"On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them."
That's the dilemma facing the narrator of Motherhood, Sheila Heti's brilliant, uncategorizable, and profound new novel. It's a novel that exists on the edge between fiction and nonfiction—a book that explicitly plays with that edge.
The chapters ruminating on whether or not the narrator should have children are intercut with chapters in which someone (the protagonist? The author? Some hybrid of the two?) flips three coins to answer questions about the writing of the book, what the title of the book should be, etc. "Is this book a good idea?" she asks. "Is the time to start it now?" If she flips the three coins and gets two or three heads, that's a yes; if she gets two or three tails, that's a no.
The protagonist/author also consults the coins on the question of whether she should have children: "I have to ask, am I like those pale, brittle women writers who never leave the house, who don't have kids, and who always kind of fascinated and horrified me?"
Yes, the coins answer.
"Is there anything I can do to avoid being that way?" she asks.
No, the coins answer.
"Is there real shame in being that way?"
Yes, the coins answer. It's a funny and ingenious device, a way of opening up the book to the reader's natural questions, a way of answering those questions on the page. It's also a way to show the author's mind as she thinks through a subject, as she gets from A to B. It's unlike anything I've seen in a novel before.
A note at the outset suggests that the yes/no answers are real answers the author actually got from consulting three coins. What's amazing isn't the answers so much as what the author does with those answers—the way she builds on the unexpected and acidly hilarious responses she sometimes gets, and the lengths to which she goes to formulate interesting questions.
It's no surprise this writer is good at interviewing herself. Heti used to be the interviews editor of the Believer, and she recently interviewed Elena Ferrante for Hazlitt—an interview in which she asked the world-famous novelist everything from whether she finds her own books ugly (the way Picasso found his own masterpieces ugly) to whether she smokes cigarettes.
Heti will appear at Elliott Bay Book Company to read from Motherhood on May 10, and then I will interview her onstage. That's at 7 p.m. At 9 p.m., one block away, art venue the Factory is throwing a party for Heti's book. There will be a group exhibition of local art, organized on the wall according to whether or not each artist has children. At the Factory, there will also be a series of performances. Seattle musicians, writers, and dancers (including Sarah Rudinoff, Angela Garbes, and Sarah Paul Ocampo) will each perform five-minute original pieces on the theme of motherhood, or whether or not to have kids, or whether or not making art can substitute for making human beings. Full disclosure: I am a cocurator of this show. You don't want to miss it.