Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

The Believers

by Zoë Heller (Harper, 2009)

If I were to sit down to write a book about myself, I would doubtless strive to be candid, but I would probably not let the reader forget that my intentions have almost always been the very best. The catalogue of my flaws and weaknesses would represent them as so many handicaps, offsetting whatever gifts I might possess. My life would appear as a struggle between my angels and my demons. Other people would resolve themselves into influences, enemies, and loved ones, my engagement with them conducted at a level of high-minded consciousness. Accidents might happen, but I would intend.

And we could call that the "Excelsior" version. Ever Upward! and so on.

Or I could look at myself from the outside. This view would emphasize my generally good-humored but nonetheless maddening air of entitlement. Air! It's more like a magnetic realignment of the elements, the power that I have to arrange things to my own satisfaction. I know about this trait because, sooner or later, everyone complains about it. Something of a juggernaut, I'm almost but not quite completely unaware of the alternatives that are crushed beneath my breezy self-assertiveness (which is sometimes not so breezy). There's no use to my promising to be more cooperative, because I'm as stubborn an animal as breathes: if I can't do something my way, I quit. If absolutely forced to do something that I don't want to do — which, by the way, is invariably something that, in my view, oughtn't to be done at all, by anyone, ever — then I'll do it poorly to the point of sabotage. And I will suffer the consequences with a very provoking good cheer, because, frankly, you are an idiot for having put us all to the trouble, and idiots are funny. This is the sort of behavior that I've been told would have been drummed out of me by years of playing team sports, like a normal boy. I rather doubt it. It's a moot point, because I wouldn't play to begin with.

This we would call the "Rogue" version, because that's what I am: a rogue.

Where one version might be called I Did It My Way, which sounds strong and principled, the other would be called I Had It My Way, which sounds spoiled rotten.

In her new novel, The Believers, Zoë Heller takes the second kind of look at her principal characters, focusing on the tics and traits that tend to evaporate when we think about ourselves "seriously." This ought not to be confused with satire. I can't think of a book quite as funny that manages to avoid even slight exaggerations. The humor lies in Ms Heller's magisterial presentation of mundane facts — not so mundane, perhaps, given her fictional family's position in the world. Vastly increasing the fun, Ms Heller frequently does more than one thing at a time. Here, for example, she refracts one character's quirks through another's unsympathetic perception:

Audrey was very sorry now that she had agreed to stay the weekend with Jean. She wondered how the two of them would fill the time. There would be a walk, she supposed — there was always a bloody walk — and perhaps, at some point, a game of cards. Then what? She stretched out her arms and surveyed the sea of rustic tchotchkes that surrounded her bed. Jean's modestly-sized guest room contained, among other things, a nineteenth-century commode, a sign for an English pub called the Crooked Billet, two milking stools, a rocking chair painted with daisies, ten framed embroidery samplers, and a reproduction Welsh dresser. In the old days, when Jean's husband had been alive, Jean's passion for crap like this had been subject to some constraint. Max had insisted that most of her flea market acquisitions be consigned to the barn and the attic. But since his death twelve years ago, Jean's flea market obsession had been liberated. The house now resembled a shrine to Mrs Tiggywinkle.

Ms Heller's command of the free indirect style is so complete that not only do we know that "crap" is absolutely Audrey's word for Jean's bibelots, we can hear her croak it.

Although set in New York City, which it captures with complete assurance, The Believers is very much a British novel. Its characters are as obsessed by class and appearance as the dear Hyacinth Bucket — all the more so as they're not supposed to be. The Litvinoffs are radical leftists — or at any rate, they used to be, back when it was a viable lifestyle. It is not altogether easy to foment revolution in the shabby comforts of a Perry Street town house — not in these times, not with Carrie Bradshaw living across the street. Joel Litvinoff, the head of the family (and the husband of Audrey), is a defense attorney who fights for the oppressed, a figure almost as famous outside the courtroom as in it. He is every inch the great man. Except for the part that's reserved for life's little grievances.

Walking up the street to the bodega, he twitched and muttered to himself in disgust. Was it unreasonable for a man of his age and station [!] to expect some peace and solitude in the mornings? Was it too much to ask that he be allowed a few hours of quiet reflection at the start of a demanding day in court? He tried to calm himself down by thinking about his opening statement, but it was no good: his composure had been lost.

Joel was by and large a sanguine man. He regarded his sunny outlook not as an accident of temperament so much as a determined political stance. His favorite quotation — the one that he said he wanted carved on his gravestone — was Antonio Gramsci's line about being "a pessimist because of intelligence and an optimist by will." Lenny, alas, had a rare ability to penetrate the force field of his positive thinking. The very smell of the boy fucked with his internal weather: made him prey to itchy glooms and irritable regrets.

Lenny is Joel's adopted son, now in his thirties; but the conditions of Larry's adoption are so peculiar — so extraordinarily conscious all round (Lenny himself was seven when the Litvinoffs took him on, after his mother was sent to prison for underground activities) that some other word for the attachment seems called for. Interestingly, Lenny's is not one of the points of view of the novel, and this limitation serves, paradoxically it might seem (but shouldn't), to give the young man, a compleat screwup, intriguing power over others. It's as though he is no more self-aware than a slug. The real reason for his presence in Joel's home is Audrey's abiding love, which she has never been able to feel for her own daughters, Karla and Rosa.

