Heather, the Totality is cold. A brisk but harsh read by Emmy winner Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), the novella is realized in the vein of Richard Yates, an ostensibly sophisticated window into the despair of privileged East Coasters consumed by shadows of status and fallibility, age, and time. Spanning decades within a little more than 100 pages, it tells a basic story in an increasingly perilous context. It intends to grab you, hold you, and never let you go — but it never really does.
Heather marks Weiner’s literary debut, and it’s a significant departure, going from the expansiveness of serial television to the tight confines of a novella. Unfortunately, just as he did with his ghastly 2013 film debut Are You Here, Weiner struggles to find his rhythm.
Heather, the Totality is centered on Mark and Karen Breakstone. Steeped in noir and paced at a disarming clip, the book traces their journey from flirtation to marriage to pregnancy to resentment to murder to cover-up — as if it’s flipping through a macabre family album. As the years pass, Weiner also checks in on Bobby, a disturbed young man born to a heroin addict in New Jersey, and who quickly reveals a tendency for dangerous, abusive behavior. Once Heather, the Breakstones’ daughter, emerges as the story’s orbiting center, Bobby’s life gradually converges with the family’s — at which point the narrative culminates in muted tragedy.
Working in such a small storytelling space and with so many swirling elements, there’s precious little room for error here. This proves untenable. Weiner’s drawing of Bobby, for starters, is offensively off-base: The book indulgently examines his homicidal nature with doses of poverty porn, yet he’s merely used to establish contrasts of class and stability. Further, the breakdown of the Breakstone marriage, which takes up most of the action, is chronicled without distinctiveness. That these stories are paralleled throughout is an almost jarringly cynical choice. Weiner’s style is neither comic nor empathic nor particularly insightful; the narrative plods forward with simplistic characterizations that grow tiresome, and flabby sentences mistaken as artfully unformed. (Faulkner this is not.)
Heather’s titular character is but a symbol, even as she ages and matures, save for one small section where the book shifts to her perspective. She occupies a discomfiting space between obsessive men: She’s objectified by her father, who becomes unhealthily protective as she enters adolescence, and by Bobby, who spots her while working construction on her family’s apartment building in the city. Karen, meanwhile, devolves into a wealthy housewife stereotype, unfulfilled and resentful and, at one point, suicide-contemplating. It’s telling that Weiner devotes more psychological space to the men of the story. Bobby doesn’t make much sense as a character within Heather, but Weiner is genuinely interested in his origin story and dedicates dozens of pages to getting inside his head. Mark is the book’s most successful creation, if only because his flaws are the most specific; his descent into near-caricature oddly achieves verisimilitude where the rest of the book does not.
In his grim take on family and society, Weiner scrutinizes commodified images of American life and freely borrows from those who have already done so. (He’s among them, in fact: Mad Men, his television masterwork, is an extended interrogation of capitalism and the ways in which it infiltrates the domestic sphere.) Yet — even forgiving his ruthless but facile take on the class divide — Weiner strains to bring a freshness to this approach. Attempts at building intrigue are interrupted by his fixation on exposition, on bringing characters’ histories and personalities into focus. It’s rarely merited and the paranoid atmosphere suffers. This is especially true of the climax, which never wavers from telegraphing its nihilistic endpoint.
To his credit, Weiner isn’t interested in a linear reading experience. The book’s most shocking moment is but one of many brushstrokes to be briefly considered, and other peaks of tension are treated with similar nonchalance. The pretensions of the book give it an aura of thematic force, with evocative images like that of a near-abandoned high-rise provoking thorny questions, only for it to dissipate with another expository chunk of text. The novella’s chilly in the sense that it fails to connect — suspense is undercut, humor disregarded, love and affection and pain mostly taken for granted. The characters’ interiority is so meticulously assembled that each comes across more writerly than lifelike, their development more mundane than incisive. In its empty cynicism, there’s simply too little to feel or to contemplate; in more ways than one, Heather, the Totality marks a pretty thin debut. D+