From Mad Men to ad­dic­tive ni­hilism

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Wil­liam Skidel­sky

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.

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