It could have been Love

It could have been Love

"Flipping three coins is a technique used by people who consult the I Ching, a divination system that originated in China over three thousand years ago. Kings used it in times of war, and regular people used it to help them with life problems. By flipping three coins six times, one of sixty-four states is revealed and a text elaborates their meaning. Confucius, one of the most important interpreters of the I Ching, said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would devote them to the book’s study. The original text of the I Ching is poetic, dense, highly symbolic, cosmological in its sweep, and notoriously arcane."

(From Motherhood)

 

In the pages of MOTHERHOOD, Sheila Heti uses three coins to ask questions that could be rhetorical, but she makes sure they’re not. The coins answer, she rebuts, and what results is a poetic, dense, highly symbolic, and cosmological text, a technique inspired by the I Ching, but not the actual I Ching, which is something different.

FURTHER NOTE:

In this review, all results from the flipping of coins result from the flipping of actual coins.

 

IT COULD HAVE BEEN LOVE


~

Flipping three coins on a kitchen table. Two or three heads - yes. Two or three tails- no.

Is this review a good idea?

no

Does it mock the formal experimentation of the book it’s reviewing?

no

Will the author read it and be displeased?

no

Will the author feel I am treating her work with the respect it deserves?

yes

If I am treating the book with respect, and the author won’t be displeased, is it a bad idea because I’m not the one who should be writing it?

no

Is it a bad idea because I don’t have enough ideas?

no

Is it a bad idea because I don’t believe in souls, and thus am unprepared to question a book that is so focused on the soul? Whose mantra was almost, “the soul of time?”

yes

 

~

 

My reading of MOTHERHOOD was prefaced by the idea of motherhood in what felt like an unfair way. It was handed to me by someone who told me they couldn’t read it, they had already made their decision about whether or not to have a child. It felt like only mothers were reading or deciding not to read MOTHERHOOD. It felt as though one had to have an opinion about childbearing and rearing to have an opinion about Heti’s novel. This made it seem like motherhood was all it was about. When I began to read it, I realized that was incorrect, the reality of motherhood itself was almost absent from its pages. What abounded was the idea of the soul, of responsibility to the soul, and the nourishment of the soul. Time and its soul reverberated throughout in Heti’s narrator’s mode of questioning, musing, and recalling. The protagonist seemed to wonder if dedicating herself to her own soul, which contained books and writing, was selfish. If she had to make a decision between her soul and her hypothetical child’s, she knew she had already had made it, and that people wouldn’t look at her answer with approval.


~

 

Is the device of coin-flipping a genuine one if I can “push myself to find another answer?”

no

Is it seeking a way out of prescription?

yes

Does one need to feel a certain kind of disrespect for authorial authority to establish a novelistic framework only to openly subvert it?

yes

Is that because books are boring?

yes

Would it be easier to write a novel if one didn’t feel confined by what’s come before?

no

Would it be easier if one didn’t feel restless?

no

Would it be easier if one trusted oneself?

yes

Is trusting oneself harder as a woman?

yes

Is it true that “being a woman is the stupidest, most unfortunate thing to be?”

yes

I think I half agree, but if we have to be women, and it’s stupid and unfortunate, can we ever change?

no
 

~
 

What is it about regret that makes such compelling literary fodder? I only feel regret for things I did, never something I didn’t do, or almost did. Yet, I found myself relating to MOTHERHOOD’s protagonist’s wonderings more than I thought I would because I’ve already made my choice: I’m a mother of a son. When I began reading, I wasn’t expecting to feel a mirrored ambivalence in another decision I’ve made, but could easily unmake: I will not have another. Witnessing the protagonist wrestle with hypothetical regret made the decision at its heart abstract. Her attitude towards children was almost clinical, and what meaning can be ascribed to regret over choosing not to have a child you would never meet after such a cold debate? The narrator protects herself from this line of thought by focusing on the day-to-day. Obscuring the emotional with the practical means we can doubt that she understands the debate at all. She will never know the actual, torturous day-to-day of having borne a child and watch it grow outside of yourself and become a person. But I do know the stakes; I have a child.

The vacillations between motherhood and not-motherhood struck me as applicable to any big decision. Especially any decision being considered by a serious person. The idea, though, that motherhood defined a woman’s life did not strike me as apt. It doesn’t define mine, I’d argue. Despite my recognition of my own uncertainty about another feeling as portentous as the decision to have any, I resisted (maybe hypocritically) the idea that motherhood had such an outsized power. Not all decisions have this kind of weight, the ability to feel so fucking definitive. Certainly not for everyone. Why was I resisting motherhood’s weight? Heti had created an infinity-sum game: her protagonist is playing with the idea of creating life, but she would also turn her focus to how that maybe-lived life would shape her. The protagonist of MOTHERHOOD was only having a one-sided conversation. I wanted to tell her, “you don’t even know what you don’t know.” And I suspected she never would. And I suspected motherhood wouldn’t define her life either, no matter what she decided.

