On Sheila Heti’s “Pure Colour”

On Sheila Heti’s “Pure Colour”

“AFTER GOD Made the heavens and the earth, he stood again to contemplate creation, like a painter standing back from the canvas. This is the second we are living in — the instant of God standing again. Who knows how extended it has been likely on for?” So starts Sheila Heti’s new novel, Pure Color. Heti has created a behavior of starting publications with grand, philosophical queries. Her critically acclaimed 2012 novel, How Ought to a Human being Be?, begins by inquiring the titular dilemma. The Chairs Are The place the Persons Go (2011), co-penned with Misha Glouberman, bears the subtitle “How to Dwell, Work, and Enjoy in the City” and attributes chapters that examine existential issues underpinning each day lifestyle. Heti’s current “semi-autobiographical” novel Motherhood (2018) opens with a description of the I Ching, a approach of flipping coins to divine solutions — a system she works by using to query her resourceful reason. That Heti invokes the E book of Genesis on the 1st page of Pure Colour, then, feels fitting, if ambitious. With each and every e-book, her scope appears to widen, and Pure Colour ushers the reader further from roman à clef or autobiography and closer to a sort of speculative philosophy or myth.

In narrative phrases, Pure Colour tracks the emotional and psychic life of a protagonist named Mira. When the novel opens, Mira is youthful female residing in Toronto — or, instead, common road names lead me to assume the story is established in Heti’s own hometown. “Mira still left home,” Heti writes in an early passage. “Then she bought a job at a lamp retail outlet. The lamp store marketed Tiffany lamps, and other lamps created of coloured glass. Each individual lamp was incredibly expensive.” Mira’s tedious function looks concurrently to uninteresting and heighten her senses, an aesthetic point of view that is later on honed when she is “accepted into the American Academy of American Critics.” Over the program of the novel, Mira also falls in love with a mysterious lady named Annie and mourns the demise of a beloved father. Even though her inner thoughts toward Annie and her father form the story’s psychological main, Mira’s concentrate oscillates in between looking at the facts of her very own existence and broader questions about artwork and existence, supplying the reserve a meditative and at situations just about religious good quality.

In a lot of respects, summarizing Pure Colour by describing its plot, which is rather scant in conventional conditions, misses the place. The narration shifts involving describing Mira’s encounters and postulating more broadly about God’s intentions in making the “first draft” of the world. In the opening internet pages, viewers discover that there are 3 varieties of folks: birds, fish, and bears. “People born from these 3 unique eggs will never totally realize just about every other,” the narrator clarifies, subsequently confirming that Mira is a hen, Annie a fish, and Mira’s father “a warm bear.” Inside this tri-species taxonomy, directional perspective correlates strongly to how people actually and figuratively regard the planet. Birds observe from a length and “are interested in elegance, get, harmony and meaning” fish are bound in a collective and “concerned with fairness and justice right here on earth” and bears care most about their immediate surroundings and “are turned in the direction of all those they can odor and contact.” The tensions in between these distinctive worldviews are central to the story and Pure Color’s meta-issue is how different relationships to art and criticism permit individuals to interpret, cope, exalt, and otherwise find indicating in daily life.

Pure Color’s two sections — the account of Mira’s lifestyle and the passages thinking of divine or universal purpose — are voiced by related, if not identical, omniscient narrators. In effect, there is a fable-like quality to the storytelling. Surreal situations, these as when Mira’s spirit enters a leaf with her father following his death, are relayed make a difference-of-factly. This measured tone is also mirrored in the syntax: Heti works by using a combination of short phrases and extended sentences broken into a number of clauses to manage stream-of-consciousness strategies into causal observations, as in: “The day following her father died, Mira noticed that she could abandon her total daily life, walk away from it, and it would not issue.” The immediate prose, as effectively as the narrator’s tendency to circle back and rethink tips, evokes the process of mulling points in excess of through a very long stroll or an extended period on your own — the parallels with isolated thinking for the duration of the pandemic are not misplaced on the reader.

