HEATHER, THE TOTALITY
By Matthew Weiner
138 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $25.
If television shows really have replaced the novel as the preferred mirror for our busy lives, then Matthew Weiner is surely one reason. As the creator of “Mad Men” and a major contributor to “The Sopranos,” Weiner has done as much as anyone to prove that TV drama can be as emotionally rich and formally artful as any first-rate novel, while at the same time offering all the senses-saturating enchantment of great cinema. The combination is powerful enough to have put just about every novelist I know into a state of at least mild crisis. How can we possibly compete?
It comes as a surprise, then, that Weiner has turned to the form he’s helped speed toward redundancy, for his latest project, “Heather, the Totality.” Of course, with his gift for the steady disclosure of complicated characters and his keen ear for the subtexts of human interactions, he ought to be a natural. Still, it’s an interestingly counterintuitive move.
In a note on the novel’s origins, Weiner recalls: “I walked past this beautiful schoolgirl going into a building under construction, and I saw a man working there stare at her with threatening intensity. … What I wrote down was, What if her father saw that?” The book stays faithful to this initiating vision. Schoolgirl, Worker and Father are duly sketched out, imbued with the qualities of vulnerability, creepy lust and paternal jealousy required by their respective roles, and set in motion toward that ill-omened encounter. There’s also a Mother (the caps are the author’s), and the foursome make up pretty much the entire cast.
It’s a brisk, undemanding read, with alternating sections on the family (rich, tame) and the Worker (poor, psychopathic) creating an efficient mechanism of suspense. The cogs don’t actually mesh until over halfway through, which is a little late, but the question of who is going to do what to whom keeps you queasily engaged, especially after the Worker modifies his plan of rape and murder in favor of something more florid.
And yet, it has to be said, the book also seems seriously at odds with itself, in all kinds of ways. Its extreme brevity (a mere 138 pages) suggests an ambition to join the company of those swift, spare thrillers that deploy a diagrammatic precision and economy of detail to uncannily powerful effect (Josephine Hart’s “Damage” and Tim Krabbé’s “The Vanishing” come to mind). But a countervailing expansiveness — whereby Weiner crams a full chronicle of the 15-plus years of Mark and Karen Breakstone’s marital ups and downs, career fluctuations and childhood memories into the book’s tight confines — works against that minimizing impulse. The result is a strange mixture of curtness and bagginess, with far more information about Mark and Karen’s unremarkable lives than the story needs, delivered in far denser chunks than the reader can digest with any pleasure. Here’s a typical passage:
“His Father found him lacking in aggression and eventually gave up bullying him, finding him best suited for supporting the real warriors, like a girl. Mark did eventually show some athletic ability in cross-country running, which required psychological discipline but was solitary and dismissive of the teamwork his Father thought most valuable. By junior year Mark knew that he preferred to be quietly competitive and that he didn’t get along with men because he hated the anonymous place they assigned him when they were in groups.”
Despite this expository abundance, the characters remain oddly vague. Mark (whose corporate job is never fully described, making it hard to care deeply about his shifting financial fortunes) comes across as a dull milquetoast one minute, a conniving manipulator the next. Karen veers between snooty poise and mousy social neurosis. Heather, the daughter, is distinguished by a precocious empathy that prompts her, aged 5, to tell a woman (or rather a Woman) on the subway: “You shouldn’t be sad even if your bags are heavy. I can carry one.” But Weiner seems undecided whether to present this as a sympathetic trait (it’s part of what draws Bobby, the Worker, to her) or an obnoxious one (which is how it actually reads), and so in between assuring us of the girl’s miraculous radiance, he sends out what appear to be winking invitations to laugh at her. All three are strikingly bland, even in the middle-school pettiness of their preoccupations with looks, possessions and status. Bobby is more vivid, with some gruesome accomplishments in his résumé, but even he remains a generic figure, built from familiar components (poverty, drugs, abuse) all handled with a conspicuous lack of nuance and zero attempt at imaginative sympathy with the world he comes from: “Having Bobby did little to alter his Mother’s belief that heroin was the best thing in her life.” Why Weiner should have wanted to devote time to such a depleted, rudimentary collection of human beings is a mystery. This is the creator of Don Draper!
None of it is helped by what seems a studied disregard for the one useful, if hoary, piece of received wisdom about fiction writing, that it is generally better to show than tell. There’s almost no showing in the entire book; little real-time action or direct speech. You keep waiting for a fully imagined scene with the kind of immersive detail that persuades you of the reality (to borrow Nabokov’s phrase) of what is going on. But even on the rare occasions when one arrives, or seems to, it quickly switches gear into a synopsis-like reporting of things: “One night, after a very expensive bottle of wine, while they lay spent in the after, Karen told Mark that other women had never used her as a measure because she easily receded in groups, most comfortable as an approving spectator.” The effect is to give the events a muffled, offstage quality; the last thing you’d expect from a world-class dramatist.Continue reading the main story
It may be that the habits of mind of a writer accustomed to the luxury of accomplished actors and lavish sets to flesh out his ideas simply don’t lend themselves to the novel, where words have to do it all. But I think the problem has more to with a fundamental uncertainty (again) on Weiner’s part as to precisely what disturbed him about that scene he observed on the street. There are some pithy social observations that suggest an interest in using the encounter for purposes of class satire in the manner of Tom Wolfe, but aside from a running theme about coffee consumption, the book never commits to a sustained look at the specifics of contemporary life. Occasionally a deadpan drollness, reminiscent of George Saunders, flickers in the prose, hinting at a possible interest in doing gothicky Americana, but that’s also fitful. It isn’t that every suspense story has to have some higher purpose. Playing it for pure chills would have been fine by me, but even there the book seems undecided, offering titillating suggestions of incest and darker transgressions one moment, only to back off the next, as if finding itself too squeamish, after all, to go there. What you’re left with is just that calibrated convergence of predator and prey. It holds your attention, but it doesn’t leave you with much.Continue reading the main story