Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Short Fiction Installment (Humour Division): Sim/phor Lab™ #1: Sheila Heti's "How Should a Person Be?"


    The burgeoning process of near-infinite textual production—including but not limited to Post-It note reminders, manually-typed telecommunication (so-called 'texting'), poetry, one-act plays performed at Fringe Festival venues, short stories, novels of varying girth and merit, and 'creative non-fiction'—fosters ambiguous imprecision in an already disturbingly uncertain world. 
   Here at TextLab Inc. our motto is "Clarity Through Exactitude." One of our important new undertakings, Sim/phor Lab™, is intended to be a useful and necessary beacon of exacting empiricism. Its mandate? The scientific scrutiny* of the literary producer's stock-in-trade—the simile and metaphor—under controlled laboratory conditions.

   (*Because of its dedication to pure research findings, the Lab receives neither corporate sponsorship nor government funding. As a result, while testing conditions strive for the industry standard methodology of stringent objectivity in a sterile environment, budgetary considerations cannot be waved away as inconsequential.)


   Test subject #1: How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (House of Anansi 2012), page 41:

   "For most of my life, one thing led to the next. Each step bore its expected fruit. Every coincidence felt preordained. It was like innocence, like floating in syrup." 

   Transcript (excerpt) of initial informal queries raised by qualified Lab personnel:

   Emily P.:  "What kind of syrup?"
   Crystal C.:  "I mean, wouldn't floating in Benylin be an entirely different experience than sinking into a vat of blackstrap molasses? C'mon, get real. The TVV [Table of Viscosity Values] ranks distilled water as 1 and quicksand as 10, so where exactly in that wide spectrum is this Ms. Heti's 'syrup'?"
   Dmitri T.:  "Floating in what sense? As in your bathtub is filled with Mrs. Butterworth's and you slip into the goo? Or more like it's late in the 20th century and you're seeking peace and quiet, and so you go to one of those New Age places with a sensory deprivation tank, but it's filled with corn syrup instead. I think the container and context make significant differences, don't you?"
  Horst M.:  "I guess at room temperature, right? Heated? Um, with or without clothing?"
  Crystal P.: "How can a step bear fruit? Yes, thank you, I realize that hasn't been tabled today, but still. I just don't get that." 

   Syrup types investigated: 

   "Delicious ripe pear halves packed in their own delicious syrup," agave nectar, brown rice, corn, maple, strawberry/butter pecan/boysenberry/traditional (sourced at the IHOP off I-5 in Marysville WA), golden, treacle, honey, simple, molasses, medicinal (Syrup of Ipecac, Nin Jiom; Nyquil; Buckley's Cough and Cold).  



   Extensive scrutiny of How Should a Person Be? revealed the narrator, Sheila, to conform to Statistics Canada's 55% "Normal" weight category for females aged 18-39. 
   Falling into that same category, Research Assistant Crystal C. volunteered to submerse herself without clothing into a bathtub of room temperature Simple Syrup (Medium, with a water:sugar ratio of 2:1).

   Results (verbatim):

    Crystal C.:  "Christ on a cross, that was totally gross. I'm still picking crystalized sugar from my scalp. And my pubes too. And even after a couple of long showers, little nooks and crannies felt sticky for days. Thank God for ear plugs.

   I did not float in the tub; maybe a leaf could float but there's no way any human will. Not even close. While heated water feels refreshing and can soak away your worries, simple syrup at 22.22 Celsius made me feel like I was being suffocated—it's heavy and thick, not a buoyant air pillow. I imagined I could die at any instant. 
   What was it like? It was like losing hope. Like being enclosed by a superior and deadly force, or like being stuck inside a damp latex balloon—a used condom?—that's rapidly deflating. 
   Did the experience relate at all to blessed innocence, or to life running smoothly and where everything's A-Ok? No, hell no." 


    A hasty judgement would conclude that the metaphor was dysfunctional and ill-advised (ie, obfuscatory writing), or that thinking it through for a longer time would have been advisable. 

   However, in light of the narrator's overall lack of direction, complete inability to write a play for which she accepted a paid commission, and subsequent binge-and-regret approach to cocaine, alcoholic beverages, and sexual promiscuity, the conclusion of Sim/phor Lab™ points to the dissolute character's flaws. The simile's very vagueness and inaccuracy, in other words, reinforces the text's construction of the narrator as flawed, fallible, and, to be colloquial, a hot mess. 



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