NOVEMBER 15, 2017
BY NOW it’s a bit of a commonplace to point up the “literary” qualities of Mad Men. The show’s allusiveness has been dealt with extensively, and — more than any other television show in memory, perhaps — its ostensibly novel-like qualities have been highlighted time and again. No argument here, but what made the show this way, was neither its sweep, setting, obvious literary intelligence, nor tendency to have its characters read Frank O’Hara or Alberto Moravia. Rather, I suspect, what made it so was something much deeper and far more ingrained: a genuine preoccupation with the problems of consciousness. The show’s tendency to grapple with questions of representation and self-representation — with the issue of “reality” — was unusual, to say the least, allowing it to explore certain particular states, arguably better than anything in the history of film or television. It’s no accident that the show ended on a note that was, literally, meditative. This preoccupation with consciousness goes a long way toward explaining why Matthew Weiner’s foray into literary fiction seems so natural. He may or may not have felt it to be, but his first novel, Heather, the Totality, has a rare effortlessness and command of the mechanics of fiction.
Heather is, on the face of it, a short book, ruthlessly so. It is short in the manner of John Cheever’s late, strange, and underrated Oh What a Paradise It Seems, or perhaps more accurately in the manner of a Henry James novella. It has a fable-like clarity and economy, but also the unsettling psychological penetration one would find in James, Patricia Highsmith, or Graham Greene, one of the late 19th- or 20th-century masters of cognitive vivisection. What sets it apart — or further apart — is its tone. One gleans from its flap copy — and occasionally one feels as one reads — that the book is hurtling toward the most brutal of all possible conclusions. Only (as with James, most often) the anticipated violence is not so much “averted” as refracted: the novel’s mood shifts and bends; it modulates into notes that are pensive, melancholy, often stringent, occasionally warm; and its ending manages to be at once harrowing and disturbingly contemplative.
The setup is simple: Karen, a not-quite-young (nearly 40) publicist meets Mark, a not-quite-plutocratical rich corporate banker on a blind date. With a nice touch, neither of the referring parties has actually met the people involved; each is set up by a friend or a colleague who knows the other only via their spouse. Karen doesn’t find him particularly handsome, but is struck by something a little difficult to quantify. “It was almost like he had the personality of someone very confident, someone who came off so strongly that they felt they had to constantly deprecate themselves. Still, his face said the opposite.” Likewise, Mark is struck not so much by Karen’s attractiveness, but “because she had no idea how pretty she was.” The couple date. They marry. Soon, they have a daughter named Heather who becomes, over the course of the marriage, a party of shifting alliance: for a while, she seems a hedge against Karen’s midlife disappointments; later, she bonds a little more keenly with her father. And while Heather’s own interior life is one we’ll access only later in the book, we are made aware early on that this child’s defining characteristic isn’t mere beauty or intelligence, but “a complex empathy that could be profound.”
One of the book’s defining qualities is this incredibly canny liminality. These characters could easily be types: the sort of brownstone-purchasing, terminally unhappy rich people we’ve met in more novels than we can count. We’re set up to expect that not by Weiner, but by the fact that this is explicitly a book about wealth and class. It takes exactly three sentences for the book to make us aware of that (actually less: “Karen was nearly 40 and had given up on finding someone as good as her father,” begins the second, and we can only wonder, “as good” in what sense?), and when our perspective suddenly shifts from that of Karen and Mark to that of a boy named Bobby Klasky, born to a single, heroin-addicted mother in Newark, New Jersey, some 10 years earlier, we sense immediately that a collision is coming, and that it won’t be pretty.
Except none of these things (mercifully) plays the way you think it will. Mark and Karen are not exactly the meticulously detailed late bourgeois we’d meet in a Franzen novel, say, and while the book is shot through with a satisfying sense of absolute dread, it’s also surprisingly spacious. Weiner’s not interested in anatomizing or fetishizing the couple’s lavish Manhattan existence before merely, however satisfyingly, punishing them for it. On the contrary, this short, propulsive novel seems much more engaged with the project of exploring their restless animal moods, the shifting sands of their marriage, their private hopes and darker, shadowy impulses. For all its speed and economy, Heather, the Totality has an unexpected amplitude; the book is at once breakneck and not exactly what you’d call plot-driven.
Some, I suspect, will be a little vexed by this, or may find the book’s interrogation of its main characters’ privilege insufficient (while this would seem beside the point to me), but the unique and satisfying queasiness the book produces grows directly from this ambiguity. The characters aren’t exactly paragons, but even the putative antagonist, Bobby, is rendered with clear-eyed sympathy. This is neither a morality tale nor a simple examination of class problems in which the engines unleashed by money (or the lack of it) drive these people to ruin. It’s something a good deal more complicated than that.
Surprisingly or not, depending on how aware one is of Weiner’s actual thematic preoccupations, Heather, the Totality is spare, almost skeletal; there’s almost no dialogue, and very little visual description, two things one might expect from a seasoned television writer. Instead, there is a relentless interiority, a patient strobing of first one person’s consciousness, and then the next. Those lines of dialogue we are given, those bits of sensory detail, count for a lot: a splash of mustard on a woman’s sleeve, onions on a pedestrian’s breath, the loneliness of a skyline “littered with skeletal steel and cranes.” It’s an odd sort of beauty the book possesses, perhaps unexpected from the person responsible (or one of them, anyway) for the sleek pop poetics of Mad Men, but it’s also completely in line with its literary antecedents, the emotionally rich but visually spare novel of consciousness.
As such, Heather, the Totality is an unqualified success. If one wishes, at times, for still a little more room to breathe — a wider world, a broader canvas for a larger story to unfold — well, that’s a testament both to Weiner’s prior achievements and, more importantly, to this one.