In Sheila Heti’s Novel, Critics Could Save the World—or Destroy It

“Pure Colour,” Heti’s most mystical work yet, considers what judgment means in both art and life.
BW portrait of Sheila Heti with colorful shapes moving around her.
Heti tells a human story from a God-like distance, turning characters into types.Illustration by Erik Winkowski; Source photograph by Jamie Campbell for The New Yorker

A Japanese folktale concerns a young acolyte so obsessed with drawing cats that the elderly and perplexed head priest sends him away. In time, he finds shelter in an abandoned temple that, unbeknownst to him, is haunted. But he has ink. He draws cats all over the walls, the beams, and the floors. Tiring, he tucks himself into a closet to sleep, but wakes to the sounds of violent struggle. When the temple falls silent, he creeps out. The mangled body of a giant goblin rat lies on the ground. From the walls, the beams, and the floors, his cats look on, their mouths bright with blood.

What writer does not dream of her work rising up to protect her? What writer does not, at some point, endure the opposite—the awful vulnerability of her words in the world, and her inability to defend them from being misread, even mutilated, by those goblin rats of malice, envy, laziness, mere incomprehension?