Reviews | Sheila Heti: “On some level, I should be alone right now, but also, we’re still alone.”

A newspaper in
Alphabetical order

A little over 10 years ago, I started looking back at the journals I had kept over the previous decade. I wondered if I had changed. So I loaded the 500,000 words from my journals into Excel to sort the sentences alphabetically. Maybe that would help me identify patterns and repetitions. How many times had I written “I hate him”, for example? With the sentences detached from the narrative, I began to see the self in a new way: as something quite solid, anchored by surprisingly few characteristic concerns. As I came back to the project over the years, it became something more romantic. I blurred the characters and cut thousands of sentences, to introduce rhythm and beauty. When the Times asked me for a work of fiction that could be serialized, I thought of these newspapers: Surely the relationship of self to self is great fiction, and what more fundamental mode of serialization than the alphabet? After some editing, here is the result.
This is part 7 of a 10 part series. Sign up to receive it in your inbox.

Of course, I had images of me in Florence, walking in the bright air, in my new shoes, lying under a tree and studying physics. Of course sex, which is undeniable. “Of course they’re sexy,” he said, “and there seems to be something inside of them that you can’t reach, but really it’s just emptiness.” Of course, it’s nice to be invited. Oh, I feel so young and free from my book! Oh, if only I had something real to eat. Oh, look how handsome he is playing Scrabble. Oh, my handsome man. Oh shoot. Oh. Oh. OK. Monday, start the book. On one level I’m skeptical, and on another level I’m lazy – skeptical of whether it will make a difference, literature – and skepticism and laziness marry and will probably prevent me from realizing my potential as a writer. writer, but maybe it’s okay; I sometimes think about what he said, that no one wants to read the work of an A+ student. On some level, I should be alone right now, but also, we’re still alone. A new thing happened yesterday is that I started wearing lipstick, because since I cut my hair, men don’t look at me on the street anymore, and I don’t like that , and when I told Rosa that, she was like, “Start wearing lipstick.” Otherwise, keep everything very simple. Otherwise, life will always be in fits and starts. Our end is fatal. Our relationship in miniature is her checking a text message on her phone while I show my heart.

A paperback has been published. Paperback tour, 11 days. Papers on papers. Paragraphs are pauses; chapters are also breaks. Part of her was out of breath from feeling so alone. Patricia Highsmith lost her virginity at Yaddo. Pavel admitted that she was more sexual on the surface than me, more carnal and always talked about sexual liberation and free love, but he said, mocking her, “Yeah, I read all these books too. Pavel and I are on the train at Niagara Falls, where we stood still for an hour while the customs officers led their dogs and removed all the Arabs. Pavel and I were walking around town today and we were like, “I’m going to miss you. Pavel and I were there, sitting together on the green faux leather sofa while he smoked; he smokes a lot these days. Pavel asked me if I ever felt stuck with him or if I ever felt free. Pavel asked me what my hesitations were, and my mind went blank. Pavel offered me three small glasses, Wild Turkeys. Pavel calls me, drunk. Pavel came yesterday, and while we were saying goodbye, we kissed. Pavel got out of bed, and now he’s sitting on the purple sofa, putting on his shoes. Pavel had an unlit cigarette in his mouth and he kissed me goodbye. Pavel ignores everyone when he has a new girlfriend, and I know that because when I was his girlfriend, he ignored all his friends. Pavel always tells me how much he loves me and asks me to never leave him and be with him forever. Pavel is staying with me this week. Pavel is still sleeping. Pavel is still lost. Pavel is stuck. Pavel is very interesting, but of course sometimes he annoys and bores me; that’s how people are. Pavel sits there and looks at his computer. Pavel kept asking me what my races were yesterday, but I didn’t tell him. Pavel left abruptly on his bicycle. Pavel left me a funny, strange, bizarre, slightly hurtful message. Pavel looked like a dog that had done something wrong, asking for forgiveness. Pavel took me back to the stairwell, and I was crying a little, and I said, “I’m weak. Pavel said he always liked it when everyone was driven crazy. Pavel said he was a little drunk. Pavel said his best quality was his loving attention. Pavel said that a man’s sexuality is having a wife and a mistress. Pavel said I had to look at the wrong hand that was dealt to me. Pavel said I hurt and disappointed him, blowing hot and cold, and he had a better time alone than when he was with me. Pavel said the reason we don’t live together is because we’re cowards. Pavel said when he’s with me he feels lonely, and he reminds himself that we’re all alone in the world anyway to avoid feeling hurt. Pavel said yesterday that he thinks once a day about putting a gun to his head and shooting himself in the head. Pavel said, “Everyone says, when I tell them we’re out, you’re crazy.” Pavel said, “How’s Matt, anyway?” and I said, “You’ve never met Matt,” and Pavel said, “I know. Pavel said, “I spoke to you in Russian because I’m still sleeping. Pavel said: “When I was younger I used to be hurt by every little thing.” Pavel said, “Your favorite guy is here”, which is him. Pavel saw him caress me, kiss the side of my face, near my hair, as I stood near the bar. Pavel saying I really know how to distance myself from people. Pavel says he doesn’t have normal conversations with people, so he doesn’t know how to write dialogue. Pavel smokes his cigarettes and coughs. Pavel smokes too much, but it’s his choice. Pavel thinks it was good that a woman really wanted him at a time when I was so ambivalent and uncertain and it was good for him to feel unequivocally wanted. Pavel wanted to come, to pass, but I told him no, then yes, then that I was torn because I wanted to write, and he said: “So write”. Pavel wants me back, thinking he can argue me. Pavel was drinking the biggest beer in the place, smiling his crazy smile. Pavel was like, “Look at him. Hardly anyone responded to my birthday invitation.” Pavel was like, “That’s why you’re not dating a writer.” Pavel was very impatient with everyone he met, shaking their hands and widening his eyes as if expecting the opportunity to come from them. People are definitely awkward and vulnerable when they fall in love with you. People who seemed fine now have a menacing side; I have no buffer, no man, no one protects me. Psychology posits that everyone is uniquely damaged, so there can be no genuine greatness, because all great deeds come from a weakness with a long lineage – everything has a cause, and the cause is damage, and damage has always been caused by another person. Store things behind the green sofa. Put him back on New Years. Put him away for a year, then if you still need to be with him, be with him then. Put your desire for the glamorous life in your books; you can just write, and the books will have a better time in other people’s minds, in your absence, than you could ever have at any party.

Quiet days, seeing no one, feeling fine.

Sheila Heti is the author of 10 books, including the novels “Motherhood”, “How Should a Person Be?” and the next “Pure Colour”. This is part 7 of a 10 part series. Sign up to receive it in your inbox.

Photographs by Yaël Malka.

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