“‘]They all ordered the same thing, except for the ugly boy who was a vegan, and he ordered nothing but black coffee and orange juice, and the girl thought drearily in her head, ‘Oh God, I slept with a vegan.'”
“The Middle Stories” by Sheila Heti
This curious book of odd little stories first fell into my hands in college; Sheila Heti was visiting our campus and reading her work as a guest of the English department, and so our professor wanted to have us read some of her stories and familiarize ourselves with her work. I remembered being terribly enchanted with the simple, storybook-like frankness of her prose, and with her quiet, waifish personage as well. When I picked up The Middle Stories again just recently, I started reading through it and wondering where the magic had gone. The stories seemed to have lost a great deal of their charm; the brevity no longer seemed to have a simple sort of appeal, but, instead, a brash, harsh, and unappealing nature. I found myself a little irritated at some parts, especially with Heti’s flippant use of rape and the suggestion that most women think about it.
But then I got to…well, the middle stories. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an intentional device, but once I got to the stories in the middle, I remembered some of my favorite tales, like the off-beat”The Miss and Sylvia and Sam,” the wonderfully endearing “The Giant,” and the quirky “The Girl Who Painted Flowers,” about a woman who wakes up with two strangers in her bed after a long party, which we had the pleasure of hearing Heti read and remark that it’s not from personal experience, really! There’s the startlingly cruel “Mermaid in a Jar,” which seems to touch on a natural, visceral cruelty that all of us have inside, and my ultimate favorite, which I did remember from my earlier exposure in college, is “What Changed,” a timely tale for me right now about how a relationship can just peter out without a warning, that something so simple can cause the whole thing to shift on its foundations and crumble down.
Beginning at the middle and continuing continuously through the end, “The Middle Stories” is a quaint little collection. As I mentioned, Heti writes with a simplicity remnant of children’s storybooks, and her tales have a fairy-tale like quality to it. The curiousness of a man in love with a monkey or a mermaid in a jar are never directly addressed; it’s just the way things are. Her characters possess an odd quirkiness that is treated in much the same way, individuals quietly going through life with these random thoughts and ideas that they acknowledge, and then continue on. There’s a certain loneliness to them, and a certain magic, even if it took me until I reached “The Giant” to really find it.
Books Read: 49/100.