In Sheila Heti’s 2018 novel Motherhood, the narrator, as she wavers back and forth between her desire to procreate and her wish to stay as she is, remembers a scene from childhood, “sitting at the kitchen table with my entire family, and suddenly knowing that I would never be a mother, for I was a daughter — existentially — and I always would be.” She comes, in this sense, from a whole line of daughters; her own mother stayed “turned towards her mother,” and not toward her child. That our narrator is not a “mother” in the literal sense is not the only reason she is not a mother; even if she had a child, she would always be a daughter.
With her new novel Pure Colour, which focuses on its protagonist Mira’s relationship with her father, Heti has written another work concerned with daughterhood — existentially, to use her qualification. “To be a daughter is to be leaning, half,” Mira thinks to herself after her father dies. “To no longer be a daughter is to be a whole thing, an orb.” Yet Mira’s father’s death does not make her as whole as perhaps she thinks; without anybody left to pull away from, she’s not so much an orb as tipping over. In her grief, she retreats first into the pleasures of mindlessly playing games on her phone and then into a leaf.
Pure Colour is a book that’s in one sense very strange and in another not strange at all. It is a story about placelessness and grief and looming apocalypse told through mythical conceits. Human beings have three natures: bird, fish, and bear. Birds are lovers of art and beauty; fish prize the good of all; bears love only individuals. If you are a bird, you cannot make yourself comprehensible to a fish or a bear, who will view your retreat from public duty and personal intimacy as frivolous and hurtful, respectively. Poor Mira is a bird, her father is a bear, and Annie, a friend to whom Mira experiences a deep attraction, is a fish. The three of them live out their lives in God’s first draft of the world — the same draft in which we, too, live. One day a great disaster will end this draft and usher in the new one.
This all runs the risk of being a little cute, but Heti pulls it off. After Mira goes to reside in a leaf with her father’s spirit, she and her father pass the days arguing. But one day Annie walks under the tree, and Mira realizes she wants to enter the world again; she calls Annie’s name, and Annie hears her. “You are seeming very green these days, and very still, and I wonder where your feelings are,” Annie says as she draws Mira out. You can take this for the literal truth, and you can take it as a metaphor for someone isolated in the midst of deep grief, or you can do both at the same time — my approach, mostly.
Heti uses myths as stories that help us to see and understand something about life that is close to the bone: why people we love make choices we can’t understand, or how descending into the heart of grief brings its own consolations, or what it’s like to live with the sense that the world and everyone in it will come to ruin. “Happiness was not meant to be ours. The love we imagined would never be ours. Work that could occupy our hearts and minds forever—this also was not meant to be ours,” Heti writes in the book’s early pages. “Nothing would be as we hoped it would be, here in the first draft of existence.”
Mira’s pursuit of Annie ends in frustration: Annie drew her out of the leaf not because Mira was special to her, but because that’s what fish do. Mira was only special to one person, and he’s dead. Annie is special to Mira, but this cannot be, will not be, reciprocated. "A person can waste their whole life, without even meaning to, all because another person has a really great face,” Heti comments. “Did God think of this when he was making the world?” Does Mira waste her life? We never quite find out, but there are worse things, if it comes to it, to waste your life over.
To write all this out this way implies that Pure Colour has something that resembles a plot, instead of being a series of reflections on the world and of episodes in one woman’s life. Whose reflections are these? Not Mira’s, since she is one of their objects. Perhaps it is (to pull on another myth Heti uses in the book) one of gods who lives inside people, but the tone seems too mortal for that, too. Mournfully considered is the loss of a less-connected world, taken over by “phones… out of which people who had far more charisma than they did would let flow an endless stream of images and words.” The past had more space for ambition because it was more limited. But it also means the narrative voice experiences a certain dislocation: it has the values of a past time even though it is not irrelevant to the present time. It was led to expect a different sort of future than was promised.
In Pure Colour daughterhood, as a chosen state rather than a descriptive one, is not only about dependence but about the freedom to remain vague about the edges. Daughters receive the love of parents but can’t really return that love back — they will always be loved more than they love. But they are not doomed to experience that same asymmetry with children of their own. Annie, an orphan from a young age, has never been a daughter, and her calm self-sufficiency speaks to this fact. (Once Mira calls Annie “Mom,” then hastily pretends she was reading something out loud.) At one point, Mira goes into Annie’s home, covered in wet paint, and sits sobbing on the floor, saying: “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be seen with me like this, at any of your important parties!” “Of course I wouldn’t,” Annie replies. She might easily have added: I’m not your mother. She cannot be Mira’s home in this world.
Daughters are free to do what they want: to try something, to fail, to circle back, to retreat for brief recuperative moments of parental love before leaving again. Daughters can stay unfinished. When you’re a daughter, you can always go home — until, one day, you can’t. Heti’s images of the world as “drafts” plays into this feeling that everything can be changed until suddenly, and without warning, it’s fixed and over. Art is a series of second drafts, an imagining of what might happen in the next version of the world; when Mira’s father dies, they begin upon the “second draft” of their relationship. But daughterhood, too, is a way of staying in the first draft of a life.
In Motherhood, Heti casts these problems in terms of the idea that menopause gives her narrator an adult life of only thirty years, in which “everything must be done.” But here, this feeling has been made more general: everybody has a foreshortened life in the first draft. They are “the ones who were made to be thrown out,” “God’s expendable soldiers.” At this late stage in the first draft of the world, there is nothing to do but mark time passing. Disposable, flawed, human beings go on creating and destroying the world because they cannot do otherwise. Everything is insufficient, in the end. And perhaps this is another quality of being a daughter: having no future, only time.
Ultimately, Pure Colour is a beautiful ode to insufficiency; to the lean of the daughter, the mismatch of loves, the beautiful things we love and break, the world we’ve failed to care for. Here is where it all stops: in a single human life, with its missed chances and its mistakes. In the end, you can’t really waste your life, because life is already a waste. You can only be in it, for as long as it has you.
B.D. McClay is an essayist and critic.