When we first meet Mira, the protagonist of Sheila Heti’s stunning, elegiac new novel Pure Colour, the universe is a roughly hewn first draft destined for the rubbish bin. Mira has just been accepted to study at the American Academy of American Critics. She works at a lamp store surrounded by bijoux glass. Her rooms are damp and poorly heated. “She loved her meagre little existence, which was entirely her own.”
The where of Pure Colour is vague, but the planet Mira inhabits is heating up in preparation for its coming obliteration. (Not so different, it seems, from our world.) God, who opens both the world and this novel, is proud of his creation as “an aesthetic thing,” but “art is not made for living bodies—it is made for the cold, eternal soul.” In the next draft, God promises to do a better job. (Which God this is, and what he believes, however, is of little import.) He will never again “conceive of creation as an artwork.” Humanity cannot be trusted with aesthetic beauty—they will devour it whole without ever seeing the carnage they have wrought—so God must reinvent his schema.
In this first draft, however, the world is fragile and crystalline. Through her classmate, Mira meets Annie, a beautiful woman who works at an occult bookstore and lives in a sprawling, rat-infested flat. Annie fascinates Mira, and Mira loves her, blushingly, with all the force of a teenage crush. Everything about Annie is beguiling, even the rat-infested apartment. Mira is overcome by lust, by love. Unfortunately, these feelings are not reciprocated, or not reciprocated in the way that Mira wants. Between the two a vast, insurmountable space opens, recognizable to everyone who has had an unrequited crush. And like anyone who has ever been in love, Mira projects a multitude of futures and fantasies each as unlikely as the next. But what dreams they are! “A person can waste their whole life, without even meaning to, all because another person has a really great face.”
Mira’s desire for Annie is soon eclipsed by the death of her father. (There is no mention of a mother in Pure Colour. It is a rare story that has no mother, and no indication of her fate.) Her life compresses into the immediate. Her memories lose their form; what once was solid becomes gaseous. Unsure of how to contend with her father’s death, Mira grabs onto the concrete: the smell of a candle, a pink towel left on the floor near his bed, the darkness of his bedroom. It is an attempt to ground herself in the tangible world, not unlike those oft-unreliable techniques prescribed to those with anxiety attacks.
Afterwards, she seeks her father everywhere, imagining that she can feel his breath in the whole world and his spirit inside of her. Mira transcends her body to become a leaf on the tree where her father’s spirit has come to rest. Beneath, the world continues. Annie visits the park where the tree grows with another woman and Mira knows that at some point Annie will depart and never return. “And then what would Mira do with her love—with the heat that as a leaf she could so subtly send off, send off as a warm nothing into the air?” It would be, like so much, lost to the ether.
It is difficult to pin down Pure Colour, which reflects upon love, grief, art, air, what Anne Carson calls the “major things.” The novel is divided into nine parts, each section an outward sweep that boomerangs back to a shared center. Heti writes theologically, existentially, and weirdly; the prose creeps like ivy. There are commas that feel like a punch, tiny staccato breaks which cleave a sentence into sharp relief. The prose can meander and repeat in an E. E. Cummings sort of way: “Because not everything is given the same each time. What would be given to humans the same each time is exactly what is given to all life on earth, and that is the beautiful thing that is loved.”
Much of the novel concerns loss—aching, devastating loss. Mira loses her father, Annie, the planet. There is so much she will never do again. Heti writes beautifully about the gaping cavern that emerges in the face of such grief; she articulates much that is unnamable. Her text is so acute and specific even as it describes the sensations that we have all been devastated by. Loss, like heartbreak, like all the major things, is universal and yet so singular.
How does one continue to exist when all around are ghosts and decay? Before his death, Mira imagines what life will be like afterwards. She had thought it might feel as if he went into a different room, nearby but unreachable. “She had not known that life itself transformed into a different room, and trapped you in it without them.” In those days of his failing health, the only true things seem to be art and literature. They endure: paintings contain bits of leftover soul as do novels and great works of music. “Artists manifested themselves in art, not in the world, so humans could encounter them there, forever.”
Art also asks for reciprocity. It creates a space for communion, and Pure Colour is a constellation of empathy—who becomes a leaf just to be closer to their father? To commune demands an offering, or at the very least a transference, and one that is not valued by all. At the American Academy of American Critics Mira’s professor shows Édouard Manet’s Asparagus, 1880, a grayish painting of a single white stalk. It gives Mira an “exquisite quivering” in her chest. She likes the painting! Her professor, however, is unconvinced. The painting, he thinks, has some good qualities, but it is missing the essential thing, “the spark that says more than here.” The professor finds Manet lazy. He asks his viewers to do too much: he asks them to complete the work.
Heti’s God has also asked people to complete His work, which we have done, albeit not in a particularly satisfactory way. Instead, we seem destined to destroy. But what of this world that is careening towards its own end, what room will we be trapped in when it ceases to be? How is it possible that we cannot figure out how to live here, in such a perfect first draft? Even if we go to Mars, it will never be like Earth, this land of small, beautiful moments—buying a bag of pears, the blazing leaves of autumn, paint on a canvas, a “battered old seashell, formed over millions of years, made to endure.”
by Sheila Heti
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Published February 15th, 2022
Grace Linden is a writer and art historian based in London.