A Lapidary Grief: Sheila Heti’s “Pure Colour” Dares Her Critics

Ellsworth Kelly, "Green (Vert)" from Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs, 1964–65. Courtesy the MoMA. © 2022 Ellsworth Kelly.

Sheila Heti’s most recent novel, Pure Colour, is a dream-like, funny, soulful, hard-to-wrangle meditation on what it means to live as someone else’s creation, what it means to grieve, and what good criticism (of art, and of fathers) really does, in this, the end of times.

The book opens with God having created the heavens and the earth. Like a painter before a canvas, God is standing back, appraising His work. (He’s fucked it up.) His first draft has triumphed in the aesthetic realm—The sky! The trees!—but when it comes to collective care and the love between intimates, the draft falls short. Worse, there are haters everywhere, species are dying, and the seasons no longer correspond to the calendar the way they once did. Heti writes, “This is the moment we are living in—the moment of God standing back,” and it is where we will stay for the duration of the book, perched at the precipice of an imminent and permanent destruction.

In preparation for the second draft, “God appears, splits, and manifests as three critics in the sky,”—a large bird, a large fish, and a large bear, from whom all people are born. The birds encompass the aesthetes, interested in harmony and meaning. The fish care for the collective and offer structural critique. Bears make criticisms, too, but dispatched through a fuzzy love. (Heti doesn’t care to explain the technicalities of parentage here, where bearlike humans can, indeed, yield birdlike offspring, but it’s of no consequence, since her trinity captures our polarized critical moment, where the beautiful is at near constant odds with the political).

As in previous books, Heti allows for a meandering, curious structure driven by questions about art, personality, sex, mysticism, and love. All her books have asked such questions, but Pure Colour addresses them with an especially spare earnestness. The sentences vary from the perfectly reproduced pattering of twenty-somethings to the expansive omnivision of God. Though the prose mostly retains Heti’s now trademark choppiness—disdainful of overwrought, precious writing—sometimes its sentences sparkle in such a gemlike fashion that you want to live in them forever: “The days of the present often mimic the past, like a duckling following its mother—and who has ever been able to persuade the babyish present not to follow the mother duck of the past.”

The central characters are birdlike Mira, fishlike Annie, and Mira’s father, a warm and cozy bear. When the narration isn’t all-knowing, it stays closest to Mira, following her life from young adulthood to death. We begin with Mira leaving home, taking a job at a lamp store, and enrolling in the American Academy of American Critics. Lover of art and literature, Mira knows that she must cultivate an “icebox heart” because only the coldest souls are equal to the task of ushering art down through the centuries. At the Academy, she meets a youthful circle of would-be critics, and encounters the captivating Annie. Annie, born of the fish egg, is an organizer or activist of unnamed political commitments. The students at the Academy do tai chi, get high before class and, as for criticism, observe one professor eviscerate Manet’s painting of a solitary asparagus. Beyond that, they are arrogant and bewildered twenty-somethings at a forking path.

Though “the earth is heating up in advance of its destruction by God,” Pure Colour is still funny.  Annie, for instance, is drawn from Orphan Annie, who grew up singing and dancing alongside other orphans, wondering if her parents were out there in the “great and sparkling city.” (Reference to Disney’s 1982 Annie made an appearance in How Should A Person Be? too, when, in disgust, Sheila’s friend Sholem scrawled the words “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” across his submission for the ugly-painting contest that framed the book.) Annie’s status as an orphan makes her cool, and Mira is overcome with shame when she sees her apartment through Annie’s eyes, what with the landscape her friend had painted over with “dicks in all the most hilarious places.”

Soon, Mira and Annie fall in love, which Heti narrates in tender terms: “Something was opening in Mira’s chest, a portal to Annie and her open chest, which was widening in the direction of Mira.” The narrator explains that—unbeknownst to Mira and Annie—their great widening has cosmological origin and serves a creative purpose: Like amoebas, the gods have taken up residence in both. From these vantages, the gods in Mira can observe Annie, and vice versa; the notes they take will help God with the next draft.

The rapture of twenty-something love is interrupted when, before her life has even really begun, Mira learns that her father is dying. She thinks, “All that time, all that stupid time, I should have been with my father.” Heti’s own father died while she was writing this book, and narration of the death of Mira’s father is piercingly intimate. When Mira’s father dies, she feels “his spirit ejaculate into her.” Their relationship had always threatened to be overclose, but being filled up by her father makes up for “all her sorry spaces, and all her spiritual empties.” The experience leaves Mira feeling changed, yet she wonders if she “so much wants to be changed that since it happened, she has been pretending?”

Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst and writer, describes childhood as our first experience of conversion because only then our most urgent pains—of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and cold—can be soothed by another. Yet we are skeptical of conversion narratives. It’s like the joke early in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, “I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change.” Heti, too, has expressed skepticism about the nature of beauty in art and of true personhood. In her How Should a Person Be? the flippant narrator says, “I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature.” But Pure Colour abandons that skepticism entirely: everything can change from one draft to the next.

