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Book Review: ‘Pure Colour,’ by Sheila Heti

PURE COLOUR
By Sheila Heti
216 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

Sheila Heti’s new novel, “Pure Colour,” is about a young woman who turns into a leaf. “Unrequited love’s a bore,” Billie Holiday sang. So, it turns out, is photosynthesis.

The young woman’s name is Mira. Her transformation is disorienting, to us if not her. One moment the reader is consuming shot after shot of Heti’s strong, familiar brand of espresso. The next we’re sipping as if out of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup at MoMA.

“Pure Colour” has an intricate philosophical superstructure. Mira, who early in the novel works in a lamp store and attends a prestigious school for art critics — the first sign that this book is a fable — is clearly living in end times.

The heat is grievous. (“Seasons had become postmodern.”) The internet has splintered comity. (“There was so much more hate than any of us had the capacity to understand.”) Everything seems dirty, sad and wrong. The colors are leaching from things.

Two relationships sustain Mira. One is with Annie, who lives above a bookstore. They’ve just met, but Mira is so attracted to her that she feels “her rib cage was being pried apart.” Heti has long been a devastating writer about sexual magnetism, her prose as sensitive as the tip of a conductor’s baton.

The other relationship is with her father. When he dies, she’s bereft. His spirit passes into her. She joins him in the leaf where they are, to borrow Milton’s phrase, imparadised in one another’s arms. This relationship is vaguely, the author implies, sexual as well.

This all takes place in the first draft of civilization. In preparation for the second draft, “hoping to get it more right this time,” Heti writes, “God appears, splits and manifests as three critics in the sky.”

The three critics in the sky are not, sadly, Peter Schjeldahl, Deborah Solomon and Jerry Saltz. Instead, there is “a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle and a large bear who critiques while cradling creation in its arms.”

Where is Heti going with this? It’s complicated. “Pure Colour” runs its readers along a borderline of substance and hallucination. You sense her doing several things at once.

One, she is making room to talk about ideas that interest her — the mystery of consciousness, ego versus the true self, inklings of the divine, the nature of criticism, the kibbitzing mind versus what Emerson called “the wise silence.”

Two, she is niftily confounding expectations. Heti’s recent novels, “Motherhood” and “How Should a Person Be?,” have been placed in a box labeled, drearily, autofiction. “Pure Colour” breaks that box. This is a writer who — for the moment, at any rate — wishes to be less rather than more understood.

Does the novel work? Not entirely, not for this reader. “Pure Colour” is awfully earnest at times. It’s static as well; very little, beyond the big, Gregor Samsa-like reveal, happens.

Heti’s detractors could probably put a bottle in the middle of a table and entertain themselves reading lines out of context in suave, poetaster voices. Here come the warm jets: “Mira wonders if leaves exist in the human heart”; “What is the actual distance of love?”; “In a leaf, there is no question of betrayal.”

And yet, she has a way of turning metaphysics to her advantage. There are moments in this novel that might remind you of the scene in “The Real Thing,” the Tom Stoppard play, when a character shakes a souvenir snow globe and a snowstorm fills the entire stage. Just like that, there’s magic.

Like Iris Murdoch’s novels, Heti’s are philosophically intense, although Heti’s work is pared down where Murdoch’s was Rabelaisian. Heti owns a sharp ax. In “Pure Colour” the wood chips that fall are as interesting as the sculpture that gets made.

Heti is interested in charisma and beauty, the utter unfairness of them. “A person can waste their whole life, without even meaning to, all because another person has a really great face,” she writes. “Did God think of this when he was making the world?”

She can compact political and class antagonisms into small fists of meaning. Thus this sentence, which starts sweetly before delivering its sting: “At least God had given the sunrise — to those of us who lived on a cliff.”

As in the recent work of Patricia Lockwood, Lauren Oyler and Jia Tolentino, among others, there are many felicities of perception about lives spent online.

“Pure Colour” is not helplessly, organically, healingly funny, as were some of Heti’s earlier novels. But there are moments. There is a fed-up sense that the world has simply become, for lack of a better word, gross.

Global warming feels like “a bad older brother sitting on your face.” The dust in the air? “We walk through our days in the dust of the dead. Two minutes out of the shower and already we are filthy. It is too disgusting to discuss.”

The novelist Peter De Vries, asked about his literary ambition, once replied that he wanted a mass readership, one large enough for his elite audience to despise.

In recent years, Heti has been approaching that kind of vast audience. There’s no blaming her for wishing, with a novel like “Pure Colour,” to be more elusive.

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