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In Sheila Heti’s ‘Pure Colour,’ the plot is just an excuse for philosophical musings

Sheila Heti’s 10th book, “Pure Colour,” opens with God taking a breather after botching Creation. “Now the earth is heating up in advance of its destruction by God, who has decided that the first draft of existence contained too many flaws.”

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To manage this telling, a cross-pollination of a parable, an allegory and a novel, Heti breaks God into a trinity. No, not that kind, though as a writer of the Jewish tradition, she invokes God as a creative, censorious and punishing He.

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Heti’s God becomes three critics in the sky: “a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle, and a large bear who critiques while cradling creation in its arms.” Each person is born into a category that dictates their character, either bird (“flighty, fragile and strong”), fish (“concerned with fairness and justice here on earth”) or bear (“deeply consumed with their own”).

Got that? Good. Upon this rather precarious conceptual tripod, Heti built “Pure Colour.” Its abstracted trajectory, spanning the individual, the societal and the eternal, reaches for the canon occupied by Rachel Cusk and Milan Kundera.

Akin to the fables of her collection “The Middle Stories,” “Pure Colour” pairs whimsy with desperation through the story of Mira. A wan woman of the bird category, Mira begins adulthood filled with delusions and the ache of her stilted heart.

Both direct and digressive, Heti overlays ethical arguments on the narrative of Mira’s life, which is less interesting than the aims of this book. That’s partly the point. Like in her autofiction novel “How Should a Person Be?,” here the plot is an excuse for characters to remain in dialogue with themselves, conversations that are intimate, oppositional and overlapping. That solipsism makes her protagonists capable of immense selfishness, casual cruelty and unrecognized negligence, a combination that gives real insight into the Anthropocene.

There is no honor in succumbing to alienated despondency in an era of climactic disaster. And yet most digital citizens, if such a term has true meaning, might recognize this thought from Mira: “If she gathered together the amount of time she spent looking at websites, and the amount of time she spent looking at the sky, then her life was clearly answering which was the more valuable, for her.”

At its best, “Pure Colour” recalls “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Both books provide the barest frame of a story upon which hang lengthy philosophical interjections that illuminate the dynamic between people living through difficult eras. While studying art criticism, Mira meets Annie, whose fishlike character, though interested in the collective, is defined by the self-sufficiency of her orphanhood. When Mira and Annie meet, “something widened inside of them,” a portal to intimacy that gives Mira’s life the meaning she had searched for in art.

Heti shines when dealing with bumbling, lustful hope, that mystical ignition of the body, mind and spirit in the throes of a sexual or romantic encounter. Just met, “it was like their relationship already existed.” Nothing much happens between them — an awkward dinner party, a kiss on the neck by a bookshop, a trip to the chocolate store and a lakeshore, but each moment shimmers with import.

Mira’s twee wildness of spirit is muted by her utter bewilderment. Floating between retail jobs, selling lamps and jewels, Mira never recovers the sense of purpose that compelled her to study art criticism. Her most profound act is grieving for her father, a bear, after he’s dead, having ignored his emotional need for most of her life.

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In the other central conceit of “Pure Colour,” Mira and her father are paired as dual consciousnesses in a leaf, which functions as an extended metaphor for the interconnected entrapment of grief. More intent on provocation than narrative cogency, Heti uses “ejaculate” to refer to how the father’s spirit enters Mira. The rest of the book does not provide evidence of incestuous abuse, so readers are left to wonder, disturbed. The mother never appears, by reference or in person, and so it seems this man was in want of a wife, and only had a daughter.

Annie comes to rescue Mira from the leaf episode, which may have been Heti’s way to encapsulate the long time her protagonist spent alone, crying in her apartment. But Annie and Mira soon diverge. To address socioeconomic ills, Annie becomes an organizer. Mira responds to these confusing times like an artist, but her intentions embarrass her: She dresses in a leaf costume, but “no one seemed to like it,” Heti writes. “She wore it until it became too dirty, then she realized she didn’t know how to clean it. So she hung it up.”

At its worst, “Pure Colour” is like scrolling through an Instagram spiritualist’s wall. When attempting to explain love (and later, death), Heti slips from her biblical register into a kind of animism. “On such occasions, it is often the gods who are to blame. They slip into a person like an amoeba, and from within one person, they watch another one.”

In the midst of a pandemic that has taken more than 900,000 American lives, I wondered whether Heti understood the insult of this passage: “The gods sometimes take the form of a bacteria or virus, and often that’s what an illness is — just a swarm of invading gods … using your body to watch someone near you, to see what humans are like in this draft of the world, so they can make them better in the next one.”

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To follow this logic: Heti is positing that the dead are petri dishes for divine judgment of those who remain. Fine, but it was at this point that my distanced reading of “Pure Colour” deepened into an active dislike. Too befuddled to interrogate the basic premise of her belief systems, Mira accepts despair as part and parcel of her privilege. “Perhaps it won’t be so bad when we all die at once, once the beginning to the second draft comes; perhaps it won’t be so upsetting.”

Despite my admiration for the ambition that compels Heti’s entire oeuvre, “Pure Colour” lagged behind its premise. I am confident she will soon publish another book to displace this one’s pallid memory, and when she does, “all was forgiven, for this draft is not just a place of blessings where things are supposed to go well. Getting through it is enough, and they did.”

Kristen Millares Young is a prizewinning journalist, essayist and author of the novel “Subduction.”

Pure Colour

By Sheila Heti

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 224 pp. $26

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