Mark and Karen go on a blind date. She finds him plain but funny. He finds her beautiful and knows they will marry. In due course they do and the Breakstones settle down in Manhattan.
Differences materialise – he is upwardly mobile, she has no social aspirations; he works hard in finance, she becomes jaded in publishing – but a strong common bond unites them.
They are content together and uncomfortable in groups, having “suffered from the cruelty of the mob”. They are in love and they want to start a family.
Heather transforms their lives. An adorable, good-natured baby blossoms into a bright, charming, deeply empathetic little girl. Karen busies herself by making scrapbooks, collages and little movies – “documenting the daily wonder of Heather” – and bursts with pride when her daughter wins over taciturn New Yorkers with kind and caring comments.
So far so rosy. But Matthew Weiner’s debut novel is no cloyingly sweet portrait of a shiny, happy, too-good-to-be-true couple and their winsome, crowd-pleasing child. Beneath the glossy veneer lie both shallowness and shortcomings.
Mark makes money but big-time success eludes him. Karen appears grounded and level-headed, but secretly sets great store by wealth and looks.
She is “crushed” when Mark doesn’t climb higher up the corporate ladder, and concerned at making do with an unhandsome husband: “She felt it would be an unbearable compromise to stare at an ugly face every day and worry about her future children’s orthodontia.”
But these flaws only wreak so much havoc. The novel’s serenity – and the family’s sanctity – is threatened by a hostile force which permeates the narrative and intrudes upon lives.
Weiner's interwoven dark strand follows the rise and fall of unloved outsider Bobby Klasky. His upbringing over in New Jersey is the polar opposite to that of Heather: he suffers abuse and neglect at the hands of his junkie mother, drops out of school and becomes obsessed with a female neighbour.
When Bobby’s advances are rebuffed he lashes out and ends up in jail. Despite sessions with a prison psychiatrist he holds on to his bleak and brutal view of humanity. People bore him, we are told, and he could kill them anytime if he wanted to “because that’s why they were on Earth”. Twenty pages earlier we hear Karen’s belief that Heather is “here on Earth to make people feel better”.
Heather gives and Bobby takes away. We read on with a growing sense of unease, all too aware that paths will cross and worlds will collide.
Weiner was the writer and creator of the TV series Mad Men, and also worked on The Sopranos. Heather, the Totality borrows some of the slickness of the former and condenses the violence of the latter. In every other respect this is an original work. The novel is composed of isolated paragraphs, short, succinct standalone scenes. Each block of text feels as if it has been expertly chiselled and planed; no sentence runs on too long, no words appear extraneous or out of place. Some nouns are capitalised – Sister, Father, Woman, Trainee, Boyfriend – to emphasise not their importance but rather their secondary status. For this is a carefully controlled drama with only a handful of key players. Those that are named matter. Those that aren't take the form of insignificant others, optional extras, collateral damage.
Weiner leads us chronologically along lifelines, through stages and past milestones. Heather and Bobby are two parallel lines that should never intersect. Only they do and with devastating effects. Bobby gets a job as a construction worker on the penthouse above the Breakstones' apartment and it isn't long before he stalks Heather.
“His urges had been denied so long that they now grew into a low hum of need, constant in his body like a spring was being stretched through his limbs.”
Bobby feels lust and hate and he wants to kill. Weiner creates suspense by bringing the pair closer and having Heather fall for her admirer. He then cranks up the tension by hurtling us towards a denouement in which overprotective Mark faces up to Bobby. Mad men indeed.
All four leads are fascinating. Bobby is no brain-dead thug but an intelligent psychopath. Heather rebels against her suffocating parents and struggles to hide “the melancholy that lived just under her smile”.
At 130 pages, this novel is more a novella, able to be devoured in one sitting. Descriptions are brief, almost cursory. Dialogue is practically non-existent. Weiner's book is an exercise in minimalism and restraint. What he does serve up is genuinely compelling and, in places, downright chilling.