What if you were entirely alone and just let go, released the restraints by which you limit yourself?
Liz Moore’s novel asks this question repeatedly and variedly. The title, Heft, most apparently refers to Arthur Opp, who has not left his Park Slope brownstone since September 11, 2001 and has grown “colossally fat.“ That day’s tragedy provoked the realization that he had no one to care about, and he yielded to his natural tendency for isolation. The only interaction he allows is written correspondence with a former student, Charlene Turner, whom he has not seen in twenty years.
Charlene, too, has yielded, to depression, to alcohol, and to illness. The stories of her decline are recounted by her son, Kel, and so the novel fluctuates between two men—one middle-aged, obese, and reclusive, the other young, athletic, and struggling—who cannot decide if it is time to give up. Despite his many advantages, Kel’s home-life has wrecked his confidence and his intimacies. He recounts the start of freshman year at Pells, the high school in a wealthy, nearby town:
Who I was meant something different here than it did at home. At home I as in charge of all the boys at my school. I am not exaggerating, it was true…. I was certain that I would be in charge of nobody at Pells and that no one would fight for me. I felt very alone.
As the binding element between the two narratives, this loneliness is almost too conspicuous. Though Kel must continue to face the world, he shrouds his inner self; Arthur’s circumstances allow him to hide both. Perhaps the only weakness in Moore’s novel, at times the two story lines sound too similar. Until roughly halfway through the novel, Kel’s voice rings with pomp that echoes Arthur’s professorial speech; both voices rely on the same blunt prose and interior dialogues. Moore writes beautifully but cannot convince me that a high school boy speaks like a former English professor.
Nonetheless, the strong plot and unique characters disguise other flaws. Moore’s novel could easily have become a grotesque condemnation of the contemporary state of obesity, but Arthur is too gentle and gracious and hopeful of a character for that. Just as he once released the restraints of social convention and hid, he now fights against his self-imposed prison. He invites a housekeeper. He eats healthier. He walks to Prospect Park. Meanwhile, Kel tries to harmonize his mother’s faults, his father’s anonymity, his athletic aspirations, and readers will wonder if he, too, will yield to the world’s pressures and disappear. This tortured sentiment could easily have appeared in either narrators’ sections:
I used to lie on the floor, spread out like a starfish, & gaze at the ceiling of my huge empty home & wonder why I had been chosen for the life I was living. Why I was chosen to be so alone.
But the novel reminds readers that one is not “chosen” to be alone, only chooses to be so. In this imperfect novel of very imperfect characters, that hefty choice, between grappling with the often harrowing outer world and hiding from it, blooms.
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BONUS: Moore has several upcoming events/readings in New York, Philadelphia, and Cambridge. Check her website for more details.
Heft by Liz Moore
W.W. Norton, January 2012
ISBN: 9780393081503. 352 pgs.