To Make Someone Be or Not to Make Someone Be

The unnamed narrator of “Motherhood,” Sheila Heti’s earthy and philosophical and essential new novel, is a writer in her late 30s. She smokes; she’s divorced; she lives with her boyfriend in a Toronto apartment that’s pretty but has mice in the walls.

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The unnamed narrator of “Motherhood,” Sheila Heti’s earthy and philosophical and essential new novel, is a writer in her late 30s. She smokes; she’s divorced; she lives with her boyfriend in a Toronto apartment that’s pretty but has mice in the walls.

They fight about money, of which there is not enough. She cries a lot, worries about comma placement and has mother issues. She possesses a hard head and a large muse but cannot help but appeal to the rowdier gods — via psychics, tarot card readers and especially I Ching-inspired coin throws — for urgent answers to her pressing problems.

The most salient thing about her is that she does not, she is nearly certain, want a child. This unsentimental position puts her at odds with her friends. Indeed, it puts her at odds with North American and especially her Jewish culture, in which a burden is still placed on women to repopulate after the Holocaust.

About childbearing, she says: “It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their 30s — when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience — from doing anything useful with them at all.”

Her position makes her feel, among her cohort, vaguely culled from the herd. She feels embarrassed and on display, like Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights” after he swallowed the whistle.

Her position also lends itself to a primal fear: What if she is making a choice she will always regret? Other brutal questions emerge. What if you decline motherhood in favor of your art, and your art turns out to be mediocre?

“Motherhood” floats, as did Heti’s excellent novel “How Should a Person Be?” (2012), somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. It reads like an inspired monologue, delivered over a kitchen table, or the one Spalding Gray sat behind in “Swimming to Cambodia.” Not a lot happens, yet everything does.

Heti’s semifiction, like that of writers like Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk and Teju Cole, among others, is dismantling our notions of what a novel should be. These writers prize voice over style.

You sense that Heti would feel ridiculous if she wrote a fussy sentence, as if she’d been caught making a triangular hotel fold at the end of a toilet paper roll. She deals out her ideas in no-nonsense form, as if she were pulling espresso shots.

“If no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends,” Heti’s narrator writes. “I would have invented sex, friendships, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.”

This book is endlessly quotable, and a perfect review would be nothing but quotations. She makes a banquet of her objections to parenthood. If you are an underliner, as I am, your pen may go dry.

“I resent the spectacle of all this breeding,” she writes, “which I see as a turning away from the living — an insufficient love for the rest of us, we billions of orphans already living.”

Also: “Having children is nice. What a great victory to be not-nice.” Also: “The fog of sleepiness that is my femininity, which has often threatened to drown me — it has to be guarded against, for it has so much power.” This is a woman who will never have to change a mustardy diaper.

When friends procreate she’s happy for them but “miserable for the rest of us — for that absolute kick in the teeth, that relieved and joyful desertion. When a person has a child, they are turned towards their child. The rest of us are left in the cold.”

The emotional heat in her life is provided by Miles, her kind and attractive boyfriend, who is at the start of a law career. He already has a child, from a birth control miscue early in his adult life, and is ambivalent about having another.

For a woman who has misanthropic tendencies, the narrator consults a dizzying array of friends — there’s Marissa, the actress; Libby, the newly pregnant old high school friend; and Nicola, who has four kids, among others. As in Cusk’s novels, and Heti’s own “How Should a Person Be?,” a good deal of the narrative is recounted conversations.

The biggest presence in her life, however, is her writing, in particular the book we are holding. It took her four years to finish, from roughly 36 to 40, as if by composing it she could delay thinking about childbearing until the last tenable moment.

Writing is not just her work but her life. “I only knew that I had to create a powerful monster, since I was such a weak one,” the narrator says of this book. “I had to create a monster apart from me, that knew more than I knew.” Indeed, Heti always seems to be drawing from a paranormally deep well. There is a curious note at the front of this novel that reads, “In this book, all results from the flipping of coins result from the flipping of actual coins.” She presents the coins with questions before she flips them, and the dialogue occasionally trails down the page like this:

“Should I have a child with Miles?


Should I have a child at all?


So then I should leave Miles?


Should I have an affair with another man while I’m with Miles, and raise the child as Miles’s own, deceiving him about the provenance of that child?


I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I suspected I would loathe these sections of “Motherhood” (I lack the spiritual gene), but I came to look forward to them. For one thing, they’re often funny. For another, they function as little binary thought experiments that one can pause to turn over or not.

A gimmick like this can work in a book — I’m put in mind of James Merrill’s Ouija board, and also of all the bleak jokes littered though Lynne Tillman’s terrific 1998 novel “No Lease on Life” — if cannily employed.

The enemies of promise for a fiction writer, critic Cyril Connolly wrote, are drinking, journalism, politics and “the pram in the hall.” The pram can be a special thorn for women writers.

Many must become like writer Anne Lamott, who said that while she once had trouble writing with dirty dishes in the sink, after having a child she could write with a corpse in there.

In the matter of children, Heti’s narrator resembles Sula, the protagonist of Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel of the same name.

“When you gone to get married?” Sula is asked. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.”

She replies: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

Publication Notes:


By Sheila Heti

Illustrated. 284 pages. Henry Holt & Co. $27.

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