‘Mad Men’ Creator Matthew Weiner’s Literary Debut: A Dark New York City Tale

By NTK Staff | 11.13.2017 @3:00pm
‘Mad Men’ Creator Matthew Weiner’s Literary Debut: A Dark New York City Tale

In addition to being a family drama, Weiner has written a quintessentially New York story, one dominated by the twin Manhattan obsessions: money and real estate.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” While those famous opening lines are already taken, I couldn’t help thinking about them while devouring Matthew Weiner’s sharp debut novel, Heather, the Totality. This is the story of Mark and Karen Breakstone and their daughter Heather, who comprise a uniquely unhappy family.

In addition to being a family drama, Weiner has written a quintessentially New York story, one dominated by the twin Manhattan obsessions: money and real estate. While some will scoff, this is a novel about the very real problems that come with being rich in the city, but not so rich that as Weiner puts it they “[appear] in magazines.”

Our characters are “average” rich New Yorkers, with all the attendant real estate anxieties that living in Manhattan entails. Mark is in finance, but never quite breaks through to the upper echelons. A one-percenter who never feels he’s quite rich enough. Issues like the ones the Breakstone’s face, typically derided as “first world problems,” feel real. If you aspire to be rich enough to buy the penthouse apartment, failing at the goal genuinely does take a psychological toll.

In his first post-Mad Men project, Weiner’s talents are as sharp and penetrating as ever. Crumbling marriages were a hallmark of Mad Men, and Weiner is at the peak of his powers in the scenes depicting the collapsing marriage of Karen and Mark. In particular, a scene involving a $1,200 espresso machine stands out for its passive-aggressive verisimilitude.

There is a fourth character lurking in Heather, The Totality. Bobby Klasky is a walking embodiment of the white working class. While Weiner spends a great deal of time establishing the lived-in realities of Heather, Mark, and Karen, Bobby’s life does start to feel like the clichés of the white lower-class experience stacked on top of one another. His mother is addicted to heroin and has a string of bad boyfriends; he lands in prison even though he’s brilliant.

Bobby and Heather present the only real flaws in this sleek novel. While Mark and Karen feel like three-dimensional people transported onto the page, Bobby and Heather seem to be cardboard cutouts of good and evil. Bobby is a delusional monster who feels joy in killing small animals as a child. His violent and sociopathic tendencies grow as he gets older. Heather, on the other hand, is a preternaturally empathic child, able to reduce a stranger to tears on the subway with her poignant insights.

A novel needs plot and Bobby and Heather’s collision course provide the main thrust of it. They come together eerily as Bobby is working construction in the Breakstone’s building. Yet the main event, the reason to read this book, is the story of Mark and Karen and their disintegrating marriage. For that, this is a novel worthy of Matthew Weiner’s immense talents.

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