Irrespective of whether pondering metaphysical or minor matters, Mira usually observes designs and gaps in her own assumed processes. In some methods, Mira’s gestures towards self-reflexivity and self-critique make it straightforward to examine her as a product or service of the mindfulness era. She’s by no usually means perfectly self-conscious or prophetic fairly, Mira will come throughout as genuinely curious. At periods, drawing connections between seemingly abstract or historic topics and her existing-working day emotions or realities will cause her to develop into overcome. For occasion, reflecting upon the Bronze Age as part of a stream-of-consciousness considered spiral, the narrator abruptly thinks: “Because you know what, if we all of a sudden went again two thousand yrs, there’d be very little we could do to velocity points together. I really don’t know how to make a steam engine.” This rare 1st-individual invocation, and the abrupt introduction of a new issue (on the prior webpage, Mira was describing her father, not historical development or steam energy), reveals a brain racing to uncover coherence in the wake of private disaster. What is exclusive about Mira’s self-reflexivity, at minimum in just Heti’s oeuvre, is that she lookups for solutions without the need of a drive for action. Possibly normal for a hen individual, Heti’s narrator seeks comprehending, or at least interpretation, for its possess sake.

Heti is recognized for experimenting with sort as a implies of representing self-consciousness. How Ought to a Man or woman Be?, her breakthrough novel, depicts intimate scenes from Heti’s possess lifestyle and incorporates transcripts from discussions with her friend and collaborator, the painter Margaux Williamson. In the same way based on activities from Heti’s life, Motherhood chronicles the author’s conflicting desire and disinclination toward parenting and employs the I Ching to reply issues like: “Will reading aid my soul?” “Is artwork at residence in the entire world?” and “[C]an a girl who would make guides be permit off the hook by the universe for not generating the dwelling matter we get in touch with babies?” How Should really a Man or woman Be? and Motherhood are the two voiced in the initial person and element narrators who learn about themselves through interacting with, and judging, many others. It is notable, then, that Heti shifts to employing a shut third human being for most of Pure Colour and that the characterization of the critic Mira’s voice feels significantly less formulated than individuals of the writer protagonists in Heti’s earlier is effective. In an apt critique in 4Columns, Jennifer Kabat observes that “the creating is warm, deft, and strange, but the figures are slender and the plot is as well.” I’m inclined to concur and to begin with struggled to articulate my reaction to the ebook. With time, even though, I have observed a growing appreciation for Mira’s resistance to what a recent New Yorker post known as “main character energy” and for Heti’s very own anti-novelist stance.

The much more the story — if we can even phone it that — develops, the far more Pure Colour becomes a tale about grieving all through the Anthropocene. The writing’s alternately tough and sensitive slowness reads like a modern benediction. “Now the earth is heating up in progress of its destruction by God, who has decided that the first draft of existence contained as well a lot of flaws,” Heti writes. We study that God, “[r]eady to go at generation a next time, hoping to get it much more suitable this time, […] seems, splits, and manifests as 3 artwork critics in the sky: a huge chook who critiques from earlier mentioned, a big fish who critiques from the center, and a significant bear who critiques when cradling development in its arms.” For fowl-descendent Mira, criticism is a suggests of apprehending not only culture but also human beings. Wanting closely, however, hazards opening the doorway to both equally splendor and despair. The narrator describes: “It’s correct that the planet was failing at its one particular activity — of remaining a earth. Parts had been breaking off. Seasons have been getting to be postmodern.” In this environment, “[t]he ice cubes were being melting. The species ended up dying.” Nevertheless Mira might have drawn on the rhetoric of art criticism to fathom abstract, world-wide loss, her father’s loss of life upsets her really feeling of self and renders her unmoored, a chicken traveling by way of a storm.

