Matthew Weiner had a hand in creating, as producer and writer, two of modern television's best series, The Sopranos (1999-2007)and Mad Men (2007-2015). Both were critical successes and overwhelmingly popular. Both have, since, been recognized as watershed moments in the history of the idiot box. The Sopranos (1999-2007)and Mad Men (2007-2015).
Now, after mastering what might be called the long game, Weiner has turned his hand to fiction, with this novella. Checking in at a sparse 138 pages, it portrays a family's evolution over a period of about fifteen years. That he is successful on the page is testament to his rich imagination and to his ability to do much with few words. The tale is as elliptical — and as unpredictable — as Don Draper's peripatetic manner. Heather, the Totality, is quiet in its sustained tension and drama, compared to the occasionally outrageous plotlines of both TV series. This move to fiction is similar to the smash success of Noah Hawley's turn at novel-writing with the thriller, Before the Fall, after he penned the exceptional TV series, Fargo. But Weiner is after something a bit more literary and a bit more daring. He's moved to Raymond Carver territory, after impersonating Mario Puzo for the small screen.
The story begins with the courtship and subsequent marriage of Mark and Karen Breakstone; privileged and attractive, they glisten. Weiner's ability to sketch an individual with quick, visual strokes is impressive. Soon, a third party is added, the couple's daughter, the titular Heather. She is born beautiful and magnetic. As a child she brightens the lives of strangers. There is something mystical in the way she draws people to her, as if she were not just lovely but numinous. As she grows up, her intelligence comes to the fore; she is recognized by her teachers for her precocity and ability to debate anyone, peer or adult. Heather is almost preternatural, a real teen angel.
Yet, she is still predisposed to teen behavior and attitude. As her hormones come into play, she and her mother are at loggerheads, while she and her father have 'dates' involving coffee and discussions of politics and film. Vis-à-vis her parents, Heather is painfully aware and observant. "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. ... She also knew they were poisoned with some disease of wealth that had turned them into half-people with coffee machines and cash registers where their hearts should be."
Then a second storyline enters. It concerns Bobby, who is everything the Breakstones are not. Born poor, with a junky mother, he is cruel though brilliant, deprived, unloved and incapable of love, and, soon, quite dangerous. His appearance in the narrative is initially baffling — what could he possibly have to do with the Breakstones? — but soon engenders dread, because the reader knows that the two story strands will eventually dovetail and the results will probably not be pretty. Weiner strings this tension out beautifully, giving the reader just enough and then pulling back, letting the story develop like the slow unfolding of a life cycle. Regarding the Nietzschean Bobby, Weiner says, "He was so damn smart that people bored him and he was a bright light among them with all the power in heaven, and he could rape them and kill them anytime he wanted because that's why they were on earth."
Told in short, visual vignettes, there's no way to get around calling this book cinematic. Essentially, Heather, the Totality becomes a four-person play. But Weiner's razor-sharp observations and his instinct for how to build suspense make this an enjoyable, fast-paced and edgy novella. It works because the author understands that patience and brevity can succeed like pointillism. He builds his story, dot by dot, shard by shard. In the spaces between vignettes, there is a shadow, something subterranean and malevolent. It keeps the pages turning. And the denouement to this compact, tightly controlled, dark excursion is both surprising and satisfying, maybe even transcendent.