“An unexpectedly noirish debut” – Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

httmwpbMatthew Weiner, showrunner of Mad Men and writer on The Sopranos before that, has unleashed a slim literary debut on the world and it arrives on our shores carried aloft upon a veritable parade of praise from the likes of Michael Chabon (“a tour de force of control, tone and razor-slash insight”), Claire Messud (“Short and rapier-sharp”), Nick Cave (“blew me away”), MJ Hyland (“A miraculous and fearless novel”), Philip Pullman (“gripped me at once and had me spellbound”), Maggie O’Farrell (“Chilling and poised”) and James Ellroy (“This short novel of upper-crust anomie and class-divide obsession is a scorcher!”) – that your first question has to be: is it as good as they’re all saying?

On the one hand, Heather, the Totality is the story of the Breakstone family – Mark, the father, works in finance, never shakes a feeling of being somehow inadequate, Karen, his mostly stay at home wife who finally finds her vocation in motherhood, Heather, their stunning daughter (archetypes we write with a distinct sense of how old fashioned this sounds – but Weiner is more adept than we give him credit for and Heather… more than passes the Bechdel test). Like all good biographies, we first meet the titular heroine through her parents and their coming together on a blind date (long after both parties think their chance at happiness has possibly passed). We grace the footsteps of their courtship, through marriage to eventual parenthood, the narrative voice switching back and forth to grant us perspective on how each partner sees the other. They are rich but not quite rich enough to grace the covers of magazines (much like characters from a Jay McInerney novel) – and Heather is an added beneficence, a child so sweet and empathetic that strangers on the street often look from mother to father and back again, perplexed as to where the child got it from.

But there is a counterpoint to all of this: Robert Klaskey, a young man born ten years before Mark and Karen’s first date over in Newark, New Jersey, fatherless (“his father could have been any number of people who had Bobby’s mousy brown hair and blue eyes”), raised by a mother addicted to drugs and terrible men, which sees Bobby injecting houseguests with heroin before the age of 10. From the get-go we know that Bobby and the Breakstones are on a terrible collision course, a feeling of doom only compounded as Bobby commits small crimes, graduates to assault and finally commits murder. But thankfully Weiner has enough about him to ensure the novel has surprises and turns aplenty as it proceeds.

So to return to that question of just how good it is. It’s good. It’s also short enough at 144 pages to function in much the same way as elegant crime dramas tell us all good heists should do: you’re in, you’re out, it’s done. Bada-bing etc. It has something of a Richard Yates short story about it (his short stories as distinct from his novels). Heather, the Totality feels brisk, and it’s title recalls the kind of narratives we’d expect from, say, David Foster Wallace or Nicholson Baker – in that, the choice of the word ‘totality’ seems to suggest that we are going to see everything about Heather, from every aspect, particle bright – and whilst we do see Heather from multiple perspectives, would we describe the view as one of totality?  Not quite. This is totality as viewed from a car window as the driver zips by at about 100. But this is a minor niggle. Given Weiner’s pre-eminence, this is a book we imagine will be highly anticipated and we think it is likely not to disappoint anyone who comes to it as a result of his TV work.

Any Cop?: An unexpectedly noirish debut from Weiner that should satisfy fans of elegant crime dramas and fans of Richard Yates in equal measure.

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