Pure Color by Sheila Heti
“What do humans go to art for, but to locate within themselves that inward-turning eye, which breathes significance into all of existence-for what is art but the act of infusing matter with the breath of God?”
If you’ve ever read Sheila Heti before, the themes and questions of Pure Color will be of no surprise to you. It’s all about creation – both of art and of life. The novel is Heti’s unique take on the creation myth, told almost as a fable or fairy story. But there are also those signature Heti twists on the naive, somewhat simplistic authorial voice – plenty of potty-mouthed witticisms and visceral, gross imagery. It’s a weird book, for sure – but perhaps a rather wonderful one, too.
The story centers around one main character, Mira, and two of the most important relationships in her life, with her father and with the mysterious Annie. Heti describes the three main characters as archetypes of the three different types of humans: Mira is a bird, her father a bear, and Annie a fish.
This categorization is Heti’s way of dealing with one of the most fundamental questions of the novel, and one of her overarching literary obsessions: what does it mean to be a human? For Heti, creativity and creation are the most human activity there is. She depicts making art and making life as almost one and the same. “Both making life and making art are pouring spirit into form.”
In Pure Color, creating art is next to Godliness. In fact, God himself is nothing more than a highly skilled artist. “God is most proud of creation as an aesthetic thing. You have only to look at the exquisite harmony of sky and trees and moon and stars to see what a good job God did, aesthetically.” The intense love for the world of the book is mirrored by a rather intense climate anxiety. But Heti manages to deal with this knowledge of the degradation of the world in a typically art-focused fashion: treating it merely as one draft in the ongoing iteration of earth.
Heti has faced some critique for Pure Color, particularly thanks to its pop-philosophical tone and content. Her detractors claim she has dressed up the stupid as the clever, and somehow tricked the world into seeing it from her perspective. Whether Pure Color is clever or stupid though, I find a simplistic view and not a particularly useful critique of the work. To be human is to be both clever and stupid, neither is more valid than the other – and so, where do we go from there?
What is interesting is how Heti manages to juxtapose these opposite concepts. This is reflected in the somewhat strange and uncanny writerly voice she employs. Pure Color is told in almost childlike language with overly and obviously simplistic sentence construction. But this seemingly innocent voice reveals surprising darkness, creepiness, and smut.
The “first draft” world of the novel is recognizably similar to our world, but also distinctly not our world. This offers a slightly eerie feel to the story. This level of implausibility is gorgeously atmospheric and helps to lend the world of the novel some mystical value.
In Pure Color, love and art are what make life worth living, the only things that give humanity any value. Love and art give life color, and color is what life feels like. “Color is not just a representation of the world, but of the feelings in a room, and the meaningfulness of a room in time.”At its essence, and in spite of the grimness, weirdness incestuousness, and grossness, Pure Color is a joyful novel about how to be alive. “The probability of any person being around is one in a trillion, so it’s almost a zero percent chance of you being here. But you’re going to have, you know, eight billion people, and those eight billion people have won the lottery. And the worst part is that nobody realizes that! They don’t realize what a rare opportunity they have to observe this universe, because here’s this amazing universe, and if humans hadn’t evolved to this stage, they wouldn’t know they were living in this beautiful place.”
Annie Walton Doyle is a 20-something writer based in Manchester, UK. She typically writes about beauty and other “personal aesthetics,” with a healthy dose of both social commentary and stupidity. When not touching makeup or reading books, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature, and mysteries.