Matthew Weiner has turned his gaze on wealthy New Yorkers before, and to great effect: His TV show “Mad Men” received numerous awards and accolades. In “Heather, the Totality,” his brief, rapid-paced first novel, Weiner chooses a landscape of Manhattan co-op boards, St. Bart’s vacations, satin velvet and $1,200 Italian coffeemakers.
Into this world he places the Breakstone family: husband and father Mark, whose greatest initial asset is “his potential to be rich”; wife and mother Karen, who like her husband is haunted by social failures and fears of ineptitude; and their daughter Heather, so named because Karen “picked it from a book, believing she had never met a Heather who was not beautiful.”
In the early pages of this fragmented work, readers might assume Weiner’s project will be the mirthful undoing of Mark and Karen Breakstone, who are as insecure as they are spoiled. With the introduction of Robert “Bobby” Klasky, Weiner strips the story of its luxurious gloss.
Bobby is “born in Newark, New Jersey, to a single mother in the public hospital.” The juxtaposition of Heather’s and Bobby’s infancies are deliberately heavy-handed: Heather is “born at Lenox Hill Hospital at a reasonable hour” and “brought home to a stocked nursery”; Bobby’s mother, meanwhile, “had rarely consumed anything other than beer during her mostly unacknowledged pregnancy.”
Bobby’s story becomes ever darker and grislier; he survives, then perpetrates, acts of great violence. Although many years pass before he and Heather have an encounter, the story delivers clear implications: Readers ought to proceed with dread.
Bobby’s fixation on adolescent Heather is a major source of the novel’s tension; however, Weiner’s seemingly uncomplicated prose is rich with subtext. The language is infused with the Breakstones’ tacit critiques: Heather, for instance, attends “the most caring and progressive nursery school, though not necessarily the most prestigious.” The Breakstones live “west of Park Avenue” in a home that “had no balcony but was one floor below the penthouse.”
In spite of this petty, competitive navel-gazing, Mark is perceptive enough to intuit a real, external threat in the form of Bobby.
Weiner moves easily between Bobby’s sections and those of the Breakstones, and the complaints of the latter often seem laughable in comparison. The immediacy of the danger Bobby presents to their lives has the strange effect of uniting them in a single concern.
In choosing his title, Weiner seems less interested in the idea of totality as wholeness — readers see only a few years of Heather’s life — but of total eclipse. At times, Heather is impossible to see, caught between Mark’s protective scrutiny and Bobby’s sinister watch, in this dark, intelligent debut.
Jackie Thomas Kennedy’s writing has appeared in LennyLetter, Narrative, Crazyhorse, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
Heather, the Totality
By: Matthew Weiner.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 138 pages, $25.