Words by madeleine gregory
In her fantastical new climate change novel, Heti imagines we are living in the first draft of God’s creation, one he is ready to scrap in order to start afresh.
We are, perhaps, in need of a new creation story. These days, nearly all the stories about our world are ones of destruction. The careless skinning of a rainforest, the smoldering wake of a wildfire, the quick-fingered dismantling of environmental protections. How to make sense of all this?
Sheila Heti’s latest novel, Pure Colour, offers us not an answer but a thousand more questions. The premise is this: We are living in the first draft of creation. God has spent an eternity contemplating his work, but now he is ready to scrap it and start afresh. The first draft—and us first-draft humans—were just too flawed. As the world heats up in advance of its destruction, God is reviewing his work, taking notes.
What is there to do at the end of the world? Heti, for her part, is participating in what the narrator describes as the larger project of art: imagining the future. “Here in the first draft of existence, we crafted our own second drafts—stories and books and movies and plays—polishing our stones to show God and each other what we wanted the next draft to be, comforting ourselves with our visions,” Heti writes in Pure Colour.
Pure Colour does not create a utopian world, though, so much as it explores what it means to be human. While the second half of the novel delves into critiques of humanity (our greed, our capacity for violence, our inability to connect with each other), the first half revels in the joy and precarity of being young and alive. We join Mira, the protagonist, when she has just left home, when she is attending college to become an art critic. She makes new friends, lives in a tiny apartment, falls in love with a woman named Annie, and feels great desire, regret, and shame. Then, her father dies, and again she is redone.
As the story unravels, so does Mira. Heti’s text is full of questions, ones which are repeated with slight variation, giving the impression of circling madly around some implacable center. (Organizing a novel around interrogation is something of a darling to Heti—her previous work, Motherhood, is anchored by the narrator answering questions she has about her life and work by flipping coins. Her 2010 novel goes so far as to embed a question in its title: How Should A Person Be?) Though the endless questioning can be wearying, it allows the novel to oscillate between the everyday and the larger, unanswerable questions that underlie our world. But that oscillation is often uneven, with Mira dwelling for large stretches of time only inside her mind.
Nowhere is this imbalance more apparent than after the death of her father. Her grief is unbearable, to the point that she asserts the belief that the next draft of life will have no fathers. She cannot stand the human world anymore, and so her spirit, along with the spirit of her father, become trapped in a leaf. It is from within that leaf that we get many of the ideas driving the novel. The debates between the spirits of Mira and her father are arranged in continuous paragraphs, the separate voices undistinguished. Should we abandon Earth and go to space? (No.) What will happen to humans? (Civilization will collapse, but life will remain.) What is God? (Different for everybody.) How do we prove things are real? (Science, but also imagination, maybe.)
These conversations lend the book scale, a sense of a deep past and a deep future. This is one of the many remarkable things about Pure Colour: its balance of far-away and close-up.
When Mira is in the leaf, she has to decide whether to return to the human world or stay intertwined with the spirit of her father. Though the grief of losing her father was overwhelming, it was also immensely clarifying. It showed her what mattered to her: art, which has always kept her company, and nature, which is re-enchanted. She feels alive to the world, feels her father’s presence in the breath of the universe. Then, when she has left the human world, she remembers Annie, the woman she loves. Can she be happy, leaving all of that behind?
In God’s next draft, we lose those things too. We lose inexplicable connections with other people, we lose the madness of infatuation, we lose art. There is, as Mira says, no tragedy in the loss of the human species as a whole — that is a natural part of evolution, of the world changing. The tragedy lies in the specificity, in the suffering, in our relation to others. It is losing those we love, and the things we love.
Art, Mira posits, is “made for our situation.” Pure Colour is, undoubtedly, a climate change novel. But it doesn’t resemble many other climate change novels, with their gritty dystopian portraits of the future or naturalist chronicling of changes in the timing of the seasons or the flight patterns of birds. It sidesteps questions of how to stop or slow it, elides even a thorough examination of what climate change will look like.
The closest analog is Jenny Offill’s Weather, that anatomy of climate grief which is arranged—like Pure Colour—in tight, crystalline vignettes and deals with climate change as an emotional event on the scale of one human being, one family. But unlike Weather, the drama of Pure Colour is not, in large part, one character grappling with the particular realities of a dying planet. Mira’s troubling over the future of humanity is much more heady, and mostly she is—like the rest of us—just living her life, dealing with grief.
