Reviewed: Sheila Heti, Pure Colour, Vintage
In Sheila Heti’s latest novel, Pure Colour, we are told that there are three types of people: birds, fish and bears. Birds are ‘a little bit hollow’—they idealise beauty and are the artists of the world, whereas fish are more concerned with the collective good and are kind of aloof. Meanwhile, the bears are fiercely generous, loving just a few people on earth, but with their whole hearts. These ‘types’ operate like personality profiles or horoscopes—a set of characteristics that shape each person and how they move through the world. As narrator Mira (a ‘birdlike woman’) explains early on:
People born from these three different eggs will never completely understand each other. They will always think that those born from a different egg have their priorities all wrong. But fish, birds and bears are all equally important in the eye of God, and it wouldn’t be a better world if there were only fish in it, and it wouldn’t be a better world if there were only bears.
Unlike many contemporary novels, the tension in this story does not come from the open question of whether the protagonist will self-actualise (or self-destruct). Instead, it comes from Mira’s attempts to decode and connect with opposing ‘types’ of people, primarily her father (a bear) and her love interest Annie (a fish). Their failure to understand one another is what drives the story. It is a book about being, and the ways people try and fail to overcome who they are.
What unfolds, then, feels philosophical, a reading experience that has echoes of Nietzsche or Simone Weil. Heti’s previous novels have had philosophical resonances, but this treatment of the ‘self’ through invented mythology is what makes Pure Colour feel different—here, the ‘self’ is far more solid and glimmering.
The effect is both beautiful and confounding. This seems to frustrate many critics, some of whom called it ‘an almost incoherent novel’ (Vulture) and ‘awfully earnest at times’ (New York Times). More than one fixated on her use of the word ‘ejaculated’ (the Guardian, the Washington Post, and a second reviewer from the Guardian). (After Mira’s father dies, she feels ‘his spirit ejaculate into her, like it was the entire universe coming into her body, then spreading all the way through her, the way cum feels spreading inside, that warm and tangy feeling’.) Another review deemed it the ‘worst book I have read in some time’ and ‘subversive for the sake of it’ (Art Review).
These critics may have a point. It is a weird book, and if you are a Heti fan because of Motherhood or How Should a Person Be?, you may be disappointed. There were points in Pure Colour where I was confused too: God is compared to bacteria in a somewhat ironic sense (‘The gods sometimes take the form of a bacteria or virus, and often that’s what an illness is—just a swarm of invading gods’), and Mira’s voice can lapse into something so childlike as to feel grating.
I’m not sure I care so much about the kind of criticism that seeks to call a book ‘good’ or ‘bad’. What I’m more interested in is what it means to write a book like Pure Colour after a decade of being known as one of the most famous autofiction writers. As I read, one question kept coming to me: what does this book tell us about the end of autofiction, and what comes after?
When I first read autofiction a decade ago, it felt exhilarating—I was studying creative writing at UTS, reading Baudrillard and feeling smug. Here were prickly intellectual books that referenced Kant and Kierkegaard in the same breath as describing giving a blowjob. It was the kind of writing, to quote David Shields, ‘that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foregrounds the question of how the writer solves being alive’.
Fiction like this uses the self as a window. We see through the narrator and right into what we believe is the brain and heart of the author. The real trick is letting us know it is a performance. These writers are always tapping gently on the glass.
Heti’s last two novels, How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood, feature narrators similar to Heti herself, who analyse their lives and decisions in the pursuit of self-actualisation. Featuring protagonists who pulsed from emotion to emotion, from thought to thought in a way that felt unconstructed (even though they were anything but), they broke through and seemed to react against what I had come to see as the oppressive fussiness of many literary novels, with their contrived plots and clearly made-up characters. By seeing Heti lay her self out in words, I could feel what it meant to be an artist.
I’m not going to get into the definition of autofiction—you can find those elsewhere, with the same names listed in a solemn procession (Lerner, Cusk, Cole, Lahiri, Lin and, kind of unexpectedly, now Tsiolkas). For my purposes, it is enough to say that the ‘self’ as depicted in autofiction is distinctive from autobiographical fiction: namely, through explicit self-referentiality. This was thrilling in 2010, but I no longer find myself reaching for these books. Something in me has turned away.
