The Mad Men creator's debut novel has noir roots but plumbs his familiar territory of modernist anxiety with a savage precision.
Heather, the Totality
Little, Brown and Company
At first, it doesn't seem like Matthew Weiner is even trying that hard. Heather, the Totality, his first novel, kicks off like somebody who sidles up next to you at a not terribly interesting business function and starts telling a story. Or maybe like somebody telling you about a story they're working, only without writerly embellishments. But here's the thing: the storyteller is not a great raconteur. Nobody will finish this novel remembering a sublime fillip of dialogue or splash of lovely description. They are more likely to snap the book shut about three or so hours after picking it up—and they almost certainly will fly through it at that speed, because this thin blade of a book has a wicked magnetic pull—and pour themselves a couple fingers of something strong. To steady the nerves.
It begins in the demilitarized zone of middle age, with the meeting and marriage of Karen and Mark Breakstone, a couple of people who hadn't much luck finding that right person. Karen, Weiner writes, was getting on to 40 and taking stock of things after having "given up on finding someone as good as her father and had begun to become bitter about the seven-year relationship she'd had after college with her former Art teacher." Having been set up with Mark, a guy who had always been told he was something of a blah but worked in finance so had a shot at becoming rich, Karen decides to give him a try. Things seem to work out, as she finds his modesty and squareness charming and he thinks her inability to see her own beauty devastating. He becomes not the richest man in New York, "but he could still do most of the things that they did except for appearing in magazines," and so blessedly takes away her need to work. It's less meet-cute than meet-and-survive with two people trying not to drown in the intolerable mediocrity of their own paucity of imagination.
At this point, Heather, the Totality has woven a strange spell over the reader. It builds each chiseled line and paragraph with a carefully blank effect that mirrors the anxious shallowness of its characters, like a more disciplined and reflective Bret Easton Ellis. Once it has set the stage for some kind of icily removed reflection on the lives of vacuous Manhattanites of means, the novel takes a pivot across the river into a different America. Bobby is a kid born in Newark to a mother "who had rarely consumed anything other than beer during her mostly unacknowledged pregnancy." The part-feral shadow of Karen and Mark's cushioned lives, Bobby was smart enough to manipulate the educators and therapists who came across his path but not quite enough to get himself out of the poverty trap. After dropping out of high school, nothing really interested him except for animals: "They were like people to him, dumb and helpless, especially the roadkill he would pick up and hide in the garage for later inspection."
The intersection between Bobby's world and Karen and Mark's isn't visible at first. They move in separate arcs, invisible to the other. Weiner's writing, as he tracks each of their movements through their differently narrowed circumstances, is mesmerizingly acute in brightly rendering their social placement and psychological agitations. While Bobby, raised in drug dens and on the beatings of strangers, walks through the world with a predator's confidence, the incomparably fortunate Karen and Mark agitate and fret over each of the few wrinkles that appear in their gleamingly rendered One Percent life.
The gap between the two universes seems to yawn even wider once Weiner introduces the novel's titular character: Karen and Mark's daughter. To their eyes a preternaturally advanced child, Heather becomes the all-encompassing center of Karen's life, one that had already narrowed to a fine thin line after marriage and threatened to disappear altogether. Devoting herself entirely to the curating of Heather's gloriousness, Karen went so far as to manage her daughter's friendships, since to her way of imagining, Heather "was frequently taken advantage of by clingy and maladjusted girls."
While Heather's life is burnished ever brighter in the manner of monied new millennium urbanites who allow no grit in the gears of their offsprings' journey toward some unattainable ideal of utter life satisfaction, Bobby's is given a push of its own. In prison after being sent away for rape, Bobby faces an easily manipulated therapist who thinks he's giving his patient well-needed confidence but in fact leaves Bobby thinking that in fact "he was so damn smart that people bored him … and he could rape them and kill them anytime he wanted because that's why they were on earth."
The true terror contained in this short but frequently frightening novel isn't just statements like that. Heather, the Totality is on its surface a quiet book of manners, contrasting the lives of the haves and have-nots in a particularly sharp and glimmering way, with a Patricia Highsmith chaser. But Weiner's strikingly stripped-back writing—which stops just shy of being overly simplistic—and elegantly deployed insight is after more than a lesson in economic inequality; though the story is nothing if not a harrowing satire on the emptiness of wealth and its pursuit. His characters share an enervating incapacity for true understanding or empathy. While Karen, the lady who would like to lunch but can't find friends to lunch with, would seem to be Weiner's most visible target, everyone in this novel is awash in a palpable and chilling loneliness. In this novel, loneliness is less an emotion than condition.
Heather, the Totality is a morality play where the moral is never stated, but written in jealousy and eventually blood.