‘Heather, The Totality,’ a Gripping Noir Bildungsroman

4 Stars

heather, the totality cover
Courtesy of Little, Brown & Co.

Matthew Weiner’s debut novella “Heather, The Totality” is a book about an animalistic, all-consuming hunger. One of the book’s main characters is Bobby Klasky, a troubled kid who devolves into psychopathy. Weiner repeatedly describes how his eyes flash ravenously. His movements have a constant thrum of unhinged sexuality. In a scene after Bobby visits a prison psychologist, Weiner writes “What the Doctor said was all true to Bobby; 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.”

“Heather, The Totality” is also a book about hunger’s suppression. The novella’s remaining protagonists are Mark and Karen Breakstone—a wealthy couple living in New York City with their daughter Heather (the “totality” of the title). The Breakstones are gratingly, painfully dull. They do not feel or act strongly. Anything resembling an emotion must be immediately repressed. The only light in their claustrophobic, isolated existence is Heather—the golden child, the picture of empathy and charisma. Weiner does not care to question Heather’s perfection: Despite her role as the title character, she is given no agency. She is more object than subject.

The Breakstones’ one great mission in life is to preserve Heather’s childhood. If Heather is a desirable artifact, she is so primarily for her purity. Innocence, therefore, must be maintained at all costs. Mark Breakstone is shadowed by an earlier brush with teenage-girl maturation: his sister died of anorexia at age 17, in an attempt to literally suppress hunger. Heather, it is clear, will suffer no such fate. Weiner writes “Mark knew that unlike his Sister, who had starved to avoid breasts and menstruation and men, Heather would be a normal teenage girl, and that was no comfort either.” By having the audacity to age, to feel hunger of a more adult variety, Heather throws her parents’ illusions into doubt.

This is Weiner’s full cast: a deranged young man from a drug-torn background and a repressed family from New York City’s elite. They are hunger, felt and not felt. This fact is established within the first chapter. The remainder of the book, then, is a grueling, gripping death march towards the inescapable collision of Weiner’s plotlines. There is no chance of salvation; there is no hint of a happy ending. In “Heather,” Weiner has written a weird subversion of a noir thriller. The villains lurk solely within the protagonists. The “jump scares” occur when a character’s darker nature overcomes him—an event that Weiner renders unexpected and jarring. The question is not what will happen, but when, how, and above all, why.

In “Heather, The Totality,” Weiner’s writing style is terse and minimalist. With only 145 pages to work with, Weiner lets the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. There is no dialogue. The author—who created the TV show “Mad Men”—takes much the same approach in print form that he has in TV: His work is founded on the belief that if you just stare at something long enough, it will start to get weird. “Heather, The Totality” reads like the countless “Mad Men” scenes where Jon Hamm stares ambiguously off into the horizon. “What is he thinking?” Weiner seems to demand. Similarly, what is going on inside the blank-faced characters of “Heather, The Totality?” True to form, Weiner isn’t spilling easy answers. In light of a recent sexual harassment allegation, such ambiguity may reflect badly on his character; as a literary technique, it will likely prove polarizing. Weiner lets suspense build in the spaces between the book’s controlled vignettes. There is always something dark and primal just around the corner, waiting to come out of the subtext and pounce.

And oh, does it pounce. Weiner writes of Bobby, “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.” Such animalistic desires—real desires, ones that Weiner does not belittle—must be felt. If they cannot be experienced normally, as in “Heather, The Totality,” then the ensuing explosion is as inevitable as it is wrenching. Weiner sets up an obvious dichotomy between the Breakstones and Bobby. They are of different classes. They are of different worlds. But everyone in “Heather” is governed by the same primality; everyone pulsates with the same hunger. The only remaining question is which hunger will prove stronger—and, as Weiner concludes his strange and compelling debut, the ending feels exactly as it should be. Weiner’s answer is definitive. The result is “Heather, the Totality,” in its totality: a noir bildungsroman with a statement to make about class, objectification, and what it means to grow up.

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