Matthew Weiner follows up Mad Men with a brief, yet significant novel, Heather, the Totality. Like the titular character’s empathy, it is incisive to the point of pain.
Matthew Weiner may be a first time novelist, but as creator of Mad Men he is no stranger to nuanced, incisive storytelling. Seven seasons allowed him to detail Don Draper’s inner life while also charting the seismic cultural shifts through the course of the 1960s.
Mad Men always did have literary airs about it. That’s not to suggest the show is anything less than transcendent television; indeed it is one of the finest examples of the form. The subject matter isn’t necessarily literary either, although Weiner’s approach is in many respects. Characters are studied against a backdrop of New York privilege (self-made or not), revealing listlessness, despair, and ennui. Which, along with the period setting, sometimes recalls the work of novelist Richard Yates.
Weiner’s command of characterization allows Mad Men a seat at the pantheon above many of its contemporaries. Whereas Breaking Bad took the idea of transformation (the good guy becomes the bad guy) and ran with it, Mad Men suggested that shifting private and public circumstances ultimately expose the core of an individual’s being. As such, Mad Men stands as a more enduring work of art than the more popcorn character study that is Breaking Bad.
Went With It
There’s a story I adore about David Lynch going for drinks with Mad Men stars Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss. Lynch likes to get lost in worlds and that presumably happened with Mad Men because he insisted on calling the actors by their characters’ names. So it was Don and Peggy rather than Jon and Elizabeth. Moss says that they just “went with it” which is a delicious notion. When in the company of David Lynch….
Perhaps that says more about David Lynch than anything else, but it does also highlight not only how beloved these characters became (major faults and all), but how believably and humanly real they were.
It comes as no great shock then that Weiner’s follow-up to Mad Men is a novel rather than another television show. The idea of it just makes sense. What is at first surprising is the novel’s brevity; it’s shorter than late Philip Roth. Perhaps this was the perfect antidote for Weiner to crafting a piece of long-form television over the best part of a decade. That might even have been a consideration along the line, although I suspect that the idea came first. Heather, the Totality feels exactly as long as it needs to be.
What Heather, the Totality lacks in narrative mass, it more than makes up for in focus and precision. But that’s not to say that it narrows in on a single set of events. Indeed, Weiner cuts to the bone of his characters while casting a steady eye over years of their lives. His is an expansiveness of vision compressed; his microscope is trained here and then shifted over there. Weiner expertly charts the lives of Mark and Karen Breakstone. Or rather, he maps out the effect on their lives that their daughter Heather has. Whether that effect generates from Heather herself (her emotional maturity at a young age) or simply the idea of Heather, she is at the center of their world.
Depths of Shallowness
Mark Breakstone was a physical disappointment to his father and although he has made a career for himself in finance, he still deems himself a failure, no matter how much money he makes (he makes a lot). From the outside the Breakstones are the privileged few. Looking out from within, they simply aren’t wealthy or successful enough. Mark and Karen are dissatisfied with every facet of their lives, except when it comes to their daughter, who they smother. Karen used to be in publicity, but took to telling people that she worked in publishing because it elicited a much more interested response. Her and Mark may be shallow people, but Weiner explores the very depths of their shallowness.
Weiner’s prose is razor sharp. He is relentless in uncovering the wounds of everyday life. The novel is a series of psychological vignettes, cumulative snapshots that build towards a sense of doomed inevitability.
This is Mark:
“With all the professional families and their well-bred but rebellious children, Mark slowly discovered who he really was: some version of the chauffeur’s son. He had everything the others had but of lesser quality.”
This is Karen:
“Karen knew the minute Heather was born that she would give her uninterrupted attention and care for as long as possible.”
Heather is a bright light shining upon the world. It seems a miracle that she was born of two such people and in such an environment. But then again, it’s almost inevitably plausible. Heather is well aware of her predicament:
“Other parents acted similarly but Heather’s were the most suffocating and although it took some effort, she was never disloyal by sharing their behavior, knowing it would be a catastrophic betrayal if the world discovered the Breakstone family wasn’t perfect.”
A Tradition of Noir
Heather, the Totality is also a noir in the tradition of James M. Cain. There’s a young man, Bobby, whose life runs parallel to Heather’s, but on the other (wrong) side of the tracks. At school, Bobby “realized he was smarter than all of the students and most of the teachers. He discovered that he could get anything he wanted by simply telling the truth about his Mother or his poverty.” This doesn’t make him a likeable or sympathetic person.
Bobby works in construction and is pulled into the Breakstone’s sphere when their apartment building is renovated. He makes predatory plans for the teenage Heather that develop into flights of fancy where he imagines the life they could have together. Of course that wouldn’t be possible, even if he were not a monster in young man’s clothing.
Karen closed their kitchen window because of the construction noise, but at one point bursts in and opens it wide, “vowing never to close it again.” This is a key moment in the narrative, where character and plot meet in perfect unison. Her actions and their significance wouldn’t be out of place in a Tennessee Williams play. It’s at once a Chekhovian gun and a means for Weiner to contemplate the major questions he returns to time and again. Karen looked out of the window and “down at the ten-story fall, contemplating the dramatic possibilities of permanent change.” She does not jump because she is who she is. Death will change them all, but life will doom them to reveal themselves.