By Katherine Sharpe
Sheila Heti, Motherhood. Henry Holt, $26, 304 pp.
These are good years to write a novel that isn’t one—or that might not be one. Through the work of authors like Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jenny Offill, Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner, and Elif Batuman, literary readers have acquired a taste for fictions in which the fun of reading is partly in guessing how much of the author’s real life has made it to the page. Novelists have been mining personal experience to fuel their work forever, of course, but never has the incursion of such material into fiction been highlighted in the way it is today. To properly read a work of autofiction, a reader must have and bring to bear a bit of outside knowledge about the author. In that sense, the genre may be the inevitable outgrowth of an internet culture that places information about public figures at our fingertips and has accustomed us to consuming shockingly intimate tidbits about people we don’t actually know in any conventional sense. Autofiction pays homage to the striptease-y way we share and consume each other’s lives now.
Sheila Heti made her name with 2010’s How Should a Person Be? Subtitled A Novel from Life, the book made classic autofictional moves: the main character, a Toronto-based writer in her twenties named Sheila, suffering from writer’s block and the aftereffects of a brief marriage and divorce, went around the city asking all her friends the titular question. The book was blunt, funny, sexual, and divisive. Heti’s latest novel, Motherhood, finds an unnamed narrator who is also a Toronto-based writer, now in her late thirties, grappling with the question of whether or not to have a child. Motherhood feels equally close to Heti’s life, but conspicuously less “novelistic.” How Should a Person Be? had characters and scenes; it read like the product of a challenge to create a formally traditional novel without making anything up. By contrast, Motherhood resembles a series of journal entries. There are few characters and fewer scenes. Dialogue comes primarily from a series of “conversations” between the narrator and an oracular device inspired by the I Ching, achieved by flipping three coins, which answers yes or no to the narrator’s questions. The book also incorporates tarot cards, a homeless psychic, and the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Notwithstanding these pseudo-interlocutors, the effect of reading Motherhood is largely one of listening in on a thoughtful, troubled person speaking to herself.
The narrator has a live-in partner, named Miles, who already has a child from a relationship in his twenties. He does not want another but tells the narrator he is willing: “If I want a child, we can have one, he said, but you have to be sure.” (If this sounds a little unkind, it gets worse. Later, when the narrator tells Miles it might be nice to have a child, he replies, “I’m sure it’s also nice to get a lobotomy.” Still, the narrator is at some pains to portray Miles as a worthy and beloved partner, the relationship as a fortunate match with its complement of inevitable human problems, and mostly we believe her.)
There are other considerations: as a young girl, she never wanted children—her own mother, daughter of a Holocaust survivor, was a hardworking doctor and notably un-maternal—and she weighs this early clarity against all the messages, internal and external, which tell her she may always regret not mothering a child, now that her window in which to do so is shrinking. She dreams of babies, and sometimes they’re beautiful. On the other hand, she is fixated on her identity as a creative person and her desire to keep writing, with all the investment of time and attention that entails. Would having a child consume her work hours, destroy her focus? The fear runs deep.
Not all the points Heti makes are new, but the tone and feel of Motherhood are unique. Heti’s prose creates a hypnotic effect: her short, declarative sentences often feel willfully simple, but they accrete into loose, playful, and sometimes quite elaborate structures of thought. Occasionally these cross the line between brilliant and obscure. “I don’t want ‘not a mother’ to be part of who I am—for my identity to be the negative of someone else’s positive identity,” she astutely writes at one point. Then she goes on: “Then maybe instead of being ‘not a mother’ I could be not ‘not a mother.’ I could be not not.” It’s a twist too far, but it gives a sense of how seriously and painfully Heti’s narrator struggles with her question. Often, Motherhood comes off as a faithful representation of the mind of someone who is suffering intellectually, and some readers may resent being made to feel that suffering with her.
