Thursday 17 January 2019

Only great expectations spoil debut novel from creator of Mad Men

Fiction: Heather, the Totality, Matthew Weiner, Canongate, hardback, 138 pages, €20.99

'The Don': Jon Hamm in Mad Men, Weiner’s hit TV show
'The Don': Jon Hamm in Mad Men, Weiner’s hit TV show
Heather the Totality

Tim Smith-Laing

If the name attached to this debut novel rings a bell, it should. It is probably fair to say Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men and sometime Sopranos writer and producer, is one of the most influential cultural figures of the 21st century. Weiner has done much to make television the vehicle for a new form of storytelling. It is in no small part thanks to him that we are living in a golden age of entertainment - with shows that combine TV's duration with the production values of film and the depth of the novel.

This makes it hard not to come to Heather, the Totality with certain expectations. For better or worse, there is some continuity for fans of Mad Men. Set in a Manhattanite milieu, the novel revolves around the ennuis of those who are rich but somehow never quite rich enough. At its heart lies the fractured family unit: that of Heather and her parents, Karen and Mark Breakstone.

Mark works in something financial and is "rich by any standard other than his own" but, crucially, not quite rich enough to afford a penthouse. Karen is a housewife prey to the modern variety of the feminine mystique: having once nearly worked in publishing, she now mostly devotes her life to Heather. Predictably, the substitution is unsatisfactory. Heather herself is a miracle of beauty and empathy, except for her willingness to leave a cold void at the centre of Karen's life when she outgrows her cloying affections.

If certain things are resolutely familiar, it is clear that Weiner has deliberately distanced this novel from any charges of being Mad Men without the pictures. In place of his show's glacial pace, Dickensian sprawl and intense focus on detail, the novel is swift, brief and sketchy. Weiner cuts through something like a decade-and-a-half of his main characters' lives in 138 sparsely printed pages - to call it a "novel" is stretching the term, really.

Character development and plot, hanging on the Breakstones' inevitable encounter with Bobby, a dark arrival from far beyond their social sphere, are limned largely in terse declaratives. And, most strikingly for a scriptwriter of Weiner's stature, there is no dialogue. Or rather, nearly none. A single moment of direct speech appears after the story's climax, pointing up its absence elsewhere.

There are real pleasures here. Though the prose is, for the most part, stripped back, Weiner's writing comes to life with the odd flash. Mark's long-dead sister is not an anorexic, but "a perfectionist of starvation". The invisible barriers between classes are summed up as Mark watches Heather and Bobby at intervals in his building's foyer, "sliding by each other silently like figurines on a medieval clock". But is there too little for the reader to do? Despite Weiner's deserved reputation as a master of implication, here he prefers to explain rather than narrate. Only with Bobby, opaque to himself, does the novel finally explore real psychological ambiguity - which is precisely what gives the climax the emotional power it has.

The real problem with Heather, the Totality, though, are those expectations. How hard it is not to judge Weiner by the standards his other work has set. I tried to imagine it coming from any other new writer, nestled in a short-story collection as its centrepiece. You would be hard-pressed not to recognise its punch, and its efficient evocation of moneyed anomie. Rather than keeping an eye on the author's forthcoming television shows, you should be looking forward to the next collection, or the real first novel.

Indo Review

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