by Sonya Chung
The buzz around Matthew Weiner’s debut novel, Heather, the Totality, began nearly a year ago, with the news of its acquisition by Little, Brown. Such is the advantage of debuting as a novelist after having created, helmed, and written many episodes for the cultural phenomenon that is Mad Men. What we learned last year was that the novel’s inception traced back to a note in Weiner’s notebook about an unsettling interaction he’d observed while walking in Manhattan: “It was a little story where I was like, ‘I wonder what that is; maybe I’ll use it sometime.’” The “little story” involves Mark and Karen Breakstone, an affluent couple living on the Upper East Side; their daughter Heather as she grows into adolescence; and Bobby, a young man from a poor area of New Jersey, recently released from prison.
It’s interesting to consider that, apart from TV, Weiner has written mostly poetry and plays; and also to note Little, Brown editor-in-chief Judith Clain’s comment that “He’s really literary.” I myself have written and spoken about Mad Men’s “novelistic” qualities—how we follow a large cast of characters over time, witnessing both the external (cultural) transformations and internal (psychic and emotional) ones that make for a satisfying dramatic experience. And yet, with Heather, we see Weiner exercising alternative creative muscles: he crafts story and character using primarily a narrative tool unavailable to or little used by the TV writer, poet, or playwright; and that is interiority.
What’s more, Weiner uses this tool with such balletic intentionality—the effect of which is as unsettling as it is compelling—that my consciousness of him as “award-winning TV writer Matthew Weiner” fell away quickly as I read. Heather, the Totality—a slim volume that moves swiftly through time and incisively into the minds of its four principle characters—totally absorbed me.
I suspect however that mine may not be the unanimous or even prevailing experience; it would not surprise me in fact if responses to Weiner’s debut were somewhat polarized.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am no book reviewer. Which is to say, I like what I like when I like it. I also change my mind and cannot imagine otherwise / would be terrible at the job of making definitive pronouncements about the quality of a work and imposing those pronouncements authoritatively upon The Culture. When recently I was asked to judge a literary award, I accepted on the basis that there would be four others (and thus I could judge unapologetically as myself—as we all would, I presumed). During the process, a friendly conflict arose among us: the basic question of what makes for “excellent prose”—what makes a sentence arresting (or even competent), how does the writer wield language for optimal effect. Some of us were drawn to and praised terse, plain prose. Others found this prose flat and amateur.
It is a large nose which cannot be hidden. In addition, his teeth are bad. Are these good sentences? Bad ones? I think they are rather virtuosic—teeming with tension and narrative presence via an exterior glimpse. They plod along and surprise us, despite ourselves. (Why would a nose need to be hidden? If it cannot be hidden, the wearer of it must be at some disadvantage, a particular vulnerability. “In addition” puts a nail in some sort of coffin; what sort of death are we talking about? What permanent status of badness, of denial or dissatisfaction?) Both sentences beg the question, “From whose perspective?” which is the real mastery here: the reader is inside the layered perspectives of character, narrator, and author all at the same time.
These are not sentences our committee judged, nor those of Matthew Weiner; but rather they belong to the late James Salter, to whom Weiner presented the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Weiner said of Salter, “His investigation of the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone, is unflinching and brave.” I am struck by how aptly these words apply to Heather, and by the ways in which the prose styles of both authors—with their plain, seemingly flat surfaces—both efface and suggest so much. And as is the case with both Salter’s and the prose our committee judged, Weiner’s ostensibly homely sentences may excite both passionate fans and ardent detractors.
This intentional flattening is evident also in Heather’s structure: narrative shifts from character to character, along with movements forward and backward in time, occur in a seemingly lateral manner: transitions are not marked or flagged other than by a new paragraph. In addition, paragraphs are uniformly half-a-page to a page in length, mostly expository. The “camera” pans smoothly, along the perimeters of a quadrilateral story frame and dipping into each of its four character’s viewpoints.
Before they left [Mark and Heather] quickly made a beaded necklace for Karen so she would not feel left out. Mark and Karen got drunk and did it [had sex] again that night while Heather slept in the next room and it was somehow less, but followed by a whispered conversation about how long they’d been together and what a miracle Heather was. The last day the three of them sat far from the breakfast buffet, overlooking the man-made lagoon, so conspicuously happy that a passing woman insisted she take a picture for them.
While the Breakstone family was on vacation, Bobby was laid off from the lumberyard. He was told he would get his job back and they had let everyone go for a few weeks only to rehire them to avoid some labor laws and he was happy to spend some of the money he’d been earning or maybe go somewhere. But his Mother had broken up with her latest and Bobby agreed to give her a loan so she could feed her habit, knowing full well he would never see the money again. It didn’t matter because where would he go anyway and wandering around Harrison and Newark would be fine in the spring before it got sticky.
Here the narration contrasts The Breakstones as a unit with lone Bobby; more typical in the novel are longer sections narrated through the eyes/emotions of Mark, Karen, and Heather individually, as in Bobby’s second passage above. But in this brief example we see Weiner’s method of flat surfaces—dispassionate clauses belying emotionally loaded statements, and strung together by conjunctions. Weiner also achieves interesting prose textures by dipping into characters’ voices—melding and layering third-person and first-person narration: what a miracle Heather was; where would he go anyway.
