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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Heather, the Totality (2017) by Matthew Weiner

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Writer, producer, director Matthew Weiner, author of Heather, the Totality.
Book Review
Heather, the Totality (2017)
by Matthew Weiner

  Probably the best advice you could give to an aspiring writer of literary fiction would be, "Become a celebrity doing something else, acting, music or politics are all good.  Once you have obtained a sufficiently large audience for whatever it is that made you famous, move into another area, and use your existing celebrity to draw attention to your new endeavor."   In other words, an audience for one endeavor, if large enough, is sufficient to generate an audience for a new, largely unrelated endeavor.

  Matthew Weiner is an American, "writer, producer and director."  Most notably he was the guiding creative force for Mad Men, which is a cornerstone of the "peak TV" era.  He also worked on Sopranos, which is another cornerstone. It means that when Matthew Weiner decided to write a novel, he got his book deal, and when it was published, it got reviewed.  The Guardian review is as long as any book review I've ever seen in that publication, surely a testament to the fact that those Editors know that there will be a large amount of ambient interest in a novel written by Matthew Weiner.

  It has also attracted plenty of negative critical attention, a stellar example of the need for critics to take authors down for not having earned their audience.  Whether the critic chooses to acknowledge their bias or not, it is inescapable and it dovetails with a general critical distrust of the cult of celebrity. Entertainment Weekly (or "Edubs" as we call it around the house) called Heather, the Totality the worst book of 2017!  This happened while I was on the waiting list for my copy at the local library, and it piqued my interest. 

  The first thing to know about Heather, the Totality is that it is a slight book, with spartan prose, enormous margins and small pages.  You can sit down in read Heather, the Totality in one session.   The second thing to know is that Heather the Totality is a hateful book, a hateful take on humanity. The intersecting lives of a family of privilege- Heather is the daughter of the wealthy couple, and  a member of the working-under class, who is growing up at the same time-ish as Heather, just barely an adult.

  I can see why people would hate it, if only for the way it depicts the emptiness at the heart of widely separate ways of life.  There is a dry, clinical feel to the prose that probably repulses many readers, and would certainly be foreign to fans who are following him over from television, people who haven't read Thomas Bernhard or Martin Amis. I'm still not sure what I think.  I certainly didn't hate it.  How can you hate a sparse, well written 144 page book- it's over before you get up to go the bathroom?

 I didn't love it either, for essentially the same reason.  I did like the mechanics of his plot, spartan though it was, obviously Weiner knows about pacing from his work in television.  I'd be interested to read a more substantial work by him, but I wouldn't hand out a prize to this book.  I've also observed in the past that you can distinguish potentially canonical works by their ability to evoke a strong NEGATIVE opinion.  If everyone says that a book is amazing, that's almost the same as people saying it's just ok.  If some people hate a work of art and other people are inspired by it, you create the kind of discussion that generates longer-term critical and popular attention.

  I think much will depend on whether Weiner writes another novel, and how that is received.  If he writes another one and people like it, the critics of this novel will look out of date.  If he doesn't write another novel, the initial negative reaction is likely to stand because there won't be a reason to revise it.


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