Heti is great on the feeling of alienation involved in not choosing motherhood. Meeting a friend with a new baby, she describes a mutual resentment against which both women are helpless: “She has gone to an underground that feels taboo for me, and I have travelled to a place that feels taboo for her. . . . How hard it is to understand what the other has done—when it looks to me like she has been stolen, and when it looks to her like I have stalled. We both look so cowardly and so brave.” Elsewhere, the narrator quotes a friend who has said that, among women she knows, the question of wanting children is “like a civil war: Which side are you on?” Both exchanges ring true to my experience of educated and relatively privileged womanhood in one’s thirties. No one wants motherhood to feel like a battle line, and yet it does.
She is also good on the social stakes involved in having children, and the way women internalize these. “The woman who doesn’t have a child is looked at with the same aversion and reproach as a grown man who doesn’t have a job.” At one point, the narrator observes that even women who don’t give birth are recruited inexorably to mothering behavior, such that resisting motherhood might require sustained and near-heroic effort:
For there is always someone ready to step into the path of a woman’s freedom, sensing that she is not yet a mother, who tries to make her into one. . . . Who will knock her up this time? Who will emerge, planting their feet before her, and say with a smile, Hi mom! The world is full of desperate people, lonely people and half-broken people, unsolved people and needy people with shoes that stink, and socks that stink and are holey—people who want you to arrange your vitamins, or who need your advice at every turn, or who just want to talk and get a drink—and seduce you into being their mother. It’s hard to detect this is even happening, but before you realize it—it’s happened.
Some of the best passages in the book describe encounters with friends and acquaintances, recounted in a manner reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which feel both objectively reported and replete with meaning that is not spelled out. As Heti’s narrator watches an acquaintance who is a recently divorced film actress walk away from her on two worn-down boot heels, she observes: “She seemed so poor and vulnerable from behind.”
Motherhood will be of interest to people who face its question of whether becoming a mother is for them, though it is idiosyncratic enough that not everyone in this situation will find it of use. One of its most durable formations weighs becoming a mother against what the narrator might achieve instead as an artist without children. Readers who don’t frame their decision along these lines, perhaps because they don’t have an overwhelming pull to a defined career or project they believe to exist in a zero-sum relation to motherhood, won’t relate to this thread. To the extent that it does help people, Motherhood will do so not by anticipating every issue anyone will have with reproduction, but by providing an unstinting record of one woman’s deliberation, in all its uniqueness.
The book is also, like many memoirs, the story of something else that isn’t owned as fully as the main topic—in this case, mental illness. Toward the end the narrator, whose cyclical moods have come increasingly to drag down her relationship with Miles, starts taking antidepressants. She starts to feel better, clearer. “Walking home with my groceries in two white plastic bags, the world seemed bright and joyous. Then I realized this was the drugs kicking in.” She faces the uncomfortable question forced on so many people who have a ruminative melancholy, one that felt philosophically significant, ripped open by drugs—was it all for nothing? “I fear I don’t have the right to speak anymore, given these drugs,” she writes. “What kind of a story is it when a person goes down, down, down and down—but instead of breaking through and seeing the truth and ascending, they go down, then they take the drugs, and then they go up? I don’t know what kind of story that is.” It’s a thorny question, perhaps an unanswerable one, and instead of trying, Heti moves on.
Some readers will accuse the book of woolgathering, of failing to entertain its reader as a novel should, or of not resolving its own questions. In her review for The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz tars Motherhood as “self-indulgent” and its author as “childish,” charges that strike me as both anti-intellectual and strangely shaming. What does it mean to call a woman “self-indulgent” while she takes her own time to ponder the most consequential decision most people will ever make?
The grappling that Motherhood performs is real and earnest; if the book is recursive, if it evokes in the reader some of the stuckness felt by its narrator, so be it. The question is worthy, and Heti approaches it with a gravitas that still leaves room for humility, and even humor. Motherhood possesses negative capability: it holds mystery, ambiguity, and dividedness, and lets them run their course without straining toward a forced synthesis. By the novel’s end there is a decision, there is resolution, and there is—palpably for Heti’s narrator, certainly for this reader—satisfaction.