Willy Muller has problems. His elder daughter hates him, his sister's not a fan, his girlfriends (yep, plural) want to change him and his agent is hassling him to work on a screen-play of his old best-seller 'To Have and to Hold', a rather tasteless account of how he killed his wife - or perhaps he didn't. He was found guilty at his first trial, served time in Wormwood Scrubs before being released on appeal, basing his defence on claims that his wife Oona was an alcoholic.
Willy should have hit a turning point in his life as a result of a heart attack but unlike many who recover from a life threatening event determined to make more of their lives and to live every day, Willy seems to have just lost his interest in life.
In an attempt to perk him up, Willy's agent has sent him to Mexico to recuperate and to work on the screenplay and Willy has taken the younger of his two girlfriends - freckly Karen - with him but Karen's thirty odd years younger than him and wants a lot more sex than a man with a bad heart can deliver. When his elder girlfriend - perfectly preserved Penny - turns up unexpectedly with a couple of his friends, Willy expects the fur to fly. To make life even more complex his utterly revolting old buddy Harry rolls up to spend his days in an alcoholic stupor, offending their landlady, calling Willy's film-maker client nasty names and upsetting the maid by peeing his bed. Against this backdrop of aimless and slightly pathetic chaos we are introduced to Willy's younger daughter Sadie.
Three months earlier Sadie killed herself with mogadons and paracetamol crushed into Bailey's Irish Cream. Before committing her final act, Sadie parcelled up her journals, dating back to her childhood just after her mother's death when she and her sister Sophie were living with their aunt Monika whilst Willy was in prison. Thanks to the infamous inefficiency of the US postal service it has taken a long time for the parcel to find Willy and deliver its message.
Sadie's childhood was one of therapists and analysts and of curious strangers eyeing the girls suspiciously and pityingly. She and her sister Sophie rejected their middle class upbringing and lived in dirty, disgusting squats surrounded by drop- outs and wasters. Her life of struggle and her search for love is told through diary extracts which are delivered to us at intervals, intercut with her father's present day problems. As we flip back and forth between Willy's present and Sadie's past it's clear that both are failures at dealing with relationships. Willy struggles with his greedy manipulative girlfriend and Sadie was abused and exploited by her married-man lover.
~Better than it sounds~
You can be forgiven for thinking it all sounds a bit bland and in the hands of the wrong writer it easily could be a dull read. Zoe Heller is a writer I've followed since she wrote columns in the Sunday supplements about her life as an ex-pat Brit in the USA. I wanted her to be Joseph Heller's daughter, but she's not and as far as I can tell there's no familial connection between her and the older Heller but somehow she's a natural at writing from the point of view of a jaded, disappointed older man of German /Jewish / British background, who's not really at ease anywhere. Zoe's created Willy as an entirely believable, funny, old curmudgeon, a man who doesn't really like people but can't help being witty without trying. Ostracised by his countrymen after his wife's death, he has fled to the USA and not really fitted in there either. There's a faint possibility that Sadie's diaries could force Willy to confront the impact of his actions on his daughters and might even offer him the opportunity for redemption - trouble is, will Willy be man enough to try to make up for the sins of the father that have been visited so tragically on the next generation?
~A Strong First Novel~
I believe that Everything You Know, published in 1999, was Heller's first book although she was already well known as a columnist. Her second book - 'Notes on a Scandal'- got a more rapturous reception, with short-listing for the Booker Prize and a film starring Cate Blanchette and Judy Dench but much as I expected to love that one, I found it hard to like the protagonists. Everything You Know is very different and I found it hard NOT to like Willy and Sadie. There's a sad inevitability about the latter's descent into chaos and despair that contrasts with Willy's opportunity to stop his own slide and potentially be a better man.
When I got to the end it was quite hard to sum up what had actually happened in the book. It's basically a tale in which not very much happens, but it's recounted with such dry wit and wry observation that you can't help but enjoy the journey even when the destination seems unclear. Heller manages to write convincingly from the points of view of two such different characters. I've often criticised books by male writers that don't ring true when the lead character is a woman but I really can't find fault with Heller's ability to speak with the authentic voice of Willy Muller.
Everything you Know, Zoe Heller
My version has 197pp - other editions may vary
Every year I decide that I am going to enter the the Bridport Prize writing competition. And every year I fail to do so. Instead I usually decide to read something written by the short story judge - I'm always looking for new writers to read, and who better than someone who has been deemed good enough to judge a writing competition. This year the judge is Zoe Heller so after checking out my local library I found they had copies of two of her novels, so decided to start with her debut, "Everything You Know".