 

~
 

Is the protagonist of MOTHERHOOD’s propulsive fear not regret (whether she does or does not have a child), but the idea of not knowing herself?

yes

Is this a more interesting frame of reference for reading MOTHERHOOD?

no

Is that because the self is unknowable?

yes

Is a more interesting framework for MOTHERHOOD the idea of the mutability of love?

yes

If Sheila Heti hadn’t called her novel MOTHERHOOD, would readers be able to have a more unfettered experience with it?

yes

Would LOVE have been a title that would let people read MOTHERHOOD like a mirror, seeing what they wanted to see, taking from it what they wanted to take?

no

Should an author try to control the reader’s experience at all times?

yes

So there is a better title than LOVE for this novel to make this novel feel more universal?

yes

Am I too limited a reader to ever think of it?

yes

 

~

 

Ever since I had a kid, my perspective has felt refracted through limitation. There is a limit to what I can do, not even generally, but to be a good mother. I can’t be a good mother and do everything. My son will grow up and will need to be independent. There are many moments of clarifying thought in MOTHERHOOD, but one that comes midway through felt especially open-ended, applicable to anyone, there for the taking.

If you want to know what your life is, destroy everything and move away and see what builds up again. If what builds up a second time is much the same as the first, then your life is pretty much as it could be. Things couldn't be much different from that.

Of course, I read this, and I thought, to my son, I’d build you again.

 

~


 

Could this book be called FORGIVENESS?

no

But forgiveness is the climax of MOTHERHOOD, and it’s got a fine duality to it- she forgives both outwardly and inwardly. There’s an inspiring generosity in the moments of forgiveness that feel more flexible than the rigidness of the internal motherhood debate. Does the protagonist see the beauty in forgiveness?

yes

Does her epiphany of forgiveness make her less lonely?

yes

Does the dissipation of her loneliness open up the end of the book to the beauty of possibility?

yes

Is this because of the way the narrator is a daughter?

yes

So when the protagonist says, “What good can all the books of the world be, penned by the loneliest men who ever lived?” is she being hopeful?

no

Resigned?

yes

Is it a big responsibility? Knowing loneliness can’t create beauty?

yes

 

~
 

In MOTHERHOOD, there’s an idea of a perfect universe, or a balanced one. Or one that flows from a sense of control being exerted on life, whether by the self or by chance. There are characters who say as much to the book’s protagonist, telling her their children are the way peace has been bestowed upon them. The protagonist, though, is always pushing against the idea that life can be given. She knows it’s created, because she’s a writer and a woman and because her wrestle with the practicality of what motherhood would mean in her life won’t allow her to think any other way, at least not within the confines of this book. And because of her relationship with her own mother.

That pushing against self-surrected boundaries is the purpose of MOTHERHOOD. The protagonist narrates her questioning of the coins, but she abides by them. The idea of motherhood has a huge, looming boundary, one she just can’t respect. With the coins, she creates a limitation she knows she can respect. She knows she can bend the form to her will, that “yes” and “no” can be a means to an end. And she can understand being a child in the same way- as a mutability she can control by what she puts into her relationship with her mother. There is a nuance present when the protagonist accepts her limitations, doesn’t try to think herself outside of them. Heti and her character aren’t limited by their writerly imaginations in the deeply affecting, and simply rendered, moments in which a mother and daughter seem to look into each other’s eyes. I don’t want to say that when her protagonist’s world gets smaller Heti is clearer. But a respite from hypothetical motherhood removes the constricting anxiety that runs through the book. The protagonist embraces a different, lifelong, uncontrollable, relationship in exchange for abandoning another. But she already knows what being a daughter can do to one’s life.

Even as a writer, and for all of her worrying, our protagonist can’t really imagine motherhood. She says, “My lack of the experience of motherhood is not an experience of motherhood. Or is it? Can I call it a motherhood too?”

 

~

 

Would a mother write a character who would say that?

 

 

 


 Monika Woods is a literary agent, writer, and co-founder of Triangle House. She lives in Brooklyn with her family and can be found  @booksijustread .  Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff

Monika Woods is a literary agent, writer, and co-founder of Triangle House. She lives in Brooklyn with her family and can be found @booksijustread.

Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff

 

 

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