Whenever I think of time on a broad scale, I feel I’ve already failed. Maybe it’s because I’m a millennial, maybe it’s because of my sense I should have been born in a different era, maybe it’s because of my deep aversions to late capitalism and my pesky Luddite tendencies. Whenever I think of time, it’s with a sense of pre-existing failure: that I’m beginning from a place of doom, an apocalyptic place in California where wildfires burn constantly, just barely contained, where gentrification runs relentless through Oakland, where I live, desiccating communities and (primarily Black and Brown) lives — and with a sense that from here it is impossible to think about time in any profound way. That all eyes are turned toward the ever-receding horizon of The Future.
I think of this unyielding orientation towards the future in Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, out this spring, a book devoted to the discussion of whether or not to bear children. Heti begins this book by indicating that she wants to write about “the soul of time,” but soon wanders away from directly addressing this topic. One leaves Motherhood with the sense that time was a jumping-off point for Heti’s larger discussion of reproduction, aging, mood, and relationship. Time is a balancing beam for this book — but no one looks much at the balancing beam. They look instead at the person doing their best to reside above it.
Heti’s wavering balance has led many critics to hate on this book, saying its lyric passages, interspersed conversations with friends and family, divination experiments, and wonderings are haphazard, too long, in desperate need of an editor. Which I can understand — there certainly are areas in this book I struggled to follow, or in which I felt Heti was repeating a point she’d made better elsewhere. But as I adjusted to her form, I began to think: isn’t that the point? It’s a book of deliberation, and the way many of our minds work within deliberation is not to have one thought, complete it, and move on. We revisit, repeal, rephrase – as Heti does, even as she extends and expands upon her thinking.
Using one of the several divination tools in the book, Heti inquires about the book’s form and direction:
Is this way of thinking connected to the soul of time?
Will I ever figure out what it means — the soul of time?
Will I be able to express it in this book?
Should I end this section and begin another one, with that aim in mind?
I am not here specifically to defend Heti’s section breaks, jumping points, or digressions, though I may in parts do just that. What I am here to do is consider how the criticism of this book plays right into a larger story Heti is telling: one in which there is simply not a (socially acceptable) space for women to deliberate about whether they want to have children. The languid thinking in Heti’s book flies in the face of this lack of space, and ultimately serves to point it out. By stating that Heti needs an editor, is self-absorbed, even that she should have had a child to make the book more interesting, critics have themselves engaged in the story of the book — the story that space for such balancing-beam thinking is strange, a waste of pages, childish, and narcissistic. With these critiques, reviewers have even further illuminated our normative social understandings around the decision to reproduce — and also, I’d argue, the normative understandings of time that demand we choose one (established) way to be, and stick with it.
When Heti returns to “the soul of time” nearing the end of her book, she compares it to a recent epiphany she’s had about what truly happens in a caterpillar’s cocoon. Having been under the impression that a caterpillar within a cocoon grows wings to eventually become a butterfly, Heti has recently come to understand that in fact the “caterpillar turns to mush. It disintegrates, and out of this mush, a new creature grows.”
In comparing this process to the “soul of time,” Heti indicates that time itself – and the systems by which it is measured — must “turn to mush” in order for something new to grow – whether this “new” is a baby animal, or, as in this book, a new awareness, decision, state of being. Heti describes how she must leave behind a measured sense of time in order to create:
It does not mean that to write this book, I need an infinity of time, but rather that I need to access infinity in time. Infinity is not a duration in time, it’s a quality of time. I can reach it in moments like this one.
In “Art or Babies,” her review of Motherhood, Willa Paskin reads this passage to literally mean that Heti requires all day long to write a book. To my mind, this is precisely not what she is saying, particularly given Heti’s purported interest in abstraction and its infinities of meanings. Heti speaks here about stepping off the track of time, off the track of a belief in normative measured time, so as to authentically make something. It “is not a duration in time,” but rather an experience of endlessness.
Wandering into this territory of non-normative time, I think primarily of “queer time,” described by theorists like J. Jack Halberstam as the temporal norms, or norms in time, through which gender and sexuality are constructed. “Queer lives are notable for their lack of “chrononormativity,” writes Sarah Jaffe in her discussion of what defines the term “adulting” and the role queer lives play in redefining the timelines under which we do or don’t behave “as adults.”