In the language of writing classes, Weiner is constantly “showing” us his characters’ deepest disturbances, but in the guise of “telling” us what’s happening externally or what characters are feeling in the most simplified terms. Shades of Hemingway, yes; but it’s the four-perspective merry-go-round effect that not only reminds us, but creates an actual experience, of just how distant we are from each other when we are ostensibly very much “together.” These slides from perspective to perspective demand the reader to keep moving, to participate actively in both pivots and permeability. One can imagine an editor asking the author to go easier on the reader, provide signals or chapter breaks that allow for full stops and restarts. I like to imagine Weiner refusing absolutely.
The Matthew Weiner of Mad Men makes himself known in Heather via sharp and complex character insights. Weiner’s eye for fine, particular details transforms the Type that each character initially incarnates into a real human being. Mark Breakstone is an above average corporate banker, disappointing (insufficiently athletic) son of a high school football coach, lean bodied and chubby faced, with a dead sister (an anorexic who starved herself) haunting the edges of his existential solidity. His ambition is to make “at least enough [money] for a country place and one of those awards people got for being generous.” Mark wins over Karen—a good catch who “had no idea how beautiful she was”—on their first date by saying, earnestly, “People don’t get me sometimes.” In addition to beautiful, Karen is professionally capable: “Deeply behind the scenes, she booked travel and appearances for authors and editors and after once covering for her boss with a perfectly purchased apology of handmade chocolate and ash-striped cheese, she began to design themed gift baskets so specific and exquisite that many urged her to start her own business.” Karen has limited enthusiasm for her work however, and,
Unlike her boss, she was incapable of shaking her suburban manners or showing sudden charm to strangers with her sunglasses on her head and thus upon realizing that Mark might insist she change her profession to wife and mother she was pleasantly excited.
Karen likes that Mark makes big money. She also does like Mark. Weiner is careful, with both Mark and Karen, to hew the line of messy motives when it comes to love and money: we understand that they both have and have not built every aspect of their lives, and their marriage, on the assurance of wealth. As with all the characters in Mad Men, it is tempting but not-so-easy to either judge or dismiss them.
Bobby—who in the second half of the novel joins the construction crew that renovates the Breakstones’ apartment building—comes from poverty, neglect, and addiction. Bobby’s character manifests a precarious if familiar cocktail of intelligence, inflated self-perception, and pent-up physical intensity. In the case of this outsider figure, Weiner presents the facts of his transgressive behaviors matter-of-factly, but also details Bobby in a way that destabilizes both the reader’s, and the other characters’, inclination to dehumanize him: “It was the first time Bobby was in jail and he kept to himself and even got some antibiotics for where the ashtray cut his head, which was already infected.” At a moment toward the end of the novel, when the reader has likely written Bobby off as villainous and unhinged, obsessed with possessing/vanquishing teenage Heather, we get:
He could never go back to school but was good at saving money and he could get Heather a house, no a home. She was born rich, so her parents would never want to see her go without and so they would help them out, and happily, because Bobby would be working his hardest and everyone respected that.
Weiner does risk failing to transcend Type with each character—Bobby’s down-and-out backstory, Karen’s Manhattan-mom vanities, Mark’s wounded masculinity, Heather’s millennial do-gooder perfection—and at times he falls a hair short. There are moments when the authorial voice limits characters to their prescribed corners of this squared universe. But what saves these moments from addling the novel as a whole is the way in which Weiner’s flattened structure and style begin to pay off thematically: if characters themselves feel intermittently flat, the depiction (I believe) is part of the larger intention, i.e. to expose our shared, primal tendencies to self-preserve, oversimplify, take the shortcut, project and misunderstand, possess others for our own needs and purposes. We recognize the essential democratizing force of the novel’s form when it comes to “the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone.”
Tensions mount as Mark’s paternal-protector instincts morph perilously into energized irrationality; Bobby and Heather misread each other in perfectly, dangerously inverse fashion; Karen’s self-absorbed (arguably “feminist”) concerns about Mark shoot so far off-the-mark, she misses the signs that lead them all to climactic disaster. Our path to this climax exposes perhaps a bit of Weiner’s TV-writing impatience. We sense for example there is more to Mark’s inner makings and outward journey that would knock him so far and so fast from civilized man to all-instinct brute; and I craved this deeper, slower development. The nature and degree of disconnection between Mark and Karen too—as parents of such a beloved child, potentially in danger in these final pages—strains credibility. In its swiftness and manipulation of key moments of character intersection, the ending’s big events, their chilling finality, fall just shy (an itchy, so close kind of shy) of a satisfying inevitability.
But the facts of the ending—each character’s fate—resonate resoundingly and along multiple vectors of complexity. In Heather we see clearly, disturbingly, how universally fluid and messy is human development and moral character, across social class and background. Weiner’s scalpel-like access to each character’s interiority reveals their civilized and uncivilized selves, trading and warring from moment to moment: here, Bobby both fantasizes and enacts violence, there he dreams reasonably of the placid, domestic future anyone deserves; similarly—too similarly—Mark and Karen each oscillate between reaching for some version of noble love on the one hand and indulging the persistent underside of possession and self-compensation on the other. Heather’s equalizing form speaks volumes toward its moral center—we are all essentially the same; our fates are not—thus the novel’s success lies in its deceptive orderliness. The story disturbs, sentence by sentence, with incisive intention. Based on Weiner’s existing fan-base, one can anticipate its likely audience, i.e. those who would seem to share more in common with the Breakstones than with Bobby. In this sense the novel transcends the status of a mere sleek, domestic thriller, and contributes meaningfully, unexpectedly, to resistance.