Review of Sheila Heti’s “Alphabetical Diaries” – Simple as ABC
“Isn’t it dull?” my partner inquired. I had just discussed the concept of Alphabetical Diaries, a book that delivers exactly what its title suggests. Author Sheila Heti kept a journal for over a decade and then selected sentences from its pages, arranging them in alphabetical order. The book follows the alphabet from A to Z, with each chapter starting with a sentence beginning with the corresponding letter. Its structure is sleek and strangely captivating. I read it during the holiday season when there was a constant stream of people in and out of the house, and everyone was curious to learn more about it. However, their interest quickly turned to skepticism – a historically appropriate reaction to avant-garde works.
Can the question be answered? Definitely. The book is dull. Occasionally. However, it is also exciting, extremely humorous, frequently vulgar, and a remarkably effective defense against loneliness, at least for me. The sentences themselves play a role in achieving all of this, but it’s the unexpected combination of them that truly makes them stand out (albeit in a peculiar way). Let’s take a look at some examples: “Why do I seek out symbols? Why do women lose their minds? Why is one bra clasp in the front and the other in the back?”
This passage presents a chaotic traffic jam of sentences, but it also mimics the cyclical nature of consciousness. Heti’s writing structure effectively captures the mind’s tendency to wander and revisit the same issues repeatedly, such as struggling with writing projects, feeling envious of successful peers, and being drawn to challenging and dominant individuals. While this may not seem particularly groundbreaking, the depiction of consciousness is a common theme in literature and Heti’s use of alphabetical constraints is reminiscent of other experimental writers like Georges Perec, known for his novel “La Disparition” which omits the letter “e”.
However, Alphabetical Diaries ultimately delves into surprising territory. Heti relinquishes her role as author to the alphabet, which takes charge of organizing the material and transcends time itself. This disrupts the idea of a tidy, singular identity often portrayed in memoir writing. Even in diary writing, we use our voice and plot to construct a narrative that reinforces this myth. But when all the sentences are rearranged by the unyielding hand of alphabetization, our inconsistent selves are revealed: “The world doesn’t require anything from me. The world doesn’t notice me, no one is judging me. The world has a place for all of us. The world is magnificent, not average, and I am a part of it. The world continues on without my art.” This shows not only shifts in perspective, but also fluctuations in our ego and sense of self. Despite the recurring themes, readers are left with a sense that the subject is constantly shifting, blurring, and evolving in unexpected ways.
I have read about the phenomenon known as “village drift,” which refers to the gradual movement of a settlement over a period of time. In this context, the individual in question is constantly shifting and adapting, almost imperceptibly, as if they were a single entity being controlled by an outside force. The chapter titled “I” dominates a significant portion of the narrative and the narrator’s sense of self is constantly in flux: “I feel immense relief that the book is complete. I am filled with joy today. I am exhausted by my own incessant thoughts, repetitive patterns, fears, and worries. I am so fatigued that death seems like a welcome escape.”
I personally enjoyed the change in topic and found it to be mostly great company. This could be because a large part of the book focuses on the challenge of writing itself; at times, I felt like a clever and straightforward friend was encouraging me in my own writing. “Don’t check your email or do any other tasks in the morning besides writing. Don’t make commitments. Don’t vent or complain. Don’t forget to write, even if you’re feeling stuck.” This is sound advice for writing. And although this friend may sometimes test our patience with their self-centeredness, that’s just how writers are.