A strange and horribly coercive first novel by the creator of Mad Men becomes an allegory of the decay of contemporary American life Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
Here is a curious and unexpected phenomenon: a first novel by, as the dust jacket informs us, the “writer, creator, executive producer and director of Mad Men ”, who also worked on The Sopranos – how weary he must be of hearing himself thus neatly labelled – which is not about the trials, betrayals and triumphs of television men, as might have been expected. Instead it is an allegory of the decay of contemporary American living, written in degree-zero prose, with broad spaces between the paragraphs, and each character graced not only with a name but also a capitalised title – the Father, the Mother, the Doorman – so that the whole thing has the air of a modern-day folk tale, rather in the manner of Neil Jordan’s The Dream of a Beast or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood .
The eponymous Heather is the dotedon daughter of a well-to-do Manhattan couple, Mark and Karen Breakstone. He is a Wall Street master of the universe, while she, having sought to make it in publishing, settled for public relations, not very comfortably – “Eventually, she told people she was in publishing because no one understood publicity, especially the freelance kind” – until she discovered her true vocation, which is, or was, motherhood, or more specifically, to be the mother of the uncannily delightful Heather.
Woven into the life of the Breakstones, like the fine steel wire of a garotte, is the story of Robert Klasky of Newark, New Jersey – stamping ground, you will remember, of the Soprano crew. Poor Bobby Klasky is the unwanted son of a single mother – Mother – all of whose attentions and energies are devoted to her heroin habit. When he was born, in Newark’s public hospital, Bobby “was a miracle unnoticed by the medical staff, since they were unaware that his Mother had rarely consumed anything other than beer during her mostly unacknowledged pregnancy”.
The measured but slightly rancid account of the Breakstone family, from the courtship of Mark and Karen to Heather’s early adolescent years, is a very Manhattan tale, reminiscent of the plot of a Woody Allen movie – one of those intentionally unfunny ones he used to make. The pointillist brushstrokes with which Weiner fills in the early pages are done with wonderful subtlety and a sharp, dry wit, many instances of which will only register on a second reading – and this is a book that must be read twice. Mark has a fat face, “but somehow his body was lean, which gave him the look of someone you didn’t really notice”. Karen, on the other hand, is more beautiful than she seems to realise; more so, certainly, than Mark feels himself worthy of. On their early dates, Karen is doubtful: “She felt it would be an unbearable compromise to stare at an ugly face every day and worry about her future children’s orthodontia.”
However, she is won over by Mark’s offbeat sense of humour and by his obvious potential as a high-earning spouse. Another attractive trait, which appeals to her essentially tender heart, is a faint, lingering trace of melancholy. This is the result of his anorexic sister having starved herself to death at the age of 17, after which his parents devoted themselves, in “silent, busy grief”, to housecleaning and hapless bouts of gardening. Abandoned to loneliness, young Mark “resolved to be the achieving survivor for their benefit”, though cannily realising too that financial success “would allow him to be reborn into a world where none of this had ever happened”.
So Karen and Mark get married, and Mark does become rich, and in time they have the loveliest baby imaginable. Even in her buggy, little Heather watches the world with a clear, empathetic eye, addressing troubled strangers with kindly solemnity, and generally winning over “even the most downbeat New Yorkers with her squeals and laughter”. So adorable is she that people look at her and then at her parents, surprised that such a couple should have produced this angel, with her blond hair and large blue eyes, who “smiled as early as four weeks, often clapping her fat little hands with delight”.
With all this good fortune, you just know that something awful is going to happen, and that the something awful is bound to come in the form of poor, maltreated, feral Bobby Klasky. Which it does, but not at all in the way you have been cleverly led to expect. Weiner knows how to tell a story, and how to twist its tail until it cries out in pain.
As Heather sets out on her life’s voyage, over in New Jersey the iceberg that is Bobby Klasky grows in secret, nine-tenths of his malignancy hidden under a plausible surface. He quickly learns to benefit from the fact of his mother’s neglect, wheedling his way into the sympathies of social workers and parole officers. Even after he beats a girl half to death, he is given a relatively light prison sentence. Later, when he commits murder, in what is surely the finest, most beautifully written and most chilling single paragraph in the book, he gives such a heartfelt and plausible account of the event that the police do not even suspect him of involvement in the crime.
Bobby comes loping into the Breakstones’ life when the construction firm he works for is hired to renovate the apartment building where they live. He fixes hungrily on Heather, “his nose and lungs filled with a mix of cigarettes, soap and blood that exploded from a tall skinny girl speaking on her phone, smoke curling around her shoulderlength light brown hair as if she were on fire”. He whiles away the back-breaking hours of his workday by planning the various unspeakable things he will do to her before killing her. His plans will go awry, however, like almost everything else.
Heather, the Totality is horribly coercive; it is also an oblique diagnosis of the sickness at the heart of contemporary America, a nation bloated on liberal middle-class complacency and seething with the rage and paranoia of its neglected ones. Here is Trump-land in all its madness and its pathos. As Tony Soprano would say: whaddaya gonna do?
Weiner knows how to tell a story, and how to twist its tail until it cries out in pain
144pp, Canongate, £14.99
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