Shell Game

Is there anything underneath the surface of Matthew Weiner’s first novel?

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.

Heather, the Totality, the first novel by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, is a peculiar artifact. Weiner has said that the book was inspired by a moment he witnessed on Manhattan’s Upper East Side: He saw a very young, very beautiful schoolgirl step into a fancy apartment building and unwittingly receive a glance full of “sex and murder and everything all at once” from a construction worker. What, he wondered, would have transpired if the girl’s father had seen the way the workman looked at his daughter?

This scenario amplifies to a thrillerish pitch a favorite theme of Weiner’s: the ruthlessness and brutality shifting behind the smoothly tailored façade of upper-middle-class life. Heather, the schoolgirl, is 14. Her parents, Mark and Karen, are rich by almost anyone’s measure, though not quite rich enough by their own. He works in finance; she bounced off the publishing industry (finding “the competition was impenetrable”) and landed in public relations, developing a minor expertise in assembling themed gift baskets. They are two high-end mediocrities who meet on a blind date. He finds her beautiful, and she, after some initial doubts, wants him to be the father of her child. They marry, and she quits her job to devote herself to volunteering and, above all, to Heather. Then the penthouse apartment above their unit is bought by a hedge fund manager. The ensuing renovations bring Bobby, the sociopathic son of a New Jersey heroin addict, to work on the scaffolding from which he spies Heather.

Here are the bones of a sleek work of commercial fiction in the currently lucrative genre known as the psychological or domestic thriller. (Gone Girl is the prototype.) By introducing a crime plot into the placid doings of an “average” or aspirational family, these novels, at their best, unveil the power struggles at the centers of modern marriages. For their largely female readership, they offer edgy commentary on the discrepancy between a family’s real life and the obsessively groomed and carefully edited image it presents to the public. Mark and Karen’s disintegrating marriage is the main concern of Heather, the Totality, rather than Heather herself, who is so impossibly idealized as to seem semidivine. She’s not just lovely but intelligent, kind, loved by everyone, preternaturally empathetic, and thoroughly woke to the privilege in which she’s being raised: “Her Father didn’t make anything and her Mother didn’t do anything and their apartment wasn’t gigantic but it was unnecessarily lavish and velvet and they used too much and threw away too much and, worst of all, didn’t care.”

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner

Jeff Vespa

That passage gives a sense of the novel’s eccentric and often clumsy style, its tumbling clauses, fugitive commas, run-on sentences, and oddities of punctuation. It’s a decent approximation of the inner monologue of a precocious 14-year-old girl, but most of the novel reads this way and isn’t told from Heather’s perspective. Weiner’s close third-person narration moves from Karen to Mark to Bobby, with Heather’s point of view appearing only toward the end. Here is an early sentence about Karen’s stillborn career: “Unlike her boss, she was incapable of shaking her suburban manners or showing sudden charm to strangers with her sunglasses on top of her head and thus upon realizing that Mark might insist she change her profession to wife and mother, she was pleasantly excited.” Going back over these pages, I found I’d written “Where copy editor?” in the margins more than once. Then I wavered. Perhaps this galumphing prose is intentional?

It’s possible that the ramshackle diction of Mark and Karen’s passages in Heather, the Totality is meant to represent their evasive and slightly incoherent approach to life, the obliviousness to anything but their own desires that drives their daughter nuts. And, it’s true, the prose devoted to the predatory Bobby has a somewhat sharper quality, although he, too, suffers from his own form of blindness. The novel’s title suggests both comprehensiveness—it promises the whole Heather—and obstruction, the moment during an eclipse when the sun is completely masked. Each of the three adults wishes, in his or her own way, to possess the girl, a desire that makes it impossible for any of them to know her. Unfortunately, the parts of the novel told from her perspective make their fascination hard to share. Heather, like her parents and the man who spies on her, is described so generically that she never comes into focus.

When I read the passage quoted above, about the family’s “unnecessarily lavish and velvet” apartment, I entertained the possibility that we are meant to recognize that Heather, with her much-vaunted ability to see everyone else’s side of things, is the novel’s real narrator. But I was willing to consider this only because I was stumped as to what Weiner is attempting to do with Heather, the Totality. Unlike other showrunners-turned-novelists, Weiner eschews the reliable, familiar devices of popular thrillers: the cliffhangers, punchy conversations, and melodramatic reversals. In fact, he abandons almost entirely the storytelling tools that are the forte of every good screenwriter: dialogue and dramatic scenes. The action, the background, and the characters’ inner lives are conveyed not through conversation or conflict but by summarizing sentences like “Although his work was adequate and he made more money than he had ever dreamed, he witnessed a string of undeserving men move past him with skills far more social than financial.” This, and the blurry, generic quality of Weiner’s characterizations, gives the novel a fablelike quality, only without a fairy tale’s archetypal resonance.

Mad Men contains many celebrated allusions to Weiner’s literary favorites, so much so that the New York Public Library posted a Mad Men reading list. Don Draper can be seen reading Frank O’Hara, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and even, in one memorable beach scene, Dante’s Inferno. Don and Betty Draper live in Ossining, New York, the enclave where John Cheever—the most dominant literary influence on the series—had his home and the model for his fictional suburb, Shady Hill. The influence of any of these writers is impossible to detect in Heather, the Totality. Yet I hesitate to conclude that Weiner, manifestly a talented and ingenious artist, can’t tell the difference between their work and this novel. Heather, the Totality is, he has said, “exactly what I wanted to say, in the way I wanted to say it,” and I’m inclined to take him at his word.

This, in turn, recalls the many enigmas and glossily blank surfaces of Mad Men, the scenes where a character sits in shadowy, Bergmanesque solitude, the strange, isolated actions and statements that suggested inner continents of unexplored thoughts and feelings. To watch Mad Men was to wonder ceaselessly about what these people were thinking and if even they understood themselves. The characters borrowed the beauty and the charisma of the actors who portrayed them, performers who knew how to indicate feelings without the crudeness of owning them. But Weiner always left the possibility open that Jon Hamm’s handsomeness and dapper confidence were all we really needed to know about Don Draper, that he was in every significant aspect a splendid but empty shell. The characters in Heather, the Totality aren’t exactly hollow—much of the novel is devoted to describing their feelings—but the contents of their personalities are banal: the clinging mother, the striving father excluded by his wife’s bond with their daughter, the dangerously envious outsider. What is Weiner up to? Am I kidding myself in trying to read more into this book than meets the eye? I finished Heather, the Totality as most of us finished watching Mad Men: scratching my head.

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner. Little, Brown.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.