On first impressions it didn't appear to be a book I would warm to. A story written from the point of view of a middle aged man isn't something I would immediately feel overly compelled to read. But I persevered and actually found the first chapter engaging enough to make me want to read on.
Willy Muller is a British writer living in the USA, whose life is a series of disasters. He was accused of murdering his wife, for which he served time, but as a result became estranged from his two daughters. He has just suffered a heart attack, and has been suffering writer's block for some time so unable to make a start on an assigned project. At the same time he has to try to avoid his dopey girlfriends from meeting each other, and deal with his mother's demands that he start eating tofu. To make matters worse, his daughter Sadie committed suicide three months ago, but decided to send her estranged father her diaries, leaving Willy to read about the sordid life of the daughter he barely knew. Her remaining daughter, Sophie, finally agrees to talk to him - but does she have an ulterior motive?
Sounds fun? The general content of the book is as dark as it sounds, as the self-centred, cynical Willy gives us an insight into his pathetic life as he bounds from one misdemeanour to another. There is humour in this book - albeit largely dark humour - so it isn't too much of a drag to read. Willy is a well written and believeable character but at the same time he isn't a character that I warmed to. I didn't feel that he changed in an obvious way throughout the course of the novel, however there was a change in him somewhere because the action he takes at the end isn't something I feel he would have done earlier in the story. He still isn't any more likeable for it though. To be honest I didn't like any of the characters. There are diary entries from the deceased Sadie - although she clearly had a hard time I didn't really feel that much sympathy for her. And surviving daughter Sophie is despicable.
But at the same time, it's the awfulness of Willy that is so engaging. I couldn't help but wonder what he would do next. He moves to Mexico to recover from his heart attack and to finish his writing project - a move which leads to a whole new episode of catastrophes as his two girlfriends come face-to-face and he struggles to shake off hangers-on who ride on the tailcoats of his notoriety as a convicted killer and once-respected writer.
Willy's one and only published book - arguably his only success in life - is a loose account of his wife's death, which Hollywood want to make into a movie. However in true Hollywood-style they want to glam it up and fictionalize it so Willy has to cope with the demands of the overbearing German film producer at the same time as try to sort out the rest of his messy life.
This is an engaging car crash of a book filled with characters that you won't like. It sounds like a contradiction but it's a surprisingly compelling read. You can't help but read on. I did have a degree of sympathy for Willy, even though I didn't particularly like him, and I did hope that he would sort himself out.
This book is well written and I enjoyed the prose. Willy's outlook on life, although bleak, is humorous at times and Zoe Heller did a fantastic job of writing from the point of view of a cynical, egotistic, disgusting middle aged man. I would recommend this book if you enjoy stories that are character driven and focused, as there is only the vague outline of a plot. It's an enjoyable - if frustrating! -read.
I'd read and enjoyed Notes On A Scandal before I saw this book lying around the teachers' flat in which I was then residing (in fact I'm trying to make my life a bit more Notes On A Scandal as we speak, but don't worry, all my students are adults, and older than I am). I also used to read her columns in The Sunday Times, but I hadn't heard of this earlier book until I stumbled across it.
Willy Muller's life so far has been a comedy of errors. He has served time for his wife's death, a murder he may or may not have committed. His younger daughter has just killed herself, his older daughter has shunned her not-too-shabby upbringing for a life in one of London's finest council estates. Recovering from a heart attack, and trying to fight off the affections of not one but two girlfriends (who, of course, do not know about each other) his agent recommends a nice trip to Mexico to recuperate. To Willy, this is Not a Good Idea. Mexico is Hot. It has Bugs. You can't even drink the water, for crying out loud. Still, he goes, but the woes with the women in his life continue, the most worrying of all being his recently deceased daughter who, in a moment of kindness or awful wickedness, depending on which way you look at it, posted her father a package shortly before her death. It contains various diaries from her teen years and beyond that allow Willy to relive some of his parenting mistakes from the past.
Willy is a man of few words and even less emotion. He is a passive bystander, narrating on the life that is being lived around him. I liked him a lot. Having written a tell-all book about his wife's death, he has progressed to writing 'sleb bios'. The crap just bubbles out of me, uncorrupted. Bad writing is my gift. he reports matter-of-factly.