By Heti’s possess rationalization, she didn’t established out to publish about grief, but her father’s death in 2018 affected the system of Pure Colour. In 2020, Heti published an essay in The Yale Assessment titled “A Typical Seagull: On Building Artwork and Mourning” in which she shares a memory that may properly have influenced Mira likely into the leaf. “Walking in the forest with my doggy a several weeks just after my father died, I recognized the eco-friendly of the fir trees the colours ended up so muted and wonderful,” Heti recollects, continuing:

I felt in that moment as if I had never ever seriously appeared at hues in advance of, I stood asking yourself beneath the shadowless sky whether or not, when my father died, the spirit that had enlivened him passed into me, for I had held him as he died as most likely when his father, a painter, died, his spirit went into my father, so that now I experienced the spirit of my father and the spirit of my grandfather the two inside of me. And I questioned no matter if this affect — the spirit of my painter grandfather inside me — was why I was suddenly noticing colors.

This quotation reads like a map for Pure Color, in which the father claims the baby Mira that 1 day he will purchase her “pure colour — not a thing that was colored, but color alone!” Chook Mira’s childhood perception in her father, a bear who needs closeness and proximity, inevitably gives way to a feeling of guilt. “As Mira obtained older, it grew to become tougher to really like [her father] in the correct proportions, or even to know what these had been,” the narrator explains, as “any interest she formulated in a further man or woman felt like it was using some thing from him, because he experienced no 1 to appreciate but Mira.” Yet, when her father dies, it is Mira who needs to stick to and “[draw] him midway back again.”

Heti’s producing is from time to time explained as “strange,” a description most usually invoked in the context of praise. Pure Color extends this essential strangeness in new directions, with diverse benefits. At situations, the tapestries Heti weaves to relay hyper-imaginative conceits sense overstretched: while reading, I retained picturing a unfastened mohair knit — the form of sensitive, high-priced garment usually marketed to me on Instagram. The book’s metaphorical threads are glimmering and beautiful, but the huge areas remaining involving some of its thoughts generate options for snags. For case in point, the notion of a second draft of the environment, and of God as a critic examining flaws in the initially draft (the environment that Pure Color’s figures and viewers occupy), is remarkable. The idea that art’s vitality may no lengthier be properly measured by suggests of its endurance in this rapid-dying environment is also poignant. Some of the nuances of Heti’s tips, even so, are misplaced or diminished because of to a hazy inner framework. Is God a critic? Are all human beings? Is Annie, the orphan whom Mira promises to adore nonetheless appreciates so minimal about, vaguely sketched mainly because of the restrictions of Mira’s standpoint or mainly because character building is unimportant in Heti’s novel-cum-mythology? Because Pure Color is mild on plot, getting rid of the proverbial thread doesn’t so substantially threaten our being familiar with of the textual content as our very engagement with it.

Heti is a problem asker, and Pure Color is rich in queries that hyperlink the particular with the common. In the earlier, the conceptual richness of Heti’s questions led critics to speculate about the affect of Judaic mysticism or kinds of aesthetic philosophy on her crafting. In a 2019 interview in Guernica, the author remarked: “I do not believe my figures in fact make choices centered on what they get from mystical or supernatural sources wanting in that direction signifies a sort of desperation for this means, but the final solutions never arrive from those spots.” In Pure Colour, Mira isn’t eaten with getting up or disputing particular intellectual or non secular traditions. Rather she accepts the mutable character of which means and strives to hone a private framework for interpretation. To this end, Pure Color’s roving issue subject and looping motifs embody the surrealistic mix of clarity and discombobulation that accompany grieving. As a writer, Heti has a exclusive expertise for generating the mundane experience magical — this is crucial to the beguiling strangeness of her texts. The most moving areas of Pure Colour arrive when Mira seeks emotional and aesthetic truths in spaces involving the profound and the everyday, inviting audience — birds, fish, and bears alike — to witness the depth of the protagonist’s (and the author’s) mental perambulations.


Esmé Hogeveen is an arts and culture writer dependent in Tkaronto/Toronto. She is a employees writer at Yet another Gaze and a Film and ArtSeen contributor at The Brooklyn Rail. Her operate has also appeared in ArtforumBookforumThe Baffler, BOMB, and Frieze, between other venues.