A Review of Sheila Heti’s “Pure Colour”
Of God and Fathers
Toronto author Sheila Heti may not exactly be a household name, but she is well known as a force to be reckoned with in Canadian literature circles. Her list of achievements is about as long as her arm. For instance, one of her books — How Should a Person Be? — was named by New York magazine as one of the “New Classics of the 21st Century.” New York Times book critics named her one of the “New Vanguard” and chose her book Motherhood as a Best Book of 2018. Heti’s novels have been translated into 24 languages, and she was the former Interviews Editor of The Believer magazine. It should be noted that Motherhood, as well, made the shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a major Canadian literary award. Thus, Heti is something of a national Canadian treasure who has made a lasting contribution to the arts. Thus, it is with a sad longing in my heart that I must admit that her latest novel, Pure Colour, is something of a hot mess. While it is a short read, which might be the best thing it has going for it, this book that touches on everything from God to grief to fatherhood to art criticism is an intellectual jumble that is probably best described as being “experimental for the sake of being experimental.” There is little joy to be had here as a reader.
Normally, in my book reviewing template that I’ve set up, I use the second paragraph of my reviews to talk a little bit about the plot and what a given book is about. It’s hard to do that with Pure Colour, not only because it is so short, but because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The book starts off by acknowledging that God is about to do a second draft of Earth and eliminate all that has come before. Then we’re introduced to three characters: Mira (from whose point of view the story is told), Annie (with whom Mira is in love), and then a male character who doesn’t really have much of a purpose here, alas, other than to be a student along with Mira and Annie at art criticism school. (I’ve already forgotten the name of this individual.) There is very little dialogue in the book, and what dialogue there is comes from an art criticism professor at the beginning of the read. Then, we’re transported to a chapter where Mira’s father is dying, and then enters (or, as Heti puts it, ejaculates) into Mira’s body. (Ick!) And then the reader is transported to a chapter where Mira and the spirit of her father are trapped in a tree leaf (and what kind of tree is never divulged), only to be rescued by Annie, who, it turns out, doesn’t seem to reciprocate the love Mira has for Annie. And on and on it goes.
The thing about Pure Colour is that this is supposed to be an academic and intellectual book, but everything, including the story, is so paper-thin that the book is at risk of literally collapsing on itself. This is just one long, pointless stream-of-consciousness read that, in the end, doesn’t wind up making a whole lot of sense. Pure Colour is ponderous and boring. I know that Heti, as an author, is someone who thinks outside the box — Motherhood was told, in part, with conversations the author had with I Ching divination. And since Motherhood was all about Heti — who was writing semi-autobiographically in the context of fiction — trying to decide whether she had the wherewithal to give birth to someone, it’s peculiar that Pure Colour is obsessed about the relationships daughters have with fathers. It’s also obsessed with God, and the conclusion that the book ultimately makes is that there is no God. Or is there? Heti kind of fumbles things here by introducing doubt into an atheist equation.
I will be polite and say that even horrible books have good things to say about them. I suppose I can say that Heti is creative and original in her writing here. She’s obviously trying to go beyond narrative convention and create something daring and unique. However, I just found Pure Colour to be above my pay grade when it came to understanding it. I’m not sure what the ultimate point of the narrative is or what the short novel is trying to say. It’s just one diversion after another, with no sense of linking one thought to other thoughts. As a result, Pure Colour is a puzzle box of a book that appears to have pieces missing. You can feel free to disagree with me in the comments section, but I feel it is part of the job of a book critic to tell potential readers when the emperor is wearing no clothes. Well, Heti is practically naked here. She really seems to be annoyed with the minor male character she introduces at the front of the read, and the only man to be remotely appealing in the book is Mira’s father — and, even then, there seems to be some discomfort that Mira has with this character. All in all, Pure Colour is a complete washout. There’s very little here to recommend unless untangling complicated plots in small books are your cup of proverbial tea. Sheila Heti might be a bright star in the landscape of Canadian literature; all Pure Colour exists to do, alas, is tarnish it. This is pure intellectual dross, if you ask me, and should probably be avoided at all costs by readers who take pleasure from reading. I’m sorry to say it because Heti has shown she has talent elsewhere, but Pure Colour earns a complete pass from me.
Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Knopf Canada on February 15, 2022.
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You may also be interested in the following review: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood.
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