“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, funny, 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 author/protagonist 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 of Motherhood 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 the coins deliver, and the lengths to which she goes to formulate interesting questions.
It’s no surprise Heti is good at interviewing herself.
She was the interviews editor of The Believer for years, 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.
The New York Times Book Review calls it "earthy and philosophical and essential."
As a profile in New York magazine points out:
Heti approaches the subject with an observer’s curiosity more than a deliberate agenda. Growing up, she remembers feeling distant from the received version of femininity: The word mother, for example, seemed to refer to a way of being female “that just I never identified with.”
One of the women the narrator speaks with in the novel, an American writer, tells her that whenever she meets women their age, the first thing she wants to know is whether they have children, and if not, whether they plan to — “It’s like a civil war: Which side are you on?” Yet this sense of the trenches transcends “mommy wars” cliché. The experience of childbirth and new motherhood — even just the question of motherhood — comes to look like a female proving ground; something like what war has been to male writers... Life-or-not-life stakes loom. “Like soldiers nudging each other into battle, we nudge each other into relationships,” the narrator reflects at one point. “Stay there, we say. Don’t run from the front lines.” The encounter with human life in extremis gives rise to a kind of camaraderie, but it’s a dark one, and she’s contemplating it from the outside. “I feel like a draft dodger from the army in which so many of my friends are serving,” says the narrator, “just lolling about in the country they are making, cowering at home, a coward.”
And there's a long review of the book in the latest print edition of The New Yorker:
Along with the events of her daily life, Heti records dreams that are redolent with cryptic symbolism, and reports the results of an impromptu tarot reading, reproducing the lurid images of the cards themselves. She tries to parse the extreme ways in which her emotions and behaviors shift during her menstrual cycle, to the point of naming certain sections of her book after its phases (“Ovulating,” “PMS,” “Bleeding”), reports on her experiments with anti-depressants, and worries about her increasingly stormy relationship with [her boyfriend] Miles, who grows recalcitrant and unhelpful as Heti muddles through her dilemma. (Strangely, they do not use birth control, which adds a flippant Russian-roulette dimension to the drama.) He is like a photo negative of a stereotypical heterosexual male partner: he wants his woman to live for her art, not for children—a wonderfully supportive position, until it isn’t.
As for her Seattle date: Sheila Heti will appear at Elliott Bay Book Company to read from Motherhood tonight at 7pm, and then I will interview her onstage. That’s at 7 pm.
Meanwhile, one block away, beginning at 6 pm, art venue The Factory is throwing a party inspired by Heti’s book. There will be a group exhibition of local artists, organized on the wall according to whether or not each artist has children. Artists include John Atkins, Aaron Bagley, Jessixa Bagley, Michael Colasurdo, Jeff Gardner, Marie Hausauer, Craig Kundiff, Brittany Kusa, Amanda Manitach, Timothy Rysdyke, Tara Thomas, Joey Veltkamp, and Jennifer Zwick.
At 9 pm at the Factory, there will also be a series of five-minute performances. The Factory has been curating themed nights for writers, musicians, and dancers to make and perform new five-minute works lately. (Timothy Rysdyke and Sarah Paul Ocampo curate the series.) The theme for the party inspired by Motherhood is KIDS/NO KIDS.
The artists performing 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, are Sarah Rudinoff, Angela Garbes, Rachel Kessler, Christi Cruz, Anastacia Reneé, Ken Jarvey, Sarah Paul Ocampo, OK SWEETHEART, Lisa Prank, and Uh-Oh.
Full disclosure: I am a co-curator of this show. You don’t want to miss it.