. . . not only because of their objects of desire but also because they do too much of the wrong thing at the wrong time . . . time is foundational in the production of normalcy, such that engaging in particular behaviors at particular moments has become reified as the natural, common-sense course of human development . . . These normative narratives of time presume a linear development from a dependent childhood to an independent adulthood defined by marriage and reproduction.
This analysis is what I feel is missing from the discussion of Heti’s book — and, to some extent from the book itself. Heti has been pegged as childish, unrefined — even somehow stunted — because she is not having children at the time expected of her, is not following heteronormative patterns of linear life development, and continues to consider the numerous possibilities that may take place within her life, as opposed to choosing one straight (in multiple ways) path and following it diligently. She dwells in a kind of endlessness, as above, that queer theorists have identified as temporal resistance to normativity.
But for all the plumbing of depths that Heti is willing to do, she does not fully go there. Queerness and queer time hide in plain sight. She writes:
When I think about what I really want, it is a girlfriend for me and Miles . . . I want a girlfriend and boyfriend both. I want a woman for us more than a baby. I think it would make everything easier, sweeter, more truthful, and more right.
The one time Miles and I had a threesome with a female friend, I felt, this is heaven, this is everything I ever wanted in my life. This satisfies every last part of me.
This expression of satisfaction is one of very few in a book about insistent and ongoing questioning. It’s a queer satisfaction, in the literal sense and in the theoretical sense, because in being satisfied by the threesome in a way she isn’t satisfied by (the idea of) a child, Heti subverts normative ideas of completion, family, and couplehood — pursuing her wondering instead.
I’ve only whispered to friends that I liked this book. I say it hesitantly, with caveats. I’ve been worried my care for this book will make me seem stupid, too emotional, too willing to follow threads that are going nowhere, too interested in relationship. Interestingly enough, these are the same critiques that have been leveled against women for centuries when it comes to any extended conversation focused on their bodies and/or internal lives.
But here I am, relating to the book and wanting to extend the conversation it’s begun. “Besides, there are so many kinds of life to give birth to in this world, apart from a literal human life,” Heti writes:
And there are children everywhere, and parents needing help everywhere, and so much work to be done, and lives to be affirmed that are not necessarily the lives we would have chosen, had we started again. The whole world needs to be mothered. I don’t need to invent a brand new life to give the warming effect to my life I imagine mothering will bring. There are lives and duties everywhere just crying out for a mother. That mother could be you.
It’s not clear here if the you is Heti, the reader, or another voice, but that ambiguity adds pleasantly to the ambiguity of direction here. Are we talking about myriad kinds of mothering, kinds of need, projects to be made, or roles a person can take in relationship to other people?
I think of Sylvia Plath, in that so-often-quoted segment from The Bell Jar in which Esther describes herself as a fig tree with many branches. At the end of each of these branches is a fig that is the possible fruit of one direction her life might take, but she’s not able to eat any single fruit because she can’t choose which branch to follow. Plath presents this as a problem in need of resolution in order for Esther to find relief, but Heti’s address to a similar situation presents another option: not to choose, but to climb as many branches as can be, eliminating only (eventually) the fruit that Heti perceives to be working in opposition to the others. (Even if this means an elimination of reproductive futures entirely – an idea queer theorists have also explored extensively in work in and around Lee Edelman’s No Future.) The threesome seems an apt image for this: to have the most possible, to queerly pursue the way to be that involves the most unknowns.
In an interview after the release of Heti’s prior novel, How Should a Person Be, the interviewer notes that they consider Heti’s questioning of “how to be” as a tenaciously “queer struggle.” Queer artists, the interviewer reflects, historically “build up this personality from scratch and it was kind of a performance, and the prevailing queer form of expression.” Heti does not own queerness for herself then, but, in a way, claims it for the book.
“It’s interesting because the book is about the love between two women. It’s not necessarily sexual but there’s eros,” she replies. “And Sholem and Jon are also gay. I never thought about that.” A strange thing to not have considered, given the themes of the book, and, later, the themes of Motherhood.
“Heti refrains from claiming the word ‘queer’ for herself, but I wonder if it might be fair to,” writes Katie Heaney on Buzzfeed. “A woman’s having children is so assumed that perhaps not having them is, in a way, another form of queerness altogether.” Heaney says this on behalf of Heti here, but Heti dances around it, perhaps for political reasons, perhaps out of respect and not claiming queer as her own identity. She gestures, but leaves it open in the form of a question: “Wanting not to have children could even be called a sexual orientation, for what is more tied to sex than the desire to procreate or not?”
