thu 25/07/2024

Sheila Heti: Alphabetical Diaries review - an A-Z of inner life | reviews, news & interviews

Sheila Heti: Alphabetical Diaries review - an A-Z of inner life

Sheila Heti: Alphabetical Diaries review - an A-Z of inner life

Heti goes far beyond a gimmick in this work of surprising and moving insight

Author Sheila Heti finds order in the chaos(c) Angela Lewis

After a first read of the blurb for Sheila Heti’s Alphabetical Diaries, you might be forgiven for assuming that this is merely a gimmick.

The book does what it says on the tin: each "chapter" begins with the next letter of the alphabet, with the content then roughly alphabetised within this, all of the sentences based on “half a million words from a decade’s worth of journals”. However, this book, written in her familiar, autobiographical style, flourishes against its constraints.

Perhaps best known for writing about the decision of whether or not to become a parent (2018’s Motherhood), Heti has a frankness that stems from her apparent willingness to fearlessly confront all aspects of her life – what she thinks about her career, her friends, her partners and their erotic lives, and the world around her writ large. In Alphabetical Diaries, the reader sees a patchworked person, coming together as a contradictory but satisfyingly complete whole.

Each of the sentences could be their own story, slowing building up a composite, like trying to discern an entire object from a fragment under a microscope: “Every time I look up, the sky changes colour; now everything is dark and in shadows.” In doing so, Heti forms a beautiful exquisite corpse, each recontextualisation making the reader search for consistency and a pattern. The book shares a kinship with Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, published in 2019, which documents an Ohioan woman’s internal monologue in such a fluid way that the reader questions the means by which an individual is both perceived and composed. Here, Heti tracks with similar fluidity from the banal, to the philosophical, to the romantic and sexual, at points crescendoing with a kind of repetitious anxiety: “Wanting to be protected. Wanting to control something that cannot be controlled. Wanting to cry. Was he sexist? Was I sixteen?”

Alphabetical DiariesThe structure of the text is also an invitation to return to that often-discussed trope: the unreliable narrator. How can we trust that this most honest of texts is as honest as it says it is? Heti’s sentences seem to line up too conveniently at points, and even when there is an offbeat, it often feels intentional. For instance, when describing a past lover, we find that a sudden, violent clause will pierce the syntax, wherein the grammar itself describes the frequent contradiction between what people say and how they feel. But this is Heti’s sharpest skill: revealing the self-doubt that riddles us all, raising questions about how we behave in the world, and how we hold together multiple realities at once, separated barely by slivers of time and circumstance.

Though narrative lines are formed at points, such as in "C" – in which she talks about the development of her friend, Claire, whom she admires, then returns to herself, and the changes that are happening in her own life – on the whole, the text is non-linear (as an art student would say, more rhizomatic). This lends Alphabetical Diaries a lyrical atmosphere, with the chapters at times sounding like extensions of the informal poetic moment cultivated by the likes of Frank O’Hara, as in "Having a Coke with You": "partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt"; and from Heti:

Toronto means nothing to me anymore. Toronto, Toronto, Toronto, fine. Turned off phone. Turned thirty. Two minutes into the conversation, Lemons laughed and brightly said, I thought you were calling me to tell you you were engaged! Two soups sitting in the fridge, neither of which I could eat".

There is a kind of free-wheeling quality to both writers – one that feels both random and entirely personal.

Alphabetical Diaries is a pleasure to read, a book which feels like it can be savoured, dwelt upon, each sentence picked apart and examined singly or as part of a whole. By providing herself with this constraining conceit, Heti has allowed for the exposition and exploration of larger ideas. It feels fresh but also heavy with the weight of another’s life, opening itself up to questions of authenticity and self-authorship. In all these ways, Heti is able to elevate what at first appears to be merely a gimmick to something far deeper: we come, instead, as close as it is possible to truly knowing another’s inner life.

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