Nonlinear Thought

Alphabetical Diaries By Sheila Heti New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 224 pages. $27.

The cover of Alphabetical Diaries

IF, AS CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS PROPOSED, “the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction,” then the act of keeping a diary, that practice of private self-mythology, is at least partially an attempt to overcome the contradictions inherent in a self. Granted, there’s a raft of differences between myths passed down over eons and those made about oneself within the span of a single life. The myth of Icarus, for instance, has survived due to its decisive ending and moral weight. But self-mythology—whether in the form of a journal, internet persona, or daydreaming—is a molten and ever-incomplete process. 

Meanwhile, the self is too unstable and various to mush into an archetype or to push into a narrative climax, try as the diarist might. Keeping a diary may ease the burden of living with paradox, but since a diary’s author only continues to accrue more material to fit into a narrative, what first begins as a way to contain a life slowly becomes an unmanageable archive. You might stop tending your diaries, you might even destroy them or renounce the practice altogether—but if you begin a diary, then your work can only ever be abandoned, forgotten, or avoided until the end of your life puts an end to the ongoingness. The apparent impossibility of reaching the work’s true end is the irritant motivating each entry. 

While it’s true that some writers publish books excerpted from their private notebooks while still alive, such works are typically focused on a limited time period: Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, for instance, or so many writers’ travelogues, or, heaven help us, anyone’s pandemic diaries. The publication of a writer’s full diaries, where we can plainly see their obsessions and limitations and casual voice laid bare, is typically a postmortem affair.

Image: Wikicommons.
Image: Wikicommons.

Alphabetical Diaries, Sheila Heti’s latest, is an excerpt of the Canadian novelist’s journals. To assemble it, Heti put a decade’s worth of diary entries into a spreadsheet, alphabetized the half-million words by the first word of each sentence, then edited the material down to a tenth of its size. Did she do so to remove the embarrassing bits? To save face, to come off as cool? Absolutely not. Vulnerability has long been Heti’s compass as a writer. Any reader who felt embarrassment by proxy from her polarizing and unapologetic How Should a Person Be? or the deeply sincere Pure Colour should proceed with caution.

Here’s a brief passage from the “O” section:

Of course I’m jealous of his girlfriend, and that he wants to be with someone like her, whoever she is, and not me. Of course in every happiness there is a tremendous blindness. Of course it was a joke. Of course it’s nice to be invited up. Of course she pointed out that with me thinking about men all the time, it didn’t leave enough of my brain for writing. . . . Oh, look how beautiful he looks playing Scrabble! . . . Our relationship in miniature is his checking of a text message on his phone while I am baring my heart.

The paradox of the resulting text is that its randomness gradually layers itself into a weightless transcendence. At some point—perhaps during the thirty pages of sentences that begin with “I”—I slipped to the other side of the Möbius strip and found myself in what felt like a direct encounter with a contradictory, ordinary person changing and remaining unchanged through the years. “No one can take away the simple happiness and pleasure I get from my life in Toronto. No one else knows my plan. No one even said thanks. No one sees, no one applauds. No one thinks you’re so great.” The rhythm and randomness of Heti’s voice whispering from different points in time creates an intoxicating trance. Then, in the middle of a swirl of paratactic sentences like these, there are brief, bright moments when a single sentence stands naked in the spotlight: “Nobody knows why marriages happen.” It’s as if a bar’s loud music was suddenly shut off as a patron accidentally shouts a secret.

Vacillating between the mundane, the shocking, and the aphoristic, Alphabetical Diaries constantly drew me into its gravitational pull. The book’s texture, at once jagged and consistent, has echoes of both Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait and Joe Brainard’s I Remember. The Levé is a work of cubist memoir, a series of nonsequential declarative sentences he seems to have written in one long ramble. The Brainard, also nonsequential, begins each sentence with “I remember,” and follows with a seemingly random recollection. I admire both those books, despite the fact that reading Autoportrait feels a bit like watching some guy throw darts into the void, and reading I Remember is like staring into a spinning dryer at the Laundromat, waiting for the wash to be done. Though mundanity is a primary focus of all three of these books, Alphabetical Diaries achieves something more sacred and less performative. The difference may be that Heti’s book is assembled from sentences that weren’t necessarily written to be read, while Levé and Brainard were writing with forms that implied, from the start, an eventual audience. 

Often, as in the following section, the shards of these unrelated observations and images alter each other through their proximity.

Oh, my beautiful man. On Friday, I’ll be where it’s simple, back at the salon. On one level I’m skeptical and on another I’m lazy; skeptical about whether it will make a difference, literature, and the skepticism and the laziness will marry each other and will probably prevent me from fulfilling my potential as a writer, but I don’t know, sometimes I think about what Gil said, that no one wants to read the work of an A+ student. On some level I should be alone right now, but on the other hand, one is always alone. On the drive to the airport, the sun comes out, and Amadine says, now that you’re leaving Paris the sun comes out!

