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

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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

To or­der a copy of Heather, the To­tal­ity for £12.74 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

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