Because there are so many other characters, they are not always fully developed, and they do flit in and out of the story (one, not his daughter, makes only a perfunctory appearance before showing up dead a few chapters later) but the wide variety of troubled faces makes up for their short visits. The humour in this book is a little dark, but it's definitely a comedy in its own way.
My only problem with the book is that it doesn't really go anywhere. Though he might think he does, Willy doesn't change much as the pages pass. It's more a description of several chunks of his life, past and present, knitted together into a read that flows well, but from which nothing alters at the end. You don't read with a sense of urgency, keen to find out what is going to happen, because there isn't that sort of build up or direction.
I tend to lean towards chick-lit for my reading, and though lit by a chick, this does not fall into that category. It's much more William Sutcliffe or Nick Hornby, and it made a refreshing change. The fact that the voice of this middle aged man came from the mind of a much younger woman is astonishing. The book is not long - fewer than 200 pages - and I finished it in a day, but it was extremely satisfying if you can deal with the aforementioned lack of outcome.
A recommended read, but somewhat forgettable afterwards.
This originally appeared under my name on www.thebookbag.co.uk
I was in the middle of reading another book, actually a very good book, a rather large book; I was about half way through. As often happens in our household, my wife had been having a clear-out and had assembled a large carrier bag full of stuff to go to a suitable charity shop. In top lay a book. It was a book I'd not seen before and certainly hadn't read.
Sending it to a charity shop wasn't our normal practice. Usually it gets listed on Bookmooch in our inventory, waiting for someone with similar tastes in reading, to pick up on it and request it. So, I picked it out to do just that and, as you do, started reading the synopsis. I was hooked.
I barely read another page of the other book until I had turned the final page of Everything You Know.
Everything You Know is the first novel by Zoe Heller and at the time of its publication in 2000 came under sustained attack by the critics. Critics; what do they know? It seems to be a requirement that a so called critic should always take the opposite position to everyone else, just so as to "prove" that they have a discerning eye.
So, what was all the fuss about? Well, "Everything You Know" is not by any means a comfortable book to read, that I will admit. The story revolves around and is told mostly in the first person by Willy Muller, a British writer who is now living in the US and currently suffering. He's suffering writer's block; he's suffering from having spent a period in prison, until the conviction is overturned, convicted of the murder of his wife; he's suffering from a recent heart attack but most of all he's suffering from the apparent suicide of his youngest daughter, Sadie.
A man more full of self-pity, self-loathing and rage it would be hard to imagine. And then, on top of all this, the diary of his dead daughter comes to light. This potential exposure of another's opinion of him he doesn't need but, once he starts he can't stop reading and he is going to learn things he really didn't want to know.
All this is set against the background of unashamed manipulation by his girlfriend, his eldest daughter, his agent/lover and others who all want a slice of him, for their benefit, not his.
His one success in life is the book he wrote many years earlier, loosely set around the events of his wife's death. Written as a cathartic exercise in self-justification, it has now attracted the attention of Hollywood. But the story that Hollywood wants to tell is somewhat removed from that of the book he wrote. What else is new in Hollywood? He has been contracted to rewrite his book for the screen but is struggling to come to terms with the demands of the German producer.
Persuaded to take a break in Puerto Vallarta in Mexico in order to concentrate on his assignment, his girlfriends come along for the ride, probably the last thing he needs. Mexico turns out not to be the restful haven he needs.
As he reads through his daughter's diary, gradually the unpalatable realisation dawns that he really has been a fairly awful father, not only to his dead daughter but also to his still living one. The question is, will he accept culpability and do something right for once? Will he simply cop-out just as he has for most of his life?
I believe that the critics mostly hated the book for its lead character. Certainly someone less loveable it would be hard to imagine. Willy has so few, if any, redeeming features that it is hard to feel any sort of sympathy for him. Not only that but he surrounding by such a group of hangers-on that in their own right you feel just like shouting, "Get A Life!!!!"
But that's the beauty of the book and why I found it so hard to put down. Though you have no sympathy for them, not even the dead daughter, you just have to find out how the story develops. The interweaving of the extracts of the diary with the narrative of the present day events works well in my opinion. It ekes out just enough of what was with what is to see how the interplay affects Willy's changing views.
I loved the story and it makes me keen to see how the writer's skill develops with her later books, "Notes on a scandal" and the recently published "The Believers".