Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: at first, I kind of wished Matthew Weiner had used a pen name. Mad Men, which Weiner created and helmed for its entire run, is one of my favourite tv shows of all time. So it was hard not to compare Heather, The Totality, with its bigger sibling, especially as it is also largely set in New York, and it also explores the dynamics of a wealthy but unhappy family (albeit one whose individual components are actually quite different from their Mad Men counterparts–each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way and all that). But I was also concerned that my opinion of the book’s highlights and flaws would be influenced by this inevitable comparison. In the end though, if I enjoy a book, it means I like it, and if I don’t enjoy it, it means I didn’t like it. And I definitely enjoyed Heather, The Totality. Despite the pretentious title, despite all the second-guessing going on in my head while I was reading it, despite the fact that I was interrupted several times by an attention-seeking cat.
In fact, once I started reading it, I could barely let go. It’s only about 150 pages long, so I started it one night just before bed, thinking I’d read the first 10 pages or so then finish it the next day. Except I ended up reading the first half. And then, when I decided it was time to turn off the light, close my eyes, and actually go to sleep–I couldn’t. I just had to read a little bit more. So I opened my eyes, turned the light back on, and read an extra 20 pages. When I finally went to sleep, I had a bunch of tormented dreams–almost certainly influenced by the book, though details escape me–then was woken up at 4.40 am by the compulsion to finish it. So I did. And then immediately wrote down my thoughts.
Heather, The Totality is divided into two strands. One strand follows the Breakstone family–Mark, Karen, and their daughter Heather–from Mark and Karen’s first date to Heather’s early teens. Mark is a disappointment to all who know him; Karen is the pathetic beta to Heather’s alfa; Heather is incredibly charismatic from a young age, and has a boundless, almost eerie capacity for empathy. The other strand focusses on Bobby, who is about ten years older than Heather, and who was born to a poor, neglectful, heroin-addicted mother. Bobby is bright but quickly develops violent fantasies, particularly towards women, which more often than not he cannot act upon. The strands end up intertwining, but not quite in the way you might expect.
What makes the book so addictive–besides its brevity–is the way it’s told. Weiner keeps commas to a minimum, which makes his sentences sleeker, and he wastes little time with dialogue or anything that might break up the rhythm of his paragraphs. Even Bobby’s fantasies are described with restraint, so they never make you to put the book down in horror (though of course I say this as a cis straightish white guy, and this sort of thing is one of our blindspots). Almost every single sentence efficiently advances the plot and/or provides further insight into the characters’ psychology. And it does so in a blunt, unflinching, almost cruel way–like satire but with the humour dialled down, though never entirely absent. The unbroken, rhythmically pleasing sentences soften the blow of Weiner’s observations, while the latter’s borderline-cruel tone provides needed ballast to sentences so agile they would otherwise slip away before you can properly figure them out. The resulting effect is almost fable-like, and, as I said, extremely difficult to put down.
As with teenage Sally Draper in Mad Men, I feel that perhaps the book didn’t focus enough on Heather. At the same time, focussing slightly less on Heather than on the other three characters may have been deliberate, as it makes the reader feel something akin to the way Mark, Karen, and Bobby all long for her. But because the book is so short, and you get so much pleasure just seeing what happens next, I feel like I shouldn’t say any more on the subject.
Heather, The Totality is an exciting, promising start to Weiner’s literary career, and in the end it does manage to be its own thing, rather than simply Mad Men‘s little sister. I hope Weiner gives us many more stories like it.
Heather, The Totality is out on November 7. I was given a free copy by the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.