With Sheila Heti’s new novel Pure Colour, Heti paints a setting of living in the “first draft” of the world. We enter the novel in the “moment of God standing back,” between this first draft and whatever will come next in the second. My first instinct was to call it a mess—but this actually makes sense, because Heti is attempting to portray to readers a first draft of creation, which is also a mess. The author is capturing the feel of a world that is also filled with idiocy and miracles, at once. While there is a skeleton of a storyline— most of the plot in Pure Colour is filtered through the main character, Mira—the surrealist and philosophical conversations in this novel feel like both a departure for, and distinctly marked as, Heti’s work and captures something true about the times in which we are living.
Heti has an understated way of describing philosophical principles, conveying them in simple language. A good deal of this book seems like it is not only dealing with the collective unconscious, but giving us experiential states of it, making the reader feel it. Heti seems with Pure Colour to be elucidating the point that there are many manifestations of consciousness and that we should not take them for granted.
Pure Colour follows the journey of the main character Mira, a woman who is going to school for art criticism (the American Academy of American Critics). Mira meets a woman in art criticism school named Annie, to whom she is inexplicably drawn. Mira is also very close with her father who shortly thereafter dies. When her father dies, Mira feels his spirit merge with hers. The tension begins here with Mira’s struggle to decide who she wants to remain close to, her father or Annie.
One day Mira is walking under a tree, and she looks up at a leaf, and in that moment her consciousness goes into the leaf. Many philosophical conversations happen between Mira and her father in leaf, discussions of entanglement and the quantum realm. Annie later walks by underneath the leaf Mira now inhabits, and Mira becomes jealous, seeing Annie talking with another woman.
A lofty concept Heti tackles in Pure Colour is that of consciousness and its expression. Of the three types of people described in the book—birds, fish, and bears—Mira is a bird. Salt, sulfur, and mercury: the bears are the salt of the earth, the fish are the sulfuric who can swim in our created existence, and the birds are the mercurial, the ones who not only revere art, but need it to survive. It is mentioned early in the novel that each of these three groups will always fail to understand each other. Because Mira was loved deeply by her father, a bear, her life philosophy is that family traditions and faith are the natural order, are most important.
Grief seems to derange Mira. After Mira’s father dies, she starts appreciating the living, breathing world around her, and feels it in everything—the wind, the leaves, the clouds. She is walking in the neighborhood during the Christmas season, and she begins to appreciate all the colored Christmas lights, almost regarding them as these sparkling, coloured, unique souls remaining close during the holiday season. It seems like she’s having an out-of-body or psychedelic experience. It’s as if she’s seeing with new eyes, with this cracking wide-open of her heart.
I was particularly intrigued with where colour both appears in this novel and is markedly absent. Up to this point in Pure Colour, it seems as if colour is being used to denote human experiences in this first draft of creation. For instance, there’s a scene after Mira reincarnates back to being human so she can rekindle a closeness with Annie. They are in a chocolate shop and Annie desires these gray prism-like chocolates decidedly devoid of color. Before Mira’s father dies, he tells her he’s going to gift her pure colour, color itself. It is mentioned that the three different people types will never see the world the same, and this is perhaps shown through their different perceptions of colour. Mira’s father is a bear and sees this radiant colour, while Annie, described as a fish, seems to experience colour differently in the book. With these odd, “dove-gray” chocolates, their absence of colour seems to represent Annie as a fish, that creature comforts are lost on her, in a way.
Because the novel is set in the first draft of creation, there are “glitches in the matrix.” Early in the novel, aesthetics prove problematic: a person with bad intentions can have a good, appealing face, and a good, genuine, decent human being can be bestowed with a bad, or unappealing, face. In the first draft, people have a “killing and winning” part, and then a part at odds with this, the loving part, which is in everything. It seems we should equate the killing and winning part with ego and the loving part with the collective unconscious. This causes a dissonance between what is inside and what is shown on the outside and is presented as almost deceitful. The implication that this problem won’t be an issue in the second draft of creation is like the rending of a veil.
In this first draft, God put us here to critique, and we need art to understand this emanation as well as cope. In this draft, people are at odds with their “winning and killing” part, and their genius is love in its purest expression. Near the end of the novel, Mira encounters one more animated inanimate object—this time, a battered old seashell that speaks to her and reminds her of “what a human life” is, and which was “made to endure.” This book was a little hard to pin down—because the shape of it felt like a container for spirit, for soul, for whatever you want to call it—and I kept returning to the concept in kabbalah of the qliphoth which means shells. In Lurianic kabbalah, this chthonic rendering of the Tree of Life acknowledges that everything done in the light also has a counterpart in the dark, that these points are emanations—shells holding our life force.
Ultimately, Pure Colour is a surrealist and sweet exploration of grief that attempts to answer the question, “What is the right distance from which to love?” And this is an understandable question when grieving a loss—grief is just love enduring, as the trite statement goes, but man, can it swallow one up. Too close, the suffocating but simultaneously comforting bear hug; too far, flinging about the rings of Saturn. It is these rhythms and waves of the relationships that define our lives Heti explores through this idea of people as birds, fish, and bears.
There is a rightly-held belief in grief work that we do not get to criticize how a person grieves. Sheila Heti, before writing Pure Colour, lost her father, and the writing surrounding Mira’s loss—including the surreal conversations in the leaf—all had a touching resonance of truth to it.
This book feels like a container holding the ideas that we should value the hard-won nature of consciousness itself and our unique habitation on Earth. It is about attachments and what draws these characters together in the first draft of creation. Rather than the leaf which trapped her spirit for a time, it is a shell which finally speaks to Mira and tells her the human spirit, through its incarnations while loving and suffering through each “draft” of creation, is meant to endure.
by Sheila Heti
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 224 p.