Sheila Heti’s ambitious but erratic new fable about love, death and art imagines that the world as we know it is merely God’s first draft. As so often with artistic projects, things have gone subtly wrong. There is going to have to be a remake. The earth is heating up; the seas are rising; we are dying of every kind of disease. The disappointed creator – contemplating the shambles of it all ‘like a painter standing back from the canvas’ – is ready to scrap this draft and try again.
In the meanwhile, three kinds of people are born into our botched world: creative ‘birds’, socially focused ‘fish’ and loving ‘bears’. The birds, hollow-boned artists who centre their thoughts on themselves, appreciate God’s aesthetic intention. The fish and the bears, craving contact and connection, are less content. ‘Perhaps God shouldn’t conceive of creation as an artwork, the next time around’, the narrator suggests, ‘then he will do a better job with the qualities of fairness and intimacy in our living. But is that even possible – for an artist to shape their impulse into a form which is not, in the end, an art form?’