I had high hopes for Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s debut, the strikingly titled Heather, the Totality, but this strange slip of a novel – novella, technically, since it’s only 138 pages and reads like a long short story, easily consumed in a single sitting – actually left me rather bemused.
The story itself is relatively simple. A man and a woman meet and marry “a little late in life”. Karen – who’s pushing 40 – had, we’re told, “given up on finding someone as good as her father and had begun to become bitter about the seven-year relationship she’d had after college with her former art teacher.”
Alarm bells should start ringing straight away, Weiner clearly has no qualms about dealing in clichés when it comes to female characters. Nor his men too, if I’m being fair: after they first sleep together, Mark lies in bed admiring Karen’s naked body, “her nipples almost purple in the blue air, her skin so milky, her thighs so full and ankles so narrow”, coming to the conclusion that “he would never get tired of having sex with her”.
Fast-forward 15-odd years though and he’s more often found sleeping alone on the couch than in the marital bed. In the meantime, the couple have had a daughter: Heather, as impossibly perfect as her mother is increasingly set up as her shrewish counterpart (Karen transforms into another stereotype, women defined by “sexless marriages, food obsessions and real estate woes”), a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, beautiful angel, possessed of “charm and intelligence and, most notably, a complex empathy that could be profound”.
Too good to be true, Heather’s raison d’être is to be the object of everyone’s obsession, a storyline that’s both creepy and unoriginal in equal measure. First her mother’s, then her father’s; then, as a teenager, she also catches the eye of Bobby, a construction worker with homicidal tendencies, whose back story allows Weiner to indulge in some hackneyed poverty porn – a heroin-addicted mother, his neglect, first attempted rape and subsequent youthful stint in prison.
It’s an entanglement that’s clearly not going to end well – though, to give Weiner his due, when the climax does come, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. The two stories – Bobby’s early life in New Jersey, and the Breakstone’s existence in their co-op apartment just west of Park Avenue – are told in parallel in what one assumes to be Weiner’s attempt to juxtapose poverty and privilege, but it’s jarring rather than illuminating. All a bit too clear-cut.
The overarching problem is that the book ultimately reads like the skeleton of a work still in need of fleshing out. It’s like a film treatment – which is perhaps not that surprising with Weiner’s Mad Men background – noirishly immediate and descriptive, but he fanatically favours telling over showing, and all but avoids dialogue. Admittedly there are echoes of Yates and Cheever, but all these do is make the insipidness of Heather, the Totality all the more apparent by contrast.
‘Heather, The Totality’ by Matthew Weiner is published by Canongate, £14.99
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