Pure Colour by Sheila Heti

In its quest for origins, Pure Colour begins with a re-creation of the Creation myth: “After God created the heavens and the earth, he stood back to contemplate creation, like a painter standing back from his canvas.” In Sheila Heti’s contemplative novel, the re-creator – be it God or protagonist Mira – repeatedly stands back to examine the world, but at the same time steps forward to engage with it. Mixing genres and colours, the novel combines painterly poetry and philosophy.

” Repetition in the form of biblical parallelism and alliteration seems appropriate for the act of re-creation where God works on his second draft for the world.”

            Repetition in the form of biblical parallelism and alliteration seems appropriate for the act of re-creation where God works on his second draft for the world. The novel’s nine chapters are divided into sections and sub-sections, with poetic rhythms turning paragraphs into cantos of prose. “This is the moment we are living in – the moment of God standing back.” The narrator weaves “moment” and “standing back” into patterns of repetition to capture the vanishing point of eternity. Her perspective encompasses a new Genesis and a dystopian near future.

            “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.” Before the apocalypse, 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.” In the act of creative criticism where every reading is a misreading, the critic combines bird, fish, and bear, embracing the text from different vantage points.

            Into this tripartite universe enter the main characters: birdlike Mira, her would-be lover and distant fish Annie, and her warm bear of a father. Much of this Kunstlerroman concerns Mira’s development as an artist and critic, but much is also devoted to her grief after her father’s death. Bear, fish, and bird intertwine in Mira’s heart, bones, and brain – Heti’s anatomy of melancholy.

            Early elegiac tones prepare for the death of Mira’s father: “How Mira would have loved to have been born of a bear egg!” From her father’s bear hug she moves to her windowsill with its soul flowers: “They are a keyhole into a human heart.” Heti probes a number of these keyholes in Pure Colour, as Mira hears herself thinking and living. Her first job is in a lamp store where she covets one particular lamp with its green and red blobs, and eventually steals it. This purloined lamp is “a simple and pure thing,” emblematic of friendships that “were like lamps.” Like a keyhole, the lamp illuminates the hearts of characters and participates in the purity of colour. Heti focuses on basic objects until they radiate with a kabbalistic aura. The lamp is finally extinguished in a house fire that takes all of Mira’s possessions.

            When one light gets extinguished, Heti kindles another. After Mira’s father dies, his spirit enters her body, and together they inhabit the microcosm of a leaf. A towel on the floor of her father’s bedroom is green, as if in preparation for their leaf-like existence. “Colours matter,” and in that bedroom, colours, sounds, and smells combine synaesthetically to prepare for a soul’s transmigration. “It was the colour of a dying father.” The smell of her father dying is like the sound of the sea: “aching, creaking, rhythmic, hard” – onomatopoeia and cadence of metempsychosis.

            Enter the leaf: “The self is ever stirred like the leaves in the trees. The leaves quiver and quake” – like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, or a page of Heti’s prose, or like life. As a child at the lake, Mira “was caught in the leaf,” a resting place for her avian existence. In the second draft, everything “she had wanted came down to a leaf…. As a leaf, she finally found her right dimensions.” In her ecosystem of plants, green is “the very colour of welcome.” Her organic afterlife or second draft retains biblical origins – “In the beginning.” When Annie appears, the narrator announces that “the green will come through.” In some version of an Electra complex, Mira repeatedly imagines her dead father ejaculating inside her and her leaf world. This turning a new leaf belongs within the larger frame of cosmic new beginnings. Just as Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose” is an anagram of Eros, so Heti’s leaf is an alef or first letter.

            Colour matters in Heti’s verdant novel with its green ovoid cover design, a featureless face or a leaf without veins. In Mira’s childhood, Eden her father promises her “pure colour” – colour hidden deep inside little circular discs. In its introversion pure colour represents essence, the goal of the novelist’s prose that shines beneath the surface. Perhaps it is akin to the “green queen” in Wallace Stevens’s “Description Without Place.” More likely, it may be found in Manet’s painting of an asparagus. This painting first appears when Mira attends her course on art criticism where an old professor, Albert Wolff, disparages Manet’s canvas. In his first draft, the critic distorts Manet’s vision. Much later in the novel Mira re-assesses Manet’s Asparagus in aesthetic terms that apply equally to Heti’s vision.

“It was the simplicity of his expression, the lightness of his touch, the muteness of his colours, how minor a thing an asparagus is, and his name like a beautiful leaf in the corner.” Manet’s signature near the edge parallels Heti’s place on the page’s fearful symmetry: “It was the perfect balance between carefulness and carelessness, and the delicate and unassuming heart he put into every line.”

            This fusion of Heti, Mira, and Manet recurs throughout Pure Colour. The narrator speculates on the individuality of a fingerprint as a marker of identity. To put a finger on the novel’s meaning requires multiple fingers weaving threads, or immersing them in water, allowing the flow of language to slip through them, the fins of orphan Annie’s fish, the wings of Mira’s birds, and the paws of her father’s bear.

            The narrator sketches the smells of Annie’s apartment above a bookstore “of incense, strong oils and dusty old crystals, dug up deep from the earth, a dark and metallic scent that was like the smell of raw coins, and something of the middle-aged ladies who worked there, with their greying, perfumed flesh.” After this layered archeology of the occult bookshop, she turns to Annie’s apartment which simply “smelled of rat shit.”

            This excremental vision leads to “Feces, worms, piss, trouble” – a reminder of St Augustine’s summation of messy birth: inter faeces et urinam nascimur. From that opening, the narrator changes one vowel to focus on the aesthetics of beautiful faces. Beauty surfaces at the lake when Mira picks up a seashell, which speaks to her about an entire lifespan: “troubles buried beneath so many layers of living.” She keeps it as a reminder of “the contour and shape of her insides.” Corresponding to her auditory and re-visionary imagination, this labyrinthine seashell echoes and endures.

            In her critique of pure reason and postmodern seasons, Heti seeks pure colour and different truths; in her portrait of the artist as a young critic, she questions God and gods who, instead of paring their fingernails, repair the world; and in her Manet theism, she brushes against Impressionism, balancing stumbling bears and birds that care. Between fixers and family traditions, Pure Colour is Heti’s Kaddish, recited in second draft.

SHEILA HETI is the author of ten books of fiction and non-fiction, including Motherhood and How Should a Person Be?, which New York magazine deemed one of the “New Classics of the 21st century.” She was named one of “the New Vanguard” by the New York Times book critics, who, along with a dozen other magazines and newspapers, chose Motherhood as a Best Book of 2018. Her novels have been translated into twenty-four languages. She is the former Interviews Editor of The Believer magazine. She lives in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Knopf Canada (Feb. 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 224 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0735282455
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0735282452

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.