Matthew Weiner has gone from the sprawling multiple-character longform world of the television series Mad Men, which he created, wrote, produced and directed over seven seasons to a minimalist and tightly focused character study in his first novel (at 144 pages, more a novella really) Heather, the Totality.
There is almost no dialogue in the book and hardly anything you could call a plot. Everything happens inside the minds of the novel’s four main characters. It is a thriller of sorts and there is an element of suspense, but Weiner’s main preoccupation is his characters’ psychological motivations.
It is also a book about class, contrasting a wealthy Manhattan family, the Breakstones — Mark and Karen and their 14-year-old daughter Heather — with a construction worker named Bobby Klasky.
Recently released from prison, Bobby is working on the renovation of the building that the Breakstones live in. He also has has violent fantasies of rape and murder.
Specifically, Bobby intends to rape and murder Heather. So, we know early on that a violent clash is inevitable. Given the conventions of the thriller genre we can also assume that it won’t be the clash we are set up to expect.
There is a twist ending, but when it does come it is not very surprising and not very believable either.
Weiner’s style of writing is distinctly odd. He likes to randomly capitalize nouns like Mother, Father, Worker, etc. His sentences are often long and convoluted and lack structure.
This is a sample: “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.”
The novel is told in the third person, mostly from Mark, Karen and Bobby’s points of view. We only get a bit of Heather’s perspective near the end of the book.
Mark and Karen were nearing their forties when they married and Heather is their only child. She is beautiful, intelligent and kind, not characteristics her parents share. Mark works in finance (we’re never told what exactly) and Karen is a stay-at-home Mom.
They are rich but not as rich as they would like to be. They live near but not on Park Avenue; they live one floor below the Penthouse of their building. Mark and Karen are both staggeringly dull. Over time their marriage has become as dull as they are, and they use Heather as a pawn in their low-level skirmishes.
Karen at one point introduces the idea that Mark’s overprotective interest in Heather has a dark sexual side to it, but this is never really explored. Mark is the more complex of the two. Karen herself is more of a sketch than a fully formed character.
Bobby is the most well developed character. He has a melodramatic backstory with his heroin addict mother, but he never becomes a one-dimensional villain. He is depraved but also smart enough to know what he can get away with and what he can’t.
Although it is a short book, it has some very slow stretches in the middle and there are various plot lines that just seem to disappear. It isn’t a particularly bad book, much of it is quite good. It just doesn’t seem like a book that needed to be written. It feels more as if Weiner is ticking off another box on his resume rather than telling a story he was burning to tell.
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner, Little, Brown and Company