Heather, the Totality
Matthew Weiner was a key figure in the rise of “premium cable” television. As a writer and executive producer on The Sopranos, and the creator and showrunner of Mad Men, Weiner helped usher in the age of high-prestige novelistic television serials.
Using Madison Avenue’s wealthy and morally bankrupt 1960s advertising industry as foil, Weiner’s magnum opus Mad Men chronicled an era of breakneck social change and agonisingly slow character arcs. For his debut literary work, Weiner has moved the action forward a few decades, over a few streets, and sped the pace up exponentially.
Heather, The Totality is divided into two narratives. One follows the Breakstones – Mark and Karen – from their first date, through their marriage (an amicable Manhattan alliance of convenience, money and aspiration), the purchase of an apartment one floor below the penthouse and the birth and adolescence of their daughter, Heather.
Despite their privilege, Mark and Karen are unhappy, trapped in paradigms of status anxiety – the only true joy in their life is their daughter. Heather is more than the sum of her parts – beautiful, charismatic, with an almost eerie capacity for empathy and trust.
The second, contrasting narrative follows Bobby, born into poverty, with a neglectful, heroin-addict mother. He grows up rough, and develops into a bright but manipulative boy, one with increasingly violent tendencies, particularly towards women.
It’s clear from the first pages that these two strands will entwine, but it’s the noirish panache with which they do that elevates the rather simple plot into a satire of urban ennui so hardboiled Weiner is essentially serving us John Cheever-scented essential oil.
Weiner manages to compress whole lifetimes into the space of a few paragraphs, without the reader feeling they have missed anything, allowing ellipses between scenes to do the work for him. The economy is breathtaking: there is not a flabby sentence in sight, balancing the no-nonsense briskness of a screen treatment with a novelist’s penchant for capricious turns of phrase. A perfect balance of function and form.
And if form dictates I should now find some fault with it, there’s very little to complain about. It’s a perfectly executed little book, right down to the production values – a slim hardcover as gorgeous, solid, deft and easily digested as a Madison Avenue pitch. ZC
Canongate, 144pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 11, 2017 as "Matthew Weiner, Heather, the Totality ". Subscribe here.