Art Monster

Motherhood: A Novel BY Sheila Heti. Henry Holt and Co.. Hardcover, 304 pages. $27.

The cover of Motherhood: A Novel

When Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation came out in 2014, I couldn’t elbow my way to the bar without having a conversation with a woman writer about whether or not we knew any art monsters. Ottessa Moshfegh? Even Kate Zambreno and Joy Williams have children. . . . It seemed fitting we were all suddenly preoccupied with this question, as if we’d found a way to talk about whether or not we wanted to be geniuses, like the men.

An art monster is what the woman in Dept. of Speculation wanted to be when she was young and single, energetically nursing her nascent career. “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things,” she reflects later. Her identity has since bifurcated, from monster into mate (to a husband who cheats) and mother (to a baby who won’t stop crying unless she’s in Rite Aid). And, oddly enough, writer manqué. In the only satiric plot twist in the novel, the woman becomes a ghostwriter to support the family, as if having a baby has stripped her of her voice (a famously perverse Disney trope all the more striking because it’s hard to imagine a Disney princess pregnant, let alone stuck with the kid while the prince diddles a young maiden). The woman’s attractiveness as a character is rooted in our belief that She could have been an art monster! Her husband’s infidelity might be the event on which the plot spins, but she is cosseted by her intellect and a steady foothold in the economy. She may have lost the love of a good man, but there is never any question as to whether she is talented. (If she wasn’t, the novel would not be so successfully buoyed by the cloying milieu of Bougie Brooklyn.)

Sheila Heti’s second novel, How Should a Person Be? (2010), recorded the conversations and anxieties of a group of struggling but optimistic artists and writers in their early thirties in Toronto. No one has any children, fame, or deeds to their name—they concern themselves only with art. I loved the characters and thought of them all as very talented! “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me,” explains the character named Sheila, who is writing a play. It’s on a completely different generational register than Dept. of Speculation. It was very funny, for one: “We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.” But none of its wry humor detracted from the wide-eyed sincerity of these wannabe artists, of their impenetrable narcissistic cast. Optimistic and self-serious, Sheila’s friends are racked with problems of their own invention: Am I wasting my life making art, when I should be making money? Am I wasting my life socializing, when I should be making art? How Should a Person Be? answered the question posed in its title: People should be famous for their art—if not in the wider world, then in their creative milieu.

It’s fitting that Heti—now a famous writer, and the most memorable chronicler of artistic anxiety in the aughts—has turned her attention, at forty-one, to female anxiety immemorial. Heti’s charismatic and beguilingly original third novel does not pose a question in its title, but supplies the answer to one that is implied: What should a woman artist want, once she’s famous? Motherhood.

There is something embarrassing and oddly compelling about a celebrated writer sincerely going back and forth over whether to have a child for 304 pages of first-person stream of consciousness. In chapters titled after her menstrual cycle, the narrator, whose name is Sheila, talks with mothers, and women who are pregnant, and struggles to determine if they are reliable narrators of their experience. Or liars, slave to fickle hormones. Her cousin provides an interesting foil: “She has six kids. And I have six books. Maybe there is no great difference between us, just the slightest difference in our faith—in what parts of ourselves we feel called to spread.” Sheila likens herself to an Odysseus struggling to make his way home. Her friends are transmogrified into sirens, whispering about the joys of motherhood in her ear, and thrusting babies into her arms. (“Their song takes effect at midday, in a windless calm, and lulls the soul and body into a fatal lethargy—the beginning of one’s corruption.”) Women must “find our value and greatness in some place apart from mothering, as a man must find his worth and greatness in some place apart from domination and violence.” Odysseus came home to find the sanctity of his domestic life perverted; Sheila, too, worries that on the other end of her journey, she’ll be filled with regret, with no recourse for righting the situation.

