A dying earth and a lament for lost fathers: Sheila Heti strips back the novel and makes it new

·7-min read
  <span class="attribution"><span class="source">Image by rawpixel.com</span></span>
Image by rawpixel.com

Sheila Heti’s slender, folkloric novel Pure Colour contains multitudes. It’s a love story, a lament. And it’s a philosophical enquiry into rupture: radical alteration caused by the death of a father, and a dying iteration of life on earth.

She had thought that when someone died, it would be like they went into a different room. She had not known that life itself transformed itself into a different room, and trapped you in it without them.

Review: Pure Colour by Sheila Heti (Harvill Secker)

To convey this intense defamiliarisation, Heti once again remakes the novel, as she did in her debut work of autobiographical fiction, How Should A Person Be? and its successor, Motherhood.

As its title suggests, in Pure Colour, human life is stripped to its bare minimum. It’s a story about the cultural moment we’re in: life on earth as a flawed first draft, nosediving into oblivion. Protagonist Mira is one of the three categories of human born from the eggs of a tripartite God:

Ready to go at creation a second time, hoping to get it more right this time, God appears, splits, and manifests as three critics in the sky: a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle, and a large bear who critiques while cradling creation in its arms.

Critics as God’s collaborators

Humans are now critics: God’s creative collaborators, born to give feedback for his next draft of creation. They are lofty birds interested in beauty and meaning (Mira falls into this category); collective fish concerned with justice on earth; or warm bears who hug their few loved ones close.

Mira is training at the prestigious American Academy of American Critics. There, her pompous professor pronounces on the failings of Edouard Manet (Heti’s favourite painter, as revealed in her breakthrough 2012 novel How Should a Person Be?).

We should feel pity for this desperate and searching boy-painter, who lacks the essential thing, yet doesn’t even know it.

As ever, Heti’s deadpan prose is funny, irreverent and sharp. Here, she is critiquing the critics.

The novel’s momentum is sparked by Mira falling in love with the cool, distant, fish-like Annie – an experience beautifully, viscerally evoked as a confusing, painful opening in her chest, “like a vagina was stretching for a very large cock” – and by her love for her bear of a father, whose sudden death transforms her world. Mira feels her father’s spirit

ejaculate into her, like it was the entire universe coming into her body, then spreading all the way through her, the way cum feels spreading inside.

As this suggests – and it’s one of her great strengths as a novelist – Heti is willing to grapple as precisely and vividly as possible with mysteries too great to be expressed; with other, mystical realms. She incorporated a godlike figure – chance – into Motherhood (2018) through the repeated tossing of and conversing with three coins: metaphorically wrestling with angels.

In Pure Colour, her first-person plural narrator invokes spirit and God and the gods directly, unmediated by angels or coins. God is the divine artist-creator working on his next draft. The gods are his minions on earth, entering humans to draw them together – which they experience as instant, igniting love – and to observe their behaviours from within. They then report back to God on the progress of his creation, suggesting what might need improving or revising in his next draft.

Heavenly and earthly fathers

If Motherhood was preoccupied with the narrator’s relationship to her mother and deciding whether or not to have a child, Pure Colour is concerned with fathers: heavenly and earthly.

To focus herself at her father’s deathbed, Mira recalls Hamlet’s words: “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Of course, that play is similarly occupied with fathers: its protagonist (like Mira) consumed by grief and aimlessness following a father’s death.

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This is a novel about creation – of art and worlds. It explores the role of the creator as God, as human artist and as parent. It also explores the relationship between creator and creation, and the role of critics and criticism.

True to the etymological roots of the word “novel”, Heti continues to push the novel form and make it new, filling its capaciousness with the questions and problems that obsess her and her narrators.

How Should a Person Be? was a generic mash-up of self-narration, self-help, biblical motifs, a play, art, emails, edited tape-recorded conversations with friends.

In Motherhood, Heti eschewed the novel’s customary male ejaculatory plot structure – exposition, rising tension, climax, denouement, resolution – and invented a new, female, literary form from the rhythms of the menstrual cycle. Sections were titled Ovulation, PMS, Bleeding, Follicular, Alternate Cycles of Hope and Despair.

In Pure Colour, Heti has stripped away the last of the novel’s artifices – fleshed-out characters, plot, the conventional restraints of the material world – and created a story with all the shapeshifting, transmutation and cosmic fluidity of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Read more: Guide to the classics: Ovid's Metamorphoses and reading rape

Life, love and the meaning of a leaf

Aesthetically, Pure Colour recalls Heti’s first work of fiction, The Middle Stories (2001), which was inspired by children’s literature. It’s a bedtime story with elements of fairytale, fable, religious texts and 18th-century philosophical novels such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire’s Micromegas.

In Micromegas, the scale is set by a conversation between giant galactic beings who tower over the earth, rendering humans mere specks. In Pure Colour, a single leaf becomes the site of dialogue about the universe and the nature of life on earth.

This unstable fictional world also perfectly conveys the derangements of scale (a phrase coined by eco-critic Timothy Clark) newly evident in this era of planetary transformation. Microscopic, global and universal scales all count here: microbes have presence and agency, as do macro forces such as climate and evolution, and supernatural beings such as gods and the dead – roused from their afterlife peace to converse with the living.

Pure Colour traverses vast arenas of spacetime, from the creation of the universe to the earth’s possible futures. Everywhere, life and love are conflated. And where we stand in relation to those we love – especially fathers and daughters – is this novel’s most pressing question of all. Which implies there are degrees of distance, and that stepping back is possible: from creation, from a work of art, from a beloved.

For me, this idea of the distance of love and its proper measure is the book’s emotional core, achingly conveyed in this beautiful passage:

What was the riddle that Mira had been sent out into the world to answer? Maybe, What is the actual distance of love?

There are many such moments of truth, of shining insight and candid observation, in this novel. At times it felt like a series of cool and brilliant provocations strung loosely together like the coloured glass, candies, lights that recur through the text.

On first reading – as a PDF on my laptop – I was alternately nonplussed and compelled; it felt surprisingly meagre, especially for a Heti novel. Perhaps because the flesh of fairytale is enchantment and this novel serves up only its bones, polished though they are.

But on second reading – as a paper book in my hands – I was mesmerised, and moved to tears by the ending. Immediately on finishing, I wanted to read it again. On that second reading, Pure Colour called to me, exemplifying its own jewel of a truth:

An artist is driven to make art by the spirit inside them, making an artwork like a signal or flare calling out, beckoning its kin to come near.

In 2022, who could ask for more from art than this gathering of kin? Pure Colour confirms Sheila Heti as one of the most inventive, searching, scintillating and mind-bending writers working today.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Jane Gleeson-White, UNSW Sydney.

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Jane Gleeson-White does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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