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"A review of Sheila Heti's Alphabetical Diaries, which combines linguistic experimentation and philosophical questioning in a unique and unconventional way."

“A review of Sheila Heti’s Alphabetical Diaries, which combines linguistic experimentation and philosophical questioning in a unique and unconventional way.”

Canadian writer Sheila Heti’s 2010 breakout novel sought to interrogate its titular puzzler, How Should a Person Be? It’s become a continuing quest, but over the course of a career that now finds her publishing her 12th book, she’s also asked readers to consider again and again another question: how should prose be? Pairing philosophical inquiry with formal experimentation, she’s drawn inspiration from sources as scattered as reality TV, the I Ching and chatbot utterances, expanding our thinking about structure, character and the boundaries between fiction and memoir.

This recent project advances both areas of study and is her most extreme one yet. The process began when she made the decision to transfer 10 years’ worth of journal entries – a total of 500,000 words – into an Excel spreadsheet, organizing them alphabetically. The next step was editing, a task she has been working on for over 10 years, periodically narrowing down the sentences to only the ones she preferred.

The book “Alphabetical Diaries” guides the reader through 25 chapters, starting from A, which stands for “A book”, and ending with Z, which represents “Zadie Smith’s husband”. The chapters vary in length, with some spanning multiple pages and others only containing one entry. For example, the chapter for Q consists of a single line: “Quiet days, not seeing people, feeling fine.” Interestingly, there are no paragraph breaks throughout the entire book.

Without context and order, an index operates in a systematic state of chaos. “What actions will I take when he contacts me? When I follow ethical principles, I don’t feel like I’m being truthful. As I gazed at the wall, I noticed a second moth that resembled the first, with delicate white wings covered in dust” – this is an example of a common string of sentences.

Despite this, the excitement of delving into someone’s personal writings remains as Heti openly discusses her doubts, desires, regrets, ambitions, and jealousies. She constantly questions herself in various roles – observer, lover, writer. She travels frequently, always yearning for New York but also spending time in London, Paris, and Berlin. She enjoys company but also values alone time. She is gossipy, lustful, and vain. Throughout it all, she balances her creativity and her desire for men, sometimes to her own disappointment, while also managing mundane tasks like cleaning, shopping, and financial worries.

This passage is best enjoyed in extended reading sessions to fully appreciate its echoes and coincidences. However, it’s also thrilling to be reminded of the immense narrative power that can be contained within a single sentence. Take, for example, the potential for storytelling in this statement: “I placed the teeth in my pocket.”

While Heti’s structure may be intriguing in theory, in practice it can be off-putting and frustrating. However, the text gains energy from the contrast between its unfiltered raw material and its artful simplification. The chapter endings are particularly crafted with intention and the author pays close attention to rhythm. Through her editing, unexpected sequences and juxtapositions arise that can be humorous, poetic, or even aphoristic. For example, the statement “Marriage can make misery more bearable” is immediately followed by the somberly witty: “Marriage is one step closer to divorce than being in a relationship.”

In all of Heti’s writing, her deep level of intellectual thought is balanced by a sense of playfulness, and this alphabetical collection is no different. As she goes through the alphabet, she seems to anticipate and address every possible reaction to the book. Towards the end, she comments, “This writing is all nonsense,” but then shortly after asks, “What kind of beauty could come from this randomness?”

The answer lies in embracing the beauty of life’s randomness, which disrupts the urge to impose order and a sense of self through writing. Through this, the true strength of our innate characteristics and the power of storytelling are revealed.

Source: theguardian.com