As in the best upper-middle-class-white-girl fiction, How Should a Person Be?casts fate as a matter of willfullness: “In the years leading up to my marriage, my first thought every morning was about wanting to marry. . . . So I thought about marriage day and night. And I went straight for it, like a cripple goes for a cane.” (She gets a divorce after three years.) It makes sense that someone as capricious as Heti—even now, eight years later—would speak of karma as role-playing. “You play roles, so keep yourself in certain situations, or get yourself into other predictable situations.” Sheila understands self-actualization as affect: the bride with her white dress, the genius with Microsoft Word, the mother with a baby. An intrinsic belief that a life of meaning is open to her begets superstition and error. She tells her boyfriend that, in New York, a stranger told her that she would have a baby. He rolls his eyes: “If I met some guy in a bar and he told me that one day I’d own a Corvette, I don’t think I’d go around telling everyone.” An inordinate number of passages are dedicated to recording her dreams, which are almost exclusively about having a child or a fight with her boyfriend. She gets an IUD, only to have it removed ten days later. She visits a doctor about freezing her eggs. She pays for psychic readings, and consults the I Ching every day.

Carolyn Swiszcz, Whitney Lobby #2, 2011, acrylic and relief ink on canvas, 36 × 48". © Carolyn Swiszcz, courtesy Miyako Yoshinaga, New York.
Carolyn Swiszcz, Whitney Lobby #2, 2011, acrylic and relief ink on canvas, 36 × 48". © Carolyn Swiszcz, courtesy Miyako Yoshinaga, New York.

Sheila is funny, and idiosyncratic enough to rub contra to 2018, a time when the litmus test for a woman’s success is the extent to which her daily planner is a subject of marvel. How does she have time? we whisper, usually of women we don’t know. Maids?! It’s only fitting that ThCut recentlyly debuted “How I Get It Done,” a supremely popular column in which female overachievers strive to be palatably self-deprecating. They have supportive husbands; they don’t sleep in. (Melissa Clark, the New York Times food writer: “Here’s an embarrassing thing: We don’t eat dinner with our daughter. I hate to go public with this because it’s so not what people do. But that’s how it is.”) In Motherhood, Sheila isn’t getting much done. She’s too busy sitting at her desk, thinking obsessively about her fertility.

In fact Sheila gets the idea for this book from her rather saintly boyfriend, Miles, as a solution to her obsession: “Why don’t you write a book about motherhood? Since you’re thinking about it so much. And talking about it with everyone you meet.” Rachel Cusk—one of the most sober writers working today—has written about the toxicity indecision about motherhood can wreak on the female writer. “It was this distraction, as much as the fact of motherhood itself, that I wanted to have within my control. I regarded it as a threat, a form of disability that marked me out as unequal.” Coming from anyone but Cusk, I would find this argument hysterical. Is fretting over having a child really more distracting to her work than a literal baby sleeping in the next room? But Sheila shares Cusk’s sudden preoccupation with motherhood in her thirties, and an anxiety about the effect of this alternative shadow life on her writing. Cusk had children, though she doesn’t explicitly say she did so in order to quiet the voices in her head. Sheila writes herself out of the predicament: “I know the longer I work on this book, the less likely it is I will have a child. . . . This book is a prophylactic.” The problem with the novel is also why it’s secretly a joy to read: It wasn’t written for us.

I was amused to flip back and read the first line of Motherhood. “Is this book a good idea?” Well, no. Obviously a memoiristic novel about Sheila Heti’s eleventh-hour obsession with motherhood is not a good idea. But then what was How Should a Person Be? but a woman’s 288-page quest to justify her decision to be an artist before she made any art worth admiring? James Wood rightly called it “a kind of ‘ugly novel.’” If her last novel was like a woman whose cover-up always looks a little orange because she reapplies it in ill-lit bars, Motherhood is like a woman looking in the halogen-lit mirror at a doctor’s office. This novel is ugly because it’s difficult for Sheila to recognize her nonbiological potential as an art monster—but she does:

In my dream last night, I looked down and my breasts seemed to be the soggy breasts of an old woman. Then I realized they were not soggy breasts, but two flaccid penises. When I emailed Teresa about the dream, she replied, Breasts are what give life, while phalluses represent a creative or generative power—generating works of culture or art.

You can find so many Americans who value an aborted fetus over the life of a woman, and practically no one who values a woman artist before she’s famous. All the art monster can do in the face of an indifferent world is value her art; whether or not it’s a bad idea is beside the point. “Only in our failures are we absolutely alone. Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free,” Heti writes. “Losers may be the avant-garde of the modern age.”

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan.