When Mad Men began broadcasting in 2007, it was hailed as the greatest television show ever, a title previously held by the likes of The Sopranos, The West Wing and The Wire and soon to be taken by Breaking Bad and House of Cards. Through seven seasons, its creator Matthew Weiner recreated the Manhattan advertising world of the 1960s, balancing drama and humour with a healthy splash of cynicism about corporate America and a pitiless depiction of gender politics in the workplace.
Now turning his attention to prose fiction, Weiner has produced a strange and unsettling work – at 134 pages, more of a novella than anything else - that’s less interested in the machinations of capitalism than it is in the dynamics of family life, particularly small family life where a single child can both connect a mother and father to each other but also drive them apart.
Told in short but chunky paragraphs, with scarcely an unnecessary word on any page, Weiner introduces us to Mark and Karen, who marry and have a baby in their early forties. Their relationship is loving and considerate at first, they feel lucky to have found each other, but upon the birth of Heather, a distance builds between them as they both seek ways to be their daughter’s favourite. Like Othello, who “loved not wisely, but too well”, each parent smothers the girl with affection and as she grows into a self-possessed and beautiful teenager, they become jealous of anyone who interferes with their singular obsession. Even each other.
Balanced alongside this is the story of Bobby, a heroin addict’s son, whose childhood is so traumatic that he’s lucky to get through it at all. Intelligent but violent, he demonstrates basic sociopathic behaviour, almost killing one girl in his attempt to rape her and committing a murder for which he feels no remorse. The novel is built around the inevitable meeting between Bobby and Heather and the effect that his overwhelming desire for the girl has on the wealthy and privileged family.
Reading Heather, the Totality, I was reminded of Patricia Highsmith and Daphne duMaurier, two novelists who combined the sinister with the quotidian, and while not being quite in their class, Weiner has an indisputable gift for unnerving the reader and building the suspense to almost unbearable levels.
Ironically the most under-developed character is Heather herself, who rarely shows much sign of life, but perhaps Weiner is less concerned with the child than he is with the concept of how human beings seek to possess each other. The diminishing affection between Mark and Karen is replaced by their fanatical love for their daughter and, while Weiner touches on Mark perhaps having more distasteful feelings for the girl, this is a strand that is left unresolved. Both husband and wife are clearly missing something in their lives, however, and it seems that only Heather can fill that emptiness. Bobby, on the other hand, has more basic needs; he simply wants to have sex with her and then kill her.
On a side note, when did it become the fashion for writers to offer pages upon pages of acknowledgements at the end of their work? Picking random novels from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s off my shelves, I find no gratitude expressed at all but now it seems that one can’t reach the end of a book without reams of gushing appreciation that would make even Gwyneth Paltrow roll her eyes and say it was all a bit over the top.
Weiner indulges in three pages of this, including some shameless name-dropping, and perhaps I’m being a grumpy old curmudgeon if I say that such excessive public appreciation, thanking everyone from one’s hairdresser to the local barista, feels like a rather unsubtle attempt to elevate the status of one’s own work. It might take a village to raise a child but really, it just takes a single person to write a book.
Setting that rant aside, however, there's no question that Heather, the Totality is a quality piece of fiction, one that will leave readers both uncomfortable and impressed.
In 2012, Ian McEwan wrote that the novella was “the perfect form of prose fiction” and he should know, considering his best work has all come in under two hundred pages. But while that statement could inspire a lively debate, Weiner’s book is a fine example of how the novella can be a gift to readers who, too often these days, are subjected to bloated excess.
John Boyne's latest novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies (Doubleday)