Everything You Knowby Zoe Heller
Willy Muller is an embittered writer of celebrity bios and an equal-opportunity misanthrope. At fifty, he has survived imprisonment for murdering his wife, years of venomous hate mail from the British public and, most recently, the suicide of his daughter Sadie. Willy needs a break, but he's not going to get it. While recuperating from a heart attack in a Mexican… See more details below
Willy Muller is an embittered writer of celebrity bios and an equal-opportunity misanthrope. At fifty, he has survived imprisonment for murdering his wife, years of venomous hate mail from the British public and, most recently, the suicide of his daughter Sadie. Willy needs a break, but he's not going to get it. While recuperating from a heart attack in a Mexican resort with his magnificently silly girlfriend Penny and his vodka-drenched friend Harry, Willy finds himself drawn into a troubling confrontation with the past. As he becomes engrossed in Sadie's tragic diaries, he reluctantly considers his chaotic family history and the notion that "only when you die do you run out of chances to be good."
With her scathing wit and brilliant ear for dialogue, Zoë Heller has created a darkly humorous story of love and loathing, sex and death, and filial relations gone horribly awry. Acidly funny and deeply affecting, Everything You Know marks the debut of a brilliant and immensely stylish young writer.
In the first seven pages of Zoe Heller's debut novel, Everything You Know, we learn that Willy Muller has suffered a heart attack; that his youngest daughter, Sadie, has committed suicide; and that he still receives hate mail from people who believe he killed his wife more than a decade earlier.
Willy once thrived as a well-regarded British TV journalist, but things fell apart for him after his wife, Oona, slipped and crushed her skull in the kitchen during a drunken argument. He served jail time for murder until the conviction was overturned. Eleven years after being cleared, he remains a vilified public figure (hello, O.J.!), reduced to writing trashy celebrity biographies to make ends meet. His surviving daughter, Sophie, also despises him, lowering herself to make contact only when she needs money to support her drug habit.
Whatever inclination you may have to feel bad for Willy, however, quickly disappears: This is hardly a character who inspires sympathy. After his heart attack, he convalesces in a Puerto Vallarta house supplied by his agent, accompanied by his girlfriend, a Pollyanna who suffers his boorishness with a patience beyond human understanding. Shortly after Oona's death, in an attempt to pay his legal bills, Willy wrote a tell-almost-all memoir; as he relates his tale in Puerto Vallarta, he's struggling to adapt the memoir into a screenplay, despite his awareness of the venture's unseemliness.
That Willy wards off emotion is evident early on. Consider, for example, his declaration of respect for Sadie's manner of suicide:
Sadie might have done herself in in any number of vulgar or grotesque ways...She might have hanged herself from a light fixture after listening to Satanic messages in pop songs played backwards. As it was, she merely mixed herself a muddy cocktail using a plastic pestle and mortar borrowed from her daughter's Little Miss Chef set. So, lest there be any confusion, let me acknowledge right here: It Could Have Been Worse.
Willy cheerily disdains sentimentality in any form, even when he receives a package from his deceased daughter that contains her diaries. But the diaries spark his search for salvation. He reads sections from them throughout the book; Heller begins each chapter with a different snippet, and through Sadie's writing we get to know her. Life hasn't been an easy ride for her, either: growing up knowing that everyone, including Sophie, thinks her father killed her mother; dealing with a miserable, drug-addled sister; struggling through an affair with an emotionally abusive married man.
Heller, a well-known London journalist, has a sharp eye for detail (one of Willy's nurses "had a tide mark around her neck and a greyish mole on her left cheek, sprouting two long, reedy hairs -- like a cartoon desert island"), but she doesn't fall into Tom Wolfe-like overdescription. She is adept at the broad-stroke assessment of New York crime, Mexican cockroaches, London malaise. She squeezes in some fine satire about the workings of Hollywood and keeps things breezing along with plenty of sex and boozing.
But except for the brief excerpts from Sadie's journal, the only voice we hear is Willy's, and his worldview soon grows tiresome. His vulgar, misanthropic rantings are more cutting than amusing. And given everything we know about him by the end of the story, it's difficult to believe that such a loathsome creature is capable of redemption. Sadie is the more compelling character, but Heller returns to her story all too intermittently. There are also a few irritating anachronisms. The story is set in 1981, yet there are references to Madonna, E.T. and Tom Cruise movies.
Still, with Everything You Know, Heller has proved herself a fine, original storyteller and a deft stylist. Let's hope that she populates her future work with people a little better -- or, at least, a little more interesting -- than Willy Muller.
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Time Out New York
London Review of Books
- Washington Square Press
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.34(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.58(d)
Read an Excerpt
Sophie has always intimidated me. I was awkward around both of my daughters -- embarrassed by their little pink bodies, appalled by their pukings and snottings, convinced that if they cuddled too close to me I would get an erection -- but I was especially nervous of Sophie. She was, by anyone's standards, a daunting child -- creepily self-possessed and knowing about adult matters. When she was four she asked me, with a dour little face, if I loved "lots of ladies" or "just Mummy." Much later on, when she was found out doing unpleasant things at Margaret's, people blamed it on me -- the traumas I had inflicted on her. But the truth is, Sophie's oddness predated all that and was entirely her own.