While she is grieving, Mira changes dramatically. “She felt in competition with no one.” She passes days in addled absorption with the jewel game on her phone. Eventually, she visits the lake she and her father loved and asks it to save her from despair. As if in response, and via uncertain mechanism, some part of Mira goes up, up, up into a leaf, where she is soothed; she has found her father.

Becoming a leaf, or entering one—at times it feels like one, then the other—grants Mira access to a god-like view. There, Heti tells us, Mira and her father speak in a leaflike way. Mira realizes that being dead “left no other desires” in her father; he was free from all “the troubles of the body, and of people who are pains in the neck”! Though Mira is not yet ready to abandon the pains in the neck of life, time in the leaf has a crystallizing affect. A leaflike consciousness that resembles her father tells her that the “loving part of life” is the “best thing about us, and because it is the least individual thing, it shines through us so beautifully, when it shines.” Freed from their human role as critics of creation (and of each other), their conversation opens up and they speak with childlike exuberance, exchanging ideas about macrophages, the Oort system, steam engines, and their new state of armless, legless existence. Like this, they come to understand that in the second draft of life, gentle, sweet-smelling plants will cover the earth with their tendrils; the refuges sought in the first draft—in art and in fathers—will become unnecessary. But for now, we still need them desperately.

This leaf section of Pure Color has been described by many as abstraction or mysticism (in his New Republic review, critic Adam Kirsch says Heti “emerges almost as a mystic”) But, when asked about it, Heti described this section as an attempt to render reality. When her father died, she also found herself in a wholly new space, leaflike and fluttering. The leaf was her experience of mourning.

Mira’s life streaks by after this, but her critical gaze is less icy, and now she knows that “God doesn’t care what you think of a band. God has put a hole in your head so things like that fall out of it.” All her life, a part of Mira had wished that she were a bear, and by mid-life she seems to have cultivated some bear-like qualities and what criticism she has to offer comes from a place of honesty and real love.

It is hard to read Pure Colour, a book populated by a sparring but soulful ensemble of critics, without thinking of the divisive critical reception Heti’s work has generated since the publication of HSAPB? in 2010. For instance in 2006, literary critic James Wood wrote an essay outlining the supposed rules of the modern realist novel, which later became his curmudgeonly book How Fiction Works (2008). Heti took his rules as a guide for what not to do: “It was so easy,” she told the Globe and Mail in 2013. “My book is going to be the opposite of all those things!” When Wood became a staff critic at The New Yorker and reviewed How Should a Person Be?, their feud, up-to-then undeclared, became public. He complained about her—ahem, the book’s—narcissism, flippancy, and dialogue. His ire was Heti’s encouragement. Motherhood (2018) struck another divisive chord, and Heti was accused again of failing to treat a serious question—if she became a mother, could she still be an artist—with the right kind of care. In her recent review of Pure Colour, Parul Sehgal—newly appointed literary critic at The New Yorker—acknowledges how much other critics “groused” about Motherhood. “Never mind fiction’s prerogative to ruffle rather than reassure the reader,” jabs Sehgal, protectively, as if in correction for the earlier take-downs. Sehgal’s reading of Pure Colour tends lovingly to Heti’s writing, responding to it with a “bespoke criteria” that Sehgal feels this book demands, and rising to Heti’s challenge by doing so. By making critics manifestations of God, Heti has essentially dared her critics to fail at their work—to fail, perhaps, as they have failed her in the past.

In the second half of Pure Colour, Mira discovers that Annie has become a therapist, or in the language of the leaf-time, a fixer. Fixers make the mistake of trying to fix the world, but “if anyone muddles with creation, God muddles it back again.” God, after all, is the artist, and the fixers—the sociologists, the psychologists—overstate their purpose as critics. Since 2010, many of Heti’s critics seem to have made this same mistake, thinking they knew what her creations were meant to be better than she did. But in an early reply to a reductive review of HSAPB?, Heti pointed to the more important moments where criticism happens in her life, which is before a book is published—while it is a living thing, apt to change and grow. The critical community that matters to Heti most are her friends and fellow artists with whom she shares her books as early drafts, and then again when they are near-to-last. Through this process I imagine she’s come to understand criticism as its own kind of leaf-like and expansive widening.

In the end, it is something of a distraction to spend too much time untangling the dreamlike meanderings and shape-shifting deities that populate this book, when its most moving and wonderful passages capture what it means to love a father and what it is to mourn their loss. A twist of fate means that Annie is there to care for Mira as she is dying. When her spirit flees her body, she returns to the place of ultimate conversion—leaf-like childhood—that place of pure, unadulterated love. She has returned to her father, and if you’re like me, you will weep at the beauty of it.


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