Pure Colour and Presence
Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour is one of the weirdest books I’ve read all year, which is also to say I loved it. The plot sounds incomprehensible once said aloud: a woman goes to school, her father dies, she becomes a leaf, she dies too. The novel is zoomed in on the life of one woman yet remains extraordinarily abstract. And the world of this book is oddly unplaced and abstract yet totally relatable. The woman, Mira, lives in the first draft of creation, a draft that is at its end. Her world sounds very much like the world of 2022: “It’s true that the world was failing at its one task—of remaining a world. Pieces were breaking off. Seasons had become postmodern. We no longer knew where in the calendar we were by the weather.” In this fragmented world, what remains? Presence, Pure Colour insists, in all its broken and halfhearted and odd forms. Being present, however halfheartedly, to people and to texts is one balm for this condition.
In the world of Pure Colour, which was released earlier this year, people are divided into people born of birds, people born of bears, and people born of fish—interested in beauty, love, and justice respectively. Mira is from a bird egg; appropriately, the birds were “born to give the world its metaphors, pictures and stories”—she is a critic and gets accepted into the “American Academy of American Critics, at one of its international satellite schools.” The criticism they do makes them, theoretically, fully present to something, and the criticism students thus feel important—“they believed the future would be set in moulds that they had made. It was important to know what you thought of things—what you believed the world to be, and what you thought it should be.” For Mira, criticism is a salve to a nearly apocalyptic world.
After all, being a critic is an elite job in the world of Pure Colour—a kind of conceit only someone who writes and reads for a living could come up with. But crucially, the critics in the novel have invested their energies in an analog world of art and writing, and the times have moved along without them. The critics “just didn’t consider the fact that one day they would be walking around with phones in the future, out of which people who had far more charisma than they did would let flow an endless stream of images and worlds. They just had no idea that the world would become so big, or the competition so stiff.” If it sounds nostalgic for a world with less phones and digital energy, that’s because it is; friendships, too, are “like lamps, alone with you in your total privacy,” not extending like a digital footprint. The world of Pure Colour is “heating up in advance of its destruction by God, who has decided that the first draft of existence contained too many flaws,” and it appears to be the job of the critic to record these flaws and make suggestions. After all, God can then do better in the second draft of the world.
For Mira, art and literature become places where criticism and presence can coexist. To criticize a work is to pay deep and sustaining attention to it, an attention that looks quite a bit like love. In “the week her father was dying…nothing mattered but art and literature.” Art is permanent in a way human lives are not; art, Mira thinks, “would never leave us like a father dying…Artists manifested themselves in art, not the world, so humans could encounter them there, forever.” It’s clear that loving art and loving her father are in direct conflict—she can’t let one matter more than the other, always toggling between them. To be in a world without her father is terrifying, but “to be in world in which the writers she loved had once lived and written so beautifully—that meant there was something real to find here. Art had mattered to her most of all, but her father mattered, also.” Mira perceives her failing as a daughter to be, fundamentally, a question of presence: she has been absent to her father, has let art mean “more to her than any human being.”
But, when it comes down to it, Mira’s only real experience of presence is with her father. Mira recalls that “only once in her life, lying in bed with her dying father, was she actually where she was, and not imagining she was somewhere she would rather have been…And she knew if she had to live one moment over forever, that is the moment that she’d choose, and everything else could vanish.” This becomes a moment of integration for Mira, a sense of wholeness that shores her up against the world. To be in this moment gives Mira a reprieve from thinking, from imagining what is next or what could be.
The love Mira feels for her father is distinctly orienting, while the romantic love she feels for Annie is totally disorienting and fragmenting. When Annie and Mira “glanced at each other, or thought of each other a little bit, their chests widened more. They noticed hidden things about the other one…All this seemed to be happening of its own accord, this laying down of a bridge.” It feels bizarre to Mira—“it was happening far too quickly!…Mira felt nervous and confused: nothing of significance has even happened in the few times they had seen each other to account for such a solid road.” Her love for Annie is sudden and unsustainable—it takes her away from herself, in the later parts of the novel, even leading her to follow Annie home. Mira’s love for her father on the other hand—and his reciprocal love for her—is home.
The way Pure Colour thinks of presence is both nostalgic and clear-eyed, approaching the sense of being present in your own life as if it were travel—you long to be some different place and then, more often than not, you miss your old life and home when you’re there. In Pure Colour, life its own aesthetic journey, and the experience of being peacefully present is rare, something to be treasured when it is felt.
After all, Pure Colour ends by reminding us of death’s inevitability. Mira reflects that she and her father “had loved each other and so all was forgiven, for this draft is not just a place of blessings where things are supposed to go well. Getting through it is enough, and they did. They got through their entire lives to death.” Yet this platitude gets interrupted by the novel’s final paragraph, which approximates the conversation between a child and parent, presumably Mira and her father. “Is there time for another story?…a glass of water?” the child asks, a conversation intended to delay the inevitable bedtime. “Could you please leave the door open a bit? Hey, where are you going?” The anxiety builds in the final lines, a child clamoring for a bit more of their parent’s presence, a bit more time together. The parent responds, “Nowhere, don’t worry, I’ll just be downstairs.” This final goodbye is a firm no to the childlike desire for just one more story, one more minute, one more important thing to say. Yet even this construction, a goodbye becomes an alternate mode of presence. It’s not that the parent really leaves—just that they have moved to a different plane, that they are now downstairs. It’s an image of comfort in the midst of darkness, an ending that doesn’t slam a door but closes it softly.