By the age of seven, she was talking about sex non-stop -- not the giggly scatalogical references that one might have expected from a child of that age, but unsmiling, rather bleak observations on desire. "You want to make love to her, don't you?" she once remarked to one of our dinner-party guests as he was eyeing a bosomy young woman across the table. "You would like to roll and roll and roll in bed with her, wouldn't you?" We pretended to be amused by all this, Oona and I. We had an idea that we were both worldly people -- that this little de Sade in kneesocks who had sprung up in our midst was proof of what a broad-minded household we ran. "What is that meant to be?" Oona would ask briskly when presented with one of Sophie's pornographic, kindergarten scrawls. (Oona always spoke to the children in the military, C.L.A.P. mode -- Clear, Loudly, As an order, with Pauses.) "A vagina? Well, it's a rather feeble vagina, darling. Where are the labia?" But we were not worldly people. Sexwhen we were growing up had been a vast, smutty enigma -- an enigma whose depths we were still not entirely certain of having plumbed. Sophie frightened both of us.
Soon after she started secondary school, some classmates of Sophie's spray-painted the front garden wall of our house with the words sophie lives here. ring the bell. ú5 a screw. Oona immediately called the school to complain. I made (empty) threats to go and find the boys and give them a good kicking. And Sophie? She giggled softly and wandered out of the living room, leaving us to rant. When I went to look for her a little later, I found her out in the street, calmly emending the graffito with a stick of chalk. She was adding two zeroes to the ú5.
* * * * * * * * *
To occupy my arid hospital days, I have been watching a fair amount of television and sleeping a great deal. I have also been reading Sadie's journals. This was not my original intention. When I first got to hospital, I instructed Penny to get rid of them -- wrap them up and send them on to Monika in London. Baby Pearl could be given the tchotchkes when she was old enough, I thought. And as for the scribblings, Monika could do what she liked with them. I was furious, to tell the truth -- repulsed by the whole manipulative, TV mini-seriesness of the situation. If this was my daughter reaching out from the grave to mess with my conscience, I was having none of it.
But then, after Penny had gone off, I was stricken with doubt. Perhaps Sadie had included a message for me somewhere in the legal pads. Perhaps she had even enclosed a letter. I had not inspected the package very carefully, after all. Such, presumably, were the sappy second thoughts that Sadie had been counting on. Old Willy might be a shit, but even he wouldn't be so bastardly as to just dismiss his daughter's pre-suicidal wishes without some agonizing. In a panic of remorse, I rang Penny at my house and told her I wanted to see the journals once more before she sent them off.
She brought them in that night. There was no note, of course. I held up each pad in turn and shook it vigorously over my blanketed lap, but nothing fell out. Then I went to the last page of the third journal to see if it contained anything pertaining to Sadie's suicide. Again, there was nothing. Her final entry, a week before her death, was not remotely portentous -- just an account of meeting an ex-boyfriend. Not exactly perky but not the sort of thing that suggests an imminent decision to do herself in.
Still, I did not hand the journals back to Penny. I told her to come back and pick them up the next day. And then, when she dutifully returned the following afternoon, I put her off for another twenty-four hours. This went on for two or three days until I had to acknowledge that I was keeping the journals. I had begun reading them, you see -- staying up until one or two in the morning and waking again at five, specifically to plough through my daughter's splodgy, felt-tip hieroglyphs.
At first, my progress was very slow. I found that I was unable to look at the journal for much more than ten minutes at a time without getting pissed off and developing pains in my gut -- terrible, fluttery pains, like the first, prophetic murmurings of a bad clam. But I have slowly grown more resilient. At this point, I am able to read for quite long stretches without so much as a wince. I have even stopped humming loudly when I get to particularly uncomfortable passages.
The early stuff is not without historical interest. I am disinterring all sorts of long-forgotten details about my life. I am also remembering Sadie. She was a slight, skinny thing at ten -- still basically a boy -- with an odd, froggy sort of face and many whimsical rituals: folding all her clothes, from her knickers to her hairband, into geometric patterns on a chair before she went to bed at night. Going to sleep with her arms folded piously across her chest, like the girls in Little House on the Prairie. In the afternoons, after school, she used to play for hours at something called "french skipping" -- leaping in and out of two parallel lengths of elastic tied around chair-legs and singing a strange song about a daddy who bought a donkey. "Donkey died, daddy cried. Inky pinky ponky." She had a crush on Elvis. She was against putting pepper in scrambled eggs on the grounds that it looked like bugs eating daisies. She had a tortoise who fell into the garden pond and drowned. Amazingly, she loved me.
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