Some theories: in the decade since, the idea of performing your ‘self’ has become ubiquitous. We take a selfie and admit we were posing. We write a post and admit we are seeking attention. We wear clothes that gesture towards art to communicate we understand the processes of commodification by enacting said commodification.
How are we meant to transcend this self-reflexive performance of authenticity? This seems to be tied up with the problem of moving past autofiction: of getting out from under our own self-performance to whatever is underneath.
My doubts were clarified last year when I read Brandon Taylor’s essay in his Substack sweater weather, where he calls autofiction ‘brutalism of the mind’. According to Taylor, this aesthetic is one of ‘disaffected, alienated coolness’ that maps the absurdity of contemporary life: ‘Such novels may be essayistic or more narrative in nature, fragmentary or cohesive. They tend to focus on the mundane nature of life or the grinding reality of the domestic or academic or corporate space.’
Brutalism makes structural elements visible (think concrete slabs, steel beams and ‘raw’ surfaces). And much like the architecture, these books expose their raw materials and the conditions under which they were constructed—the narrators often writing the book you are reading right now. How Should a Person Be? included—we are told—transcripts of real conversations Heti recorded with her friends. We watch as she transforms into the person who wrote the book, the conditions under which her art was produced.
When I was at university, I spent a lot of time in the UTS tower—that huge brutalist building that domineers over Sydney’s CBD and Broadway. I had an architect friend who I sometimes ate lunch with. Sitting in the concrete courtyard, she’d explain why the building was beautiful—how it refused to hide, didn’t conceal ceiling vaults and eschewed the ‘cowardice’ of dressing spaces up so they appeared to be other than they are. ‘It’s one of the best buildings in the world,’ she’d say. ‘I’m being serious.’
So where is left for a self like this to go? According to Pure Colour, a leaf. When her father dies, Mira enters a deep grief. It results in one of the strangest passages in the book: she enters a leaf, and we enter the leaf with her.
She must have transformed as the sunlight shone down onto the earth like a golden ball, or the tides must have washed her back onto the shore, under a branch, which is where some part of her rose up, up, up into a leaf in a tree.
Within the leaf, she meets her father—or rather, his consciousness. What follows is a disembodied dialogue between two consciousnesses:
When you have parts, they make you want to use them. What is the part that makes us want to love someone who doesn’t love us back? Don’t focus on that. What should I focus on, then? That the probability of any person being around is one in a trillion…
Taken out of context, this dialogue appears juvenile, but read as part of the longer passages in the book, there is a real sense of Mira’s consciousness. Thoughts swell and swirl and build, and her father’s voice becomes a guide through these circular patterns. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful description of grief.
This is a profound experience for Mira, fundamentally changing how she relates to the world around her. This reminds me of Heti’s essay ‘A Common Seagull’ (2020), in part about her father’s passing and grief: ‘The Platonic form, built up across days and months and years, is rooted in a reality that transcends our fluctuations through time…it lasts and lasts and can be a model that one relies on’.
Pure Colour takes you out of the ‘grinding reality’ of those spaces we are forced to inhabit and into what I’d call an anti-brutalist novel that attempts to capture the Platonic ideal of its characters—the light of a true self outside the bounds of ‘autofiction’.
Later in the novel, Mira leaves the leaf and reconnects with Annie. She has undergone a profound change while with her father, which has given her a new understanding of existence. In an attempt to externalise this transformation, she makes herself a costume: in the shape of a leaf, made of ‘some green fabric and some green thread and a silver needle’. She paints herself in green paint, and goes to Annie’s house hoping she’ll see (and accept) this representation of Mira’s soul. When Annie sees her, all she says is, ‘Please don’t touch any of the furniture.’
This isn’t just funny—it says something about the deep humiliation of being known. To really expose who you are, as Mira attempts with Annie, is inherently embarrassing. The attempt to dress herself up in a costume parallels writing: a performance of self that ends up being difficult to watch.
Although Pure Colour is not a definitive answer to my question, it seems to be moving towards a response. The self in this novel is not performatively exposed—the mythology of birds, fish and bears allows Heti to show us what it means to try and know one another: that as much as we try to transcend the limits of our selfhood, it will always be difficult to truly to hold one another, even in grief. It’s a loosening up of ‘disaffected alienated coolness’, pointing towards a fiction more willing to let the self be seen, which is the most humiliating thing in the world. •
Emily Meller is a writer based in Sydney. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Going Down Swinging, the Oxonian Review, and the Lifted Brow.