It is its strangeness that makes Pure Colour stick out, that lends it its emotional edge. Much of current literature’s commitment to hyperrealism, with the deep interior experience of one person’s life (see, for example, Heti’s last novel, Motherhood) buckles under the weight of the psychological toll of climate change, or the simple fact of the scale of the problem. You have, then, these realist novels that feel as crushing and claustrophobic as reality, or fantastical ones that offer escape into a future that is often framed as catastrophically worse-off. Or you have this. And what is this?
“Here in the first draft of existence, we crafted our own second drafts—stories and books and movies and plays.”
I will not waste much time hand-wringing about how this fits into our definition of a novel. This book is as formally inventive as her others, with its slippery reference frame, roving narration, and blurriness of borders (between thought and reality, life, and death). It seems every novel these days is graced with the label “genre-bending,” which I think is a good thing. As Amitav Ghosh argues in his work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, climate change has long been relegated to sci-fi and other so-called “genre fiction.” For a while, the subject was seemingly unfaceable in literary fiction, which has long prized realism, everyday details, and the insular experience of the self—not the major upsets and complicated sociological underpinnings of climate disaster. That is obviously changing with the ascension of cli-fi and the slackening of rules around what we permit in literature. Pure Colour fits into this growing arc as a piece of literary fiction suffused with mythology and philosophy, fragmented and fantastical. Climate change is too big a thing to process without breaking it down and refracting it through the lens of metaphor, exploring the beautiful parts of humanity as inextricable from the parts that created the climate crisis in the first place.
Pure Colour does mark a tone-shift for Heti. She has for some time been writing autofiction, in which the narrator closely mirrors the author (and which has earned her the critiques of being tedious and narcissistic). Though parts of Pure Colour are undoubtedly cribbed from personal experience (the segment of the book dedicated to Mira mourning the death of her father mirrors Heti’s description of the recent loss of her own father), Heti has, for the most part, turned her sharp, inquiring mind outward. The question that animated Motherhood (Should I have a child?) is different from the one that animates Pure Colour (What is it about humans?).
There is a desire for a clear answer to the question of “what does this book mean,” and a tendency to get there by puzzle-piecing together the facts of the novel and the facts of the author’s life. Is it about grief, or climate change, or art? Is it saying that we’re doomed? Or that storytelling will save us? Or that loving and making art is all we can do while we wait for the world to end?
I think this grasping is a natural reaction to the disorientation of the novel. There are parts of the novel that I truly do not know what to make of: the repeated claims that Mira’s father’s spirit “ejaculated” into her upon his death, the Freudian insistence that her father would have liked to marry her, her sojourn in the lining of a leaf. Searching correlates in real life, letting Heti tell us what it means: this is satisfying, on some level. It can also be an evasion of the hard work of giving it our own meaning or reckoning with the not-knowing of ambiguous meaning.
Pure Colour is, undoubtedly, a climate change novel. But it sidesteps questions of how to stop or slow it, elides even a thorough examination of what climate change will look like.
Which is also the work, I think, of reckoning with climate change. We’re in a crisis of meaning-making. How can we understand ourselves as anything other than a force of destruction? How can we comprehend the suffering of the Earth and our relationship to it? Art is a natural place to turn. But it will never serve as a manual or a blueprint — just a space to sit with all that it means to be human.
Storytelling is an ancient, powerful device—as Heti would have it, a form of giving life akin to making a child, an act of “pouring spirit into form.” Connecting with living things—people, art, the natural world—is an essential part of the culture change necessary for doing anything about climate change. Pure Colour reaffirms—in both form and content—the possibility of art as a personal, contaminated experience, one which interfaces with where you are (both physically and in life); one which has the possibility to change your thinking in subtler, non-argumentative ways, not toward an articulable view of the world but towards some new understanding of its nuance and complexity, or just back toward the knowledge that other people exist and are people too. It is not a Green New Deal; it is an opportunity to open our minds.
One of the most poignant moments comes in the book’s first section, in which Mira is being lectured by a grouchy professor about the utter irrelevance of Édouard Manet’s paintings. Her teacher has a slide up of Manet’s “Asparagus” and is explaining with great certainty that everyone with sufficient study and wit would soon reject Manet as he has. It is not, to him, true art. Mira, eyes fixed on the pixelated image, does not say anything, but feels an “exquisite quivering in her chest.”
It was winter when I read this. I was on the East Coast, visiting my family for the holidays. It was cold, but not as cold as it used to get when I was a kid. Omicron had begun to eclipse Delta, and everyone I knew seemed to have it. What grounded me, when social life was restricted again, was art—music, books, movies, TV. Facing a gray sky, I Googled the painting on my phone. Each tiny rendering was in a slightly different palette. There was life in the brushstrokes; there was the tilting up of the head. The darkness of one corner, the loneliness. I thought of Mira, voiceless and moved. I, too, was moved.