For someone so intent upon questioning, it seems to me that for much of Motherhood Heti actually knows exactly what she wants and what will “satisfy” her — it’s a literal and figurative queerness. It’s just not an object of satisfaction that “counts,” according to a larger social norm, as satisfaction. And so the book continues for another 200-odd pages.
In college I was part of a peer-tutor program in which we were trained to tutor other undergraduates in writing. As part of our training we took a semester-long course on the teaching of writing, which schooled us on a variety of different pedagogical approaches. One approach in particular stands out: I remember a blurrily photo-copied article about narrative norms and how argumentation is developed across different cultures and national identities. The article argued that different people are taught different ways to make an argument depending on their cultural context, and that not all countries teach the five-paragraph essay in which we were so steeped. I remember a drawing of a spiral illustrating a Chinese style of argumentation. This was presented in opposition to a drawing of several arrows going the same direction (American style, it indicated) on the other side of the page.
Of course, these representations were vast generalizations in ways that I’d guess are now out of fashion – try as I did, I wasn’t able to locate that text anywhere. But the presentation of this cultural approach to pedagogy also got a reaction – in our class discussion of the article, our professor paid respect to the article briefly, but then reminded us that we were existing within an American university context, and thus it was our duty as tutors to help other students move toward the American way of writing and argumentation.
This article will help you understand and recognize what’s happening if their writing is all over the place, she said, but you’ll still need to turn them in the right direction. My fellow peer-tutors were up in arms for months about this — how dare she prioritize one cultural norm over another — but eventually we acquiesced and forgot about it. For all the Socratic-method-style questions we placed in the margins of our fellow students’ papers, a kind of linear development remained. We didn’t want to fail other students, or do them a disservice — it was our job to take them to a promised land of conventional certainty.
This certain future is what doesn’t show its face in Heti’s book, and I think to some extent this is what terrifies Heti’s critics. Yes (spoiler alert) at the end of the book Heti seems to have settled on not bearing children. But what the future does hold remains murky, and certainly unresolved by the variety of divination tools Heti employs. Without a child, the future remains one in which a variety of choices could and may be made. “How wonderful to tread an invisible path,” Heti writes “where what matters most can hardly be seen.”
Or, it’s that Dan Savage idea that a friend reminded me of recently: Savage is fond of saying that “gay people are better at sex” because they have to continually negotiate what sex entails, and what will happen next – as opposed to traditional heterosexual sex, in which there is consent to sex, and from there a straight (ha) and known path to vaginal intercourse.
Not so with queer sex, and not so with the queered sense of time and action that operates within Heti’s decision-making process, and thus, within her book. This “invisible path” can’t be seen, because it does not follow a direction of time: it’s what Kafer and Halberstam would call queerness by virtue of being “too much of the wrong thing at the wrong time.” By disobeying time’s “foundation of normalcy,” Heti gives up the visible heteronormative dream of marriage and family. And yet, queerly, Heti terms said “invisible path” “wonderful.”
As Elaine Blair writes, given how very wonderful Heti seems to find this — and how much time she purports to spend reading — it’s odd that Heti doesn’t touch on queer possibilities of family, aside from the brief note about the threesome, which she treats with a kind of yearning for the fleeting and impossible. I would have loved to see this yearning explored into other shapes of family and allegiance aside from man + woman + child, given that queers have bravely, imaginatively, and thoughtfully demonstrated the many forms family and care can take. Forms not only rich and joyous, but necessary for survival: forms built where others will not have them. As Christine Smallwood writes of Heti’s Motherhood: “It exists only to keep existing.”
Existing to exist: The joys of a life lived queerly, outside the bounds of vision and time. These joys are also the infinity Heti says she needs in order to make. An infinity difficult to fit within the bounds of argument, novel, memoir (however one decides to label this book). A mush time, perhaps. One that on the (normative) surface can appear confusing, repetitive, deviant, childish – any word you want to toss its way. But even with these complaints shifting on its surface, a mush time is one that can grow — and grow into — anything.
Leora Fridman is based in Oakland, CA, and is author of MY FAULT, among other books of poetry, prose and translation. Recent work can be found in The Millions, the Rumpus, the New York Times, and Wolfman New Life Quarterly. More at leorafridman.com.