From Mad Men to addictive nihilism
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner Canongate, 144pp
In an interview a few years ago, Matthew Weiner said that, as a child growing up in a bibliophile family, he “always thought” he would be a novelist. Though his route to this destination has been unusually roundabout – first, there was the small matter of becoming a screenwriter and creating the hit TV series Mad Men – he has finally got there, aged 52. Heather, the Totality may be a slender work (technically more novella than novel), but it packs an impressive amount of drama and excitement into its pages. A bleakly elegant tale of ennui and class envy, it reads less like a novice effort than the work of a highly accomplished fabulator.
Mark and Karen Breakstone are a couple from Manhattan who meet, and get married, “a little late in life”. He works in an unspecified area of finance (which, not irrelevantly, gives him the “potential to be rich”); she has a job in publicity that she is only too glad to be rid of. While theirs is a not entirely cynical union, Weiner makes it plain that the emotions involved aren’t earth-shattering. Karen nearly calls off the wedding when Mark is passed over for a promotion, but eventually reconciles herself: “She knew that what she had come to know as love had become love when she was around him.” Mark, less convolutedly, considers Karen “beautiful” and thinks he will “never tire of having sex with her” – a realisation he takes “very seriously”.
Time passes rapidly in Heather, the Totality. Whole years and even decades are swept up in its rigorously honed paragraphs. Mark and Karen have a baby – Heather – and she becomes their all-consuming focus. (They are a couple with few friends or social aspirations, despite their steadily increasing affluence.) Weiner captures well the way that this shared infatuation gradually gnaws away at their contentment. (If, as a parent, your love for your child is partly a compensation for other failures, this can unleash its own destructive dynamics.) As Mark and Karen slide joylessly into middle age – him continuing to get passed over at work, her finding little beyond the minutiae of her daughter’s life to absorb her – Heather increasingly functions as a kind of marital tug-ball, a repository of her parents’ frustration and bitterness. She becomes, as the title suggests, “the totality” of their existence.
Despite being set in the present day, this is a novel that owes much atmospherically to those American works of the 1960s – notably Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and John Williams’s Stoner – that treat family life, and especially marriage, as one unfolding catastrophe. Weiner complicates matters, however, by introducing a more noirish element: a subplot about an amoral and dangerous young man named Bobby, who gets a job as a construction worker at the Breakstones’ apartment block. In some ways, Bobby’s presence makes sense: he allows Weiner to set up thematic contrasts (poverty v privilege, anarchy v order), and the crush he develops on Heather helps move the plot along. Nonetheless, I found him psychologically unconvincing, and Weiner himself seems unsure at times whether Bobby is a real character or more of a figurative projection of Mark and Karen’s marital woes.
Yet overall, this novel captivates, despite the grimness of its preoccupations. Weiner has a knack for writing sentences that grab and grip, and he knows a lot about pacing and structure. Although it has none of Mad Men’s surface glamour, Heather, the Totality offers its readers a not dissimilar pleasure: that of an addictive, even thrilling, nihilism.