Book review

It’s hard to believe this novel is by the man who wrote the TV hits ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Sopranos’

Where’s the solid, layered storytelling in Matthew Weiner’s debut novel ‘Heather, The Totality’?

“Why is it that every time a man takes you out to lunch around here, you’re the dessert?” observes Peggy Olson in the very first season of Matthew Weiner’s masterful representation of Madison Avenue in the 1960s, Mad Men. The highly celebrated series has won multiple Emmys. And now there are accusations of sexual harassment against Weiner by screenwriter Kater Gordon.

This is ironic, considering a dominant conversation sparked by the show centred on gender disparity at the workplace, bringing to light a dearth of opportunities for women in an arena crowded with entitled unaccommodating men, and the excessive sexual harassment faced by most female characters, including but not limited to Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks). Though Weiner has denied the allegations, the conversation eclipsed the potential of his debut novel Heather, The Totality, published recently. Many appearances planned during his book tour had to be cancelled.

The novel, like the show that precedes it, dramatises the subject of masculinity, what it entails and where it places women in the narrative. It tells the story of the fictional Breakstone family. The eponymous Heather is the daughter of Mark and Karen Breakstone, who are going through life in conjugal boredom, and are excessively invested in their intelligent and sensitive daughter. Mark has an undefined job on Wall Street, and Karen, who used to work as a a publicist, settles for her true and all-consuming occupation, motherhood. She fills her days “documenting the daily wonder of Heather”, who, despite her parents’ loveless marriage, is a deeply insightful and empathetic child.

Class conflicts are back

The first part of the book draws a picture of desire, compromise and ennui, lightly touching upon the characters with unfunny detachment. Words are used sparingly, but each of them is loaded. Karen is pretty but she doesn’t know it. Mark certainly believes she is too good for him. He thinks about his sister who took her own life in a battle against anorexia, and is grateful that Karen shows no such inclinations to throw up after a meal. These are the things that bring these two together.

By the time Heather enters their lives, a long and meandering section of the book has been read. She arrives just in time to throw some light on the inadequacies and petty obsessions of her parents. Mark is insecure, and Karen is lonely. Both look to Heather to fill the gaps in their lives and their hearts.

Drawn into their luxurious Manhattan life is Robert Klasky, aka Bobby, a recently released ex-convict who comes to work in the building and becomes violently obsessed with the teenager. Here is Weiner’s cue to build a striking contrast out of class disparity. While Heather is at the focus of her parents’ – and, seemingly, the world’s – affections, Bobby has grown up on the sidelines, where everything is shady. His backstory consists of a heroin-addicted mother, homicidal tendencies, a stint in prison, and sessions with psychologists who confirm his self-involved sociopathic presumptions.

Threadbare storytelling

A tight short story, Heather, The Totality possesses a painfully simple outline, and in totality, it remains just that. Karen, a pretty, desperate and bored woman marries a stable but uninteresting Mark, and together they create the remarkable young woman, Heather, despite having her name in the title, remains an object to be discussed, coveted and desired – she never gets a voice. Through her, Weiner depicts the pathetic pointlessness of Karen’s quotidian existence, Mark’s weakness, and Bobby’s violently misogynistic and deeply disturbing masculinity.

As a picture of a sexual predator, Bobby is the least nuanced character ever created by Weiner. He is pure evil and incapable of remorse or reflection. He could be a perfect foil to Heather’s positivity, which, unfortunately, does not get a fair chance to develop beyond the distant image of her created by the other three characters: a mother desperately vying for the attention of her teenaged daughter, a stranger looking at a young girl lasciviously, and a father who watches nervously.

Read as a commentary on American class politics, Heather, The Totality illustrates the chasm between joyless abundance and privilege, and angry, violent, feral poverty. The novel uses the sexuality of a young girl to draw the comparison – a setup that is neither original nor insightful. But Weiner knows how to spin a tale, and the climax, when it does come, is unexpected. Whether it saves the novella from its own hollow inadequacies is another story.

Weiner’s fiction is minimalist and his restrained descriptions add to the chilling hollowness of the scenes he has set between these four disturbed and diverse characters. But at the end of it, the novella simply reads like a very long scene description, with almost no dialogue. It describes these lives, but does not pass judgement or provide fresh thoughts.

While the novel succeeds in creating gripping images of ennui and animalistic desire, Weiner’s deadpan narrative leaves a lot incomplete. In comparison to his work on The Sopranos, and his extremely sturdy and layered storytelling in Mad Men, Heather, The Totality seems like an experiment – one that does not completely deliver. As a potential screenplay, the debut novel is a skeleton with plenty of room and potential to be amplified and fleshed out with dialogue, gradation and back stories. But as it stands now, this is not a worthy follow-up from the writer of Mad Men.

Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner, Canongate.

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