso. Women dramatists—Fiction.com Henry Holt ® and ® are registered trademarks of Henry Holt and Company. organizations.S. Sheila [date] How should a person be? / Sheila Heti. © 1955. 2000). Special Markets.

It was Sunday. A few weeks earlier. Jon. I shared a breakfast special and a grilled cheese with Margaux.• chapter 1 • SHOLEM PAINTS We were having brunch together. It ruined the place somewhat. then Sholem and his boyfriend. it was never crowded. then Misha and Margaux arrived. the owners had repainted the diner walls from a grease-splattered beige to a thicky pastel blue and had spray-painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup. I said that a few years ago I had looked around at my life and realized that all the . I got there first. Jon asked for our fries. or who was the funniest that day. and they always had a place for us. I don’t remember what we started off talking about. but the food was cheap. I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness.

Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person. and his first year there. but once I got enthusiastic. and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home. thesis and graduated. Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to. I will not settle for anything else. he completed his M. So he went. a sudden and strong feeling came up inside him that said. It was an epiphany and a decision both. I was curious to see what the . I really hoped it would happen. These are a few of the sordid fruits that led to the Ugly Painting Competition. Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don’t remember. I must paint for the rest of my life. from which there would be no turning back—the first and most serious vow of his life. They didn’t think it was practical. up late one night painting. When Sholem was a teenager. he had dreamed of being a theater actor. but his parents didn’t want him to go to theater school.F. and encouraged him to go to art school instead. as the sun began rising with the morning. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I must be an artist.12 SHEILA HETI ugly people had been weeded out.A. No other future is acceptable to me. suddenly we all were. So this past spring.

Why? But I egged him on. interesting thing to do. It was exhausting and all that I knew. In the background he painted fluff y white clouds over orange triangular mountains. cartoonish man in profi le with friedegg eyes. As soon as Sholem returned home after brunch. and my self—into an object of beauty. I had spent so much time trying to make the play I was writing— and my life. Instead of making a nostril. or have looming before him the prospect of having to make something ugly. and secretly I envied them. Margaux agreed to the competition right away.H OW S H O U L D A P E R S O N B E ? 13 results would be. but Sholem was reluctant. He didn’t see the point. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. he set about making his entry—so he wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. using . delineating each individual eyelash. He would just do everything he hated when his students did it. I wanted to make an ugly painting— pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. Then he painted a weird. since paper is uglier than canvas. He went straight into his studio. he sort of drew a hole. and finally he gave in. The premise turned him off so much—that one should intentionally make something ugly. What would my painting look like? How would I proceed? I thought it would be a simple. having already decided what he would do. he explained to me later. and he outlined things instead of shading them. He made the background a gross pinkish-brownish gray. He imagined it would be like this intellectual exercise that he could sort of approach in a cold fashion. pleading. He started the composition smack-dab in the middle of a piece of paper.

and for the shadows he used blue. his life had been a waste. whining and complaining about everything. saying that nothing good would ever happen to him. and left it on the kitchen table to dry. It’s like you work so hard to train a dog to be good! he called through the door. Dipping a thick brush in black paint. Jon returned home. he was fully plunged in despair. Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts. and Sholem started following him around the apartment. From there. Though he thought in the end there would be some salvageable qualities to the painting.14 SHEILA HETI mineral sediment dug up from the bottom of the jar in which he washed his brushes. Returning home and setting the bags on the counter. he wrote at the bottom. Sholem went out to get some groceries for dinner. So he took it to the basement and left it near the washer and dryer. so that by the time evening came. For skin tone he just mixed red and white. moaning about what a failure he was. Even after Jon had gone into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. Then he stepped back and looked at the result. And . Sholem still stood on the other side. really carelessly. and found it so revolting that he had to get it out of his studio. I cannot see that thing every time I walk into the kitchen. he saw the painting lying there and thought. but the entire time he was gone he felt nauseous. it just kept getting more and more disgusting until finally he began to feel so awful that he finished it off quickly. the day just got worse. indeed that nothing good ever had. The sun will come out tomorrow.

The story was reported in newspapers all across the country. They were moody and shadowy with old men. This project fills me with shame and self-loathing. I just did my ugly painting. The canvases were very large. A sadness clouded the few faces. Prominent artists and intellectuals became involved and spoke . When he was twenty-six. The canvases were confiscated. and I feel like I raped myself. the better artist. and plush chairs. People claimed that the pictures were child pornography. which were obscured by darkness and lit only by faint moonlight. Margaux? Margaux. windows. and they seemed like the work of someone with great assurance and freedom. Then Sholem plodded into the living room and sent an email to the group of us. How’s yours. The paintings were gorgeous and troubled.H OW S H O U L D A P E R S O N B E ? 15 the dog is your hand! Then one day you’re forced to beat all the goodness out of that dog in order to make it cruel. and naked laps. there lived a painter in our town named Eli Langer. and the trial played on TV for an entire year. very masterful. girls. saying. wrote back: i spent all day on my bed island reading the new york times. all done in rich browns and reds. an artist-run center presented his fi rst show. That day was today! Jon grunted. it was shut down by the police. Fifteen years ago. and they were sentenced to be destroyed by the court. After the show had been up for only a week.