Crucially, certain passages have a way of breaking the book’s ocean-wave syncopation. First there is the ping-ponging chaos of the “But” section: “But I had some good pierogis anyway. But I just wanted to mark down that I am happy. But I mostly don’t feel like I can spend much time with Pavel anymore, for he irritates me on a very deep level. But love can endure. But love is not enough. But love without compatibility is a constant pain.” And later there is the punchy montage of “Now,” twenty-seven present moments pressed against each other: “Now he is gone and I feel fine. Now I am drinking tea. Now I am feeling like shit. . . . Now I am reading fiction. Now I am thinking about my book, and how it was all on track until Pavel said the other night, maybe if it had some emotion in it, your seven-hundred-page book might actually be worth reading.”

Two enemies emerge; naturally they are Heti’s boyfriends. One of them is named Pavel:

Pavel has given me an STD or possibly a yeast infection. Pavel has surprised me; he turned out to be a man of more substance than I thought. Pavel ignores everyone when he has a new girlfriend, and I know this because when I was his girlfriend, he ignored all of his friends. Pavel is a mess, a wreck, he cannot find his way out of this mess, and now he has even somewhat dragged me into it. Pavel is always telling me dangerous things about himself; he told me he drank twenty-four sodas the other day. Pavel is always telling me how much he loves me and asking me to never leave him and to be with him forever.

The other enemy is Lars:

Lars doesn’t answer my emails. Lars doesn’t listen to you or pay attention to you or even let you speak. . . . Lars fucked the girl at one-thirty and they met at one. Lars had his head resting on my belly, his legs around my legs, and I had one hand on his head. . . . Lars pulled my hair, grabbed me. . . . Lars said, I paid for your ice cream—that’s that. . . . Lars thought it might be best not to say what qualities he wanted in a woman. Lars touched my face in the cab.

A reader could expect a few boyfriends, as well as a girlfriend or two, given what a horny writer Heti is. “All I can think about right now is fucking. . . . All of this is just the part of me which is my sexuality, which is why I have always wanted to escape it, why I have always wanted to be celibate. . . . All weekend, ever since he tied me up, my thumb has been buzzing with numbness.” In identifying Heti as a horny writer, I mean horny in the broadest sense of the word—the characters in her fiction and the many Hetis in this diary express desire and eroticism without suppression. “How long I wanted to be rid of myself—but couldn’t be. How many people did I have sex with this year? How many people did I kiss? How much I enjoy pleasure. How much pleasure there is in just sitting around, writing, eating and reading.” Governed by this Hetisitic Horniness, romantic relationships loom large because they are stages upon which the most profound kinds of sensuality occur.

As a foil to the boyfriend-villains we find in Lars and Pavel, there are heroes, too—friends who are all so much smarter and kinder than those shitty men. Not surprisingly, these platonic characters tend to point out the inadequacies of the on-and-off lovers that so madden her. “Hanif told me that I should watch what Lars does, not what he says, and of course what he did was leave and not call for a week.” Of all the out-of-order conversations in the book, the one with Hanif comes across as the most vivid and affecting: 

Hanif agreed that you must finish what you start as a writer, because otherwise you don’t learn anything. . . . Hanif had a mother who kicked him out; that’s life, there is no other mother. Hanif has a wife and a child. Hanif has an inner strength which might be called integrity. . . . Hanif said, you must learn fear—when you meet a guy like this, sure they’re attractive, but the thing is to feel afraid and run in the opposite direction. . . . Hanif says the writer has to get over his guilt and write passionately and with conviction, no shame.

The portrait of Heti’s friendship with Hanif is a kind of miniature of the one the book creates of Heti, the diarist. Like the likeness of Hanif, the image that the book conveys of Heti is so convincing I almost want to believe I know Sheila Heti, the person, very well now, but of course I don’t. Instead, Alphabetical Diaries is a pointillist portrait of the diary itself, a text that is more like a shadow cast by this woman, not the woman herself.

I used to know someone who wrote boring novels but fantastic emails, an inconsistency that made me hope that inner emailer might one day kick the novelist out of their chair, but also made me suspicious of whatever had caused this duality in the first place. Heti exhibits no such polarity here, as her fiction is full of the same bracing honesty about desire, love, ambition, and art that we find present in this slanted form of nonfiction. Even when she contradicts herself, in back-to-back sentences, both points of view feel like authentic places within the continuum she’s created in her entire body of work. 

Art is not essential, but love is essential, and maybe that is why people make art, to express their love of something—that tree, humans, the world, language, intensity of thought—and the person who doesn’t respond to a work of art is perhaps missing the love of the thing which the artist is pointing to, lovingly. Art is too much a tool for ambition, and not even the ambition to make something beautiful—which, as I write it, seems exhausting, too—but just the personal ambition to rise above other people.

If I wanted to read Heti cynically, I might say there’s a whiff here of those info-grams at the bottom of early aughts Blogspots, visualizations of the frequency of certain words used in that blogger’s texts. But I tend to succumb to the soft imperative of Heti’s project as an artist: to be as open-hearted of a reader as she is as a writer, to go with her gratefully into this meeting of childlike wonder, existential dread, and that near-constant horniness. In fact, it may be this hunger that holds the whole book together, those basic cravings that we all experience in one way or another, those desires so many of us tally in private, thinking they make us particular when they actually make us human.

Catherine Lacey is the author of five books, most recently Biography of X (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023).