Mad Men writer Matthew Weiner’s new novel is a taut, stripped back study of dysfunction that could do with being a touch looser.
Heather, The Totality is a bit like having a shot of strong liquor, in that it’s downed quickly and then it hits you. It’s written by Matthew Weiner, whose previous credits include being head writer and executive producer of Mad Men, one the most accomplished television dramas ever produced.
Heather is devoid of waste. Each sentence and paragraph has been stripped to the bone, so that like a good script, only the essential information necessary to the story is conveyed – any fat has been cut away. The result is a brief novel that can be read in a few hours, the key characters outlined in a few words. There is literally nothing else left in the story:, backgrounds and descriptions are just sparse outlines if at all, yet it works.
There is Mark Barrington, bland, funny to his wife, though not it seems to anyone else, and who is better than most at his job at a city traders. He benefits by getting generous bonuses at the end of each year wthat make him reasonably rich and secure, but he doesn’t rise up the ladder to the extent a more ambitious man might have done. Later this becomes an issue.
Mark’s wife Karen is more beautiful than she realises but tends to be eclipsed by her friends and acquaintances, so much so that she often feels sidelined and lonely. When her only child, Heather, comes along Karen devotes her life to raising her and being Heather’s best friend.
Around the time that Mark and Karen met, Bobby is born. Bobby’s mother is a heroin and crack addict with a string of dysfunctional heroin addicted lovers. Some hit her, some are kind, all are addicts and transitory in the life of her son, who grows up in squalor and poverty. Later Bobby develops a taste for violent sex, so much so that the prison gang that beat him up as part of an initiation ceremony nicknamed him ‘hard-on’ after he got an erection as he lost concsiousness.
What these three will later have in common is Heather…
I read Heather, The Totality in a few hours and was briefly consumed by it and by Weiner’s ability to say almost nothing but at the same time say everything, leaving your mind to fill in the blanks. As when Mark sees his daughter being watched:
Mark wished it were just desire he had seen directed at his daughter and then he nearly collapsed against a bench to catch his breath, his body having deduced immediately what it took his mind an hour to figure out: the Worker’s gaze was so violent and hungry that Mark had actually run away.
Or when he first sees Karen:
Mark liked Karen because she had no idea how beautiful she was…. He thought he would never get tired of having sex with her and he took that thought very seriously and knew they would marry.
Yet novels generally envelope you, and if I have a criticism of Weiner’s minimalist style it is that ultimately it is unsatisfying. It leaves you wanting more – but in a bad way, a bit like a television drama that lasts for fifteen minutes, plays out brilliantly for that length of time and then ends. So, as the closing credits roll, the viewer is left thinking: is that it? Could they not write more? Did they run out of money? In the same way, much as I enjoyed this short novel, like the shot of liquor I started with, the effect has quickly worn off and I want more. Next time Weiner should write a feature rather than a trailer.