you could barely make out a thing. Now when he stepped before a canvas. not anything even remotely figurative. He left them in a corner of his mother’s attic. he found that the spirit lay dead in him. he applied to his now-tiny canvases only hesitant whites. where they remain. Eli would return to Toronto for a week or so.A. and would do coke and be sensitive and brutish.. Several times a year. and word always got around: Have you seen Eli Langer? Eli’s back in town! . none of whom would speak to him anymore. covered in soot and mold. He left Toronto for L. The male painters embraced him like he was a prodigal son. and would go to art parties and talk about painters and the importance of painting. but the images still did not come as they had before.16 SHEILA HETI publicly and wrote editorials about artistic freedom. the paintings were returned to him. or a bit of yellow. For the few solo shows he managed to complete in the years following the trial. where he thought he might be able to feel more free. In the end. After the trial was done. Eli felt exhausted and shaken. today. the judge ruled in Eli’s favor. or whites muddled with pink. and would speak confidently about brushstroke and color and line. brush in hand. he created only deeply abstract work. Crushed with a new insecurity and inhibition. but on the condition that no one ever see them again. or the most apologetic blue—so that even if you stepped really close to the paintings. On his forearms were tattooed twelve-point letters—the initials of local women artists he had loved. partly.

surrounded by snow. “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something. She hoped it could be meaningful. Then that night.” she said. Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics—which seemed more straightforwardly useful. Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. They went on to email for several months. They sat on an iron bench behind a gallery after an opening. she and Eli spent several hours talking about color and brushstroke and line. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else. and she was briefly converted into the sort of painter he was— a painter who respected painting in itself. a word she claimed not to understand. I never heard her claim that painting mattered. Margaux talked with him for the fi rst time. warmed by a fire burning in a can. her art crush dematerialized. or something of the dictator’s terrible certainty.H OW S H O U L D A P E R S O N B E ? 17 Late last winter. Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fi x. around a fire burning in a can. And so it embarrassed her when people remarked on her distinctive brushstrokes. But after two months. but had her doubts. or when people called her work beautiful. having something of the dictator inside. and which she thought she was probably well suited for. . She never talked about galleries or went on about which brands of paint were best. so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be.

He said he thought not. because with him there’s always a tremendous amount of caution.” “Why should Sholem make a painting that he doesn’t know is going to be good?” “I don’t know. He’s so afraid of anything hippie. As the sky went dark with dusk. experimentation to no clearly valuable end. “But I do think Sholem has a fear of being bad. It’s good for an artist to try things.18 SHEILA HETI • • • Misha and I had planned to take a walk that afternoon. And if what you’re afraid of is to take a wrong step at any moment in any direction. We left together and walked north through the neighborhood. that can be limiting.” “What’s wrong with caution?” “Well. at his computer. Misha said.” he said. It was one of the few genuinely hot days we’d had that summer. isn’t there? Isn’t that . so I went to the apartment he and Margaux shared.” he said. he was in his study. “It kind of is.” “Is making an ugly painting hippie?” I asked him. like. “There’s. I asked him whether Margaux had begun her ugly painting yet. Sholem should be a hippie. It’s certainly more hippie than making a painting that you know is going to be good. worrying over his life by checking his email. When I arrived. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous. “It’ll be really good for Sholem. there’s a misunderstanding. I said I was really eager to see the results. in any direction. He seems really afraid to take a wrong step at any moment. or of doing the wrong thing.

They take what they already know how to do and apply it to the present situation. In the . Misha said he had a phone meeting. sometimes he tried to keep nightclubs out of the Portuguese neighborhood where we lived. “It’s like with improv. But that’s cheating! And cheating’s bad for an artist. and it sometimes perplexed and saddened him. There seemed to be no structure or cohesion to it at all. feeling tense. is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever he wants. dusky blue. Whereas I think Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks.” Misha said. just whatever image he has in his mind.” We had circled ten blocks and the sun had gone down as we were talking. They’re afraid. so we started back toward his apartment. It’s bad in life—but it’s really bad in art. for him.” I said nothing. Sometimes he taught improv classes to nonactors. But that’s not freedom! That’s control. but I wasn’t sure how. the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. sometimes he hosted shows. or power. “True improv is about surprising yourself—but most people won’t improvise truthfully. There was no name you could give to it all. The houses and trees were now painted a dark. and the things that gave him pleasure. He did only the things he was good at. but neither did he. His work life was strange and I didn’t quite understand it. What they do is pull from their bag of tricks. I wanted to defend Sholem.H OW S H O U L D A P E R S O N B E ? 19 what was happening over brunch? Sholem was saying that freedom. To not recognize that difference is a pretty big thing.

” So I took what he said to heart and got married. I told Misha my fears.” Several years ago.20 SHEILA HETI short biography he had submitted to Harvard—for what would become a dense. As we walked. “Good night. “The only thing I ever understood is that everyone should make the big mistakes.” I said. leather-bound volume for distribution at his fifteen-year college reunion—his classmates wrote lengthy entries about their worldly success. when I was engaged to be married but afraid to go through with it— afraid that I would end up divorced like my parents. and not wanting to make a big mistake—I had gone to Misha with my concerns. our feet brushing gently through the lightly fallen snow. “Good night. after listening for a long while. . Then. We were drinking at a party and left to take a walk through the night. Margaux. their children. Misha’s entry had simply stated: Does anyone else feel really weird about having gone to Harvard. he finally said. and their spouses. given the life they’re living now? I live in a two-bedroom apartment above a bikini store in Toronto with my girlfriend. Three years later I was divorced.

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