Review: “The Middle Stories” by Sheila Heti.

“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 Shelia Heti

For some reason, probably because its slim volume and quick readability, The Middle Stories by Sheila Heti always makes it on to my reading list every year, and, as with every read, I have mixed feelings about it. I was introduced to this collection of short stories in college; not only does Heti’s sparse and prosaic style reflect the style of my professor at the time, but she was also going to be doing a reading on campus. Some of the stories have stuck with me, especially with multiple rereadings, while others sort of fade into the background, the languid tone of her words failing to leave much of a mark.

The Middle Stories is a highly emotional collection, I think, and that it works a bit like a mood ring. How you’re feeling at the moment will effect how you perceive the stories. When things are a bit difficult, they sing to you, shooting straight to your soul like a shot of heroin. When things aren’t so bad, though, they seem limp and insubstantial and pointless. My life has changed quite a bit since my last reading, changes for the better, and so the magic of The Middle Stories has disappeared substantially. Or perhaps I’m just older and more mature, so the half-formed thoughts and pretty lines put together with disjointed vagueness just don’t seem as impressive to me as they once were.

I still LIKE The Middle Stories; there are still some incredible lines and stories within Heti’s quirkily drab drabbles. “Mermaid in a Jar” and “Eleanor” still strike me as incredible, and “The Girl who Painted Flowers” still resonates and enchants me as much as it did when I first heard it being read by the quiet and demure Heti in the reception room at the Park Library, but there’s a certain depressive, cynical tone to everything that put me off this time around. Am I right in thinking the end of “The Giant” is a hopeful one? Considering the other side of the coin makes it far less enjoyable, and that’s the thing with most of the stories. The vagueness makes me question my interpretations, and they start to feel less like “just stories” and more like art for art’s sake, lines chosen just because they sound good, characters that remain nameless not to make a statement but to be faceless people in the crowd that could be anyone.

But “My Favorite Monkey” is beautiful and gets me every time, and sometimes I love the meter of how a line is put together, and then I remember how much these stories inspired some of my own work, especially “Lilacs,” which remains one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and I can’t help but love it for all those bright little gems in the mire of sometimes painfully literary fiction. I know I’ll read it again, feel the same, set it back on the shelf, and wait for it to surface again, asking to be devoured once more.

Books read: 006/100.

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