Rosa Litvinoff, the younger, is a radical intellectual: she feels nothing more intensely than thought itself. The things that cause other people to feel good or bad are screaming nuisances to Rosa, too gross for her fine perceptions. As a teenager, she used to drive Joel crazy by taking every one of his principles to the end of the line, so that, for examples, she could scold him for his fondness for Handel's Coronation Anthems. When, shortly before the novel's action begins, she discovers her ancestral Judaism, which her militantly secular parents have utterly disavowed, it is the idea of being Jewish, of belonging to an ancient faith, that appeals to her. Belief in God has little or nothing to do with the attraction; what Rosa believes in is the socialism of common causes.

At the end of the Torah service, just as the scroll was being replaced in the ark, the congregation had begun to sing a slow, mournful prayer. Rosa, who rarely, if ever, responded to music without knowing and approving of what it was about, was surprised to find herself moved. Something in the prayer's austere melody was making the hairs on her arms stand up. A thought came to her, as clearly as if it had been spoken in her ear. You are connected to this. This song is your song. When next she glanced down at the siddur lying open in her hands, she was amazed to see the little ragged suns of her own teardrops turning he wafer-thin pages transparent.

Actual Jewish practices, however, do not appeal to Rosa; she does not like to be told what to do. This sits very ill with the Weltanschauung of the Orthodox community into which she is being recruited, by a rabbi who will certainly mount his victory over Joel Litvinoff's godlessness among his trophies. Rosa is revolted by a visit to the congregation's mikvah. "Was this, she wondered, what the millennia of Jewish wisdom came down to? A group of women sitting in a bathhouse parsing Iron Age blood taboos and fretting over stains in their panties?" The humor that thickens around Rosa is inadvertent: she herself has almost no sense of humor — or perhaps she is humorless "by will." One thing is clear: her upbringing has left her as out-of-touch with her contemporaries as if she belonged to a royal family — as she learns from life with her roommate, a girl who does publicity at Tiffany.

Rosa had some cause to regard herself as a worldly woman. As a child, she had broken bread with Daniel Ortega and sung freedom songs with ANC activists in Soweto and played softball with Abbie Hoffman. By the age of eighteen, she had seen both her parents arrested for acts of civil disobedience and had twice been arrested herself. Yet, in truth, her worldliness applied to a very narrow band of the world, and there were large areas of ordinary American life about which her impeccably progressive, internationalist upbringing had left her astonishingly ignorant. Until a year ago when she had answered Jane's ad for a roommate on craigslist, her contact with bouncy, suburban American young women for whom cuddly toys were a meaningful expression of adult love had been negligible. And even now, twelve months later, most things about Jane — from the "Best Daughter in the World" certificate hanging on her wall and the dog-eared library of Chicken Soup books lining her Pier One bookshelf to the holiday cookies she baked for Eric and the thrice-weekly, hour-long phone conversations she had with her concerned parents in Fort Lauderdale — posed an appalling anthropological mystery for Rosa. She approached all their interactions in the wary, squeamish manner of a schoolgirl dissecting a frog.

One of the novel's two hilariously disastrous dinners takes place in Jane's apartment when Lenny comes to be cross-examined by Rosa — foreseeing which, he brings a friend to make the grilling impossible. Ms Heller's description of the friend shows her gift for dynamic description, sizing up the man's character along with his appearance, at its best.

He was an unprepossessing man in his late twenties, with a boyish potbelly and a tiny patch of reddish beard that looked like a ketchup splash. He spoke with the smirking defiance of a person accustomed to being unwelcome.

Karla Litvinoff, meanwhile, is the long-suffering Cinderella of the family. Her own desire to be a lawyer like her father was quashed early by the assurance that she is "a 'born social worker'."

It had not escaped Karla that being a nurturer occupied a very low rung on her parents' hierarchy of valuable life pursuits. And she had doubted in any case that she deserved the designation. Beneath her placid exterior, it seemed to her, she harbored a lot of distinctly unnurturing emotions. Rage. Frustration. The not infrequent desire to smack her mother in the face.

Chained to a dreary hospital job that has its scary side, and married in a functional but loveless way to a union organizer who married her in order to marry into her family, Karla has only one pleasure: overeating. Sex with her husband has become a dreadful chore, because they are trying to conceive, and Mike insists on following every medical suggestion to the letter. (Ms Heller nudges us into realizing that while male writers excel at comic scenes of failed success, women do well at showing how frustrating "success" can be.) Karla's attempt to visualize happy outcomes after her baby-making session with Mike is a good reading of her emotional temperature:

Karla had tried this once or twice — scrunching her eyes shut and picturing the silent struggle for life that was beginning somewhere within: the clamorous tadpole horde racing through the darkness of the cervical canal; the egg in its pink fallopian boudoir, languorously awaiting its courtiers. But at some point, the positive images always got hijacked by negative ones. The sperm who had set out so boisterously would grow languid and start to dawdle. Or vast mushroomlike fibroids would billow out from her womb, barring their way. Or the egg would turn out to be ensnared, like a fairy-tale princess, within an impassable thicket of endometrial scar tissue.

It can't help that Karla is supposed to be lifting her legs straight into the air. But then, Karla is habitually perplexed by the dissonance between what she sees and the truths that are supposed to be out there.

Her unsympathetic mother, Audrey Litvinoff, is a London girl, from Hackney. The novel begins with her meeting Joel, at a party in a student's bedsit near Gower Street. She's a smart, distinctly unsentimental young woman — a "bird." Forty years later, Audrey takes stock of what happened after.

How had she ended up like this, imprisoned in the role of harridan? Once upon a time, her brash manner had been a mere posture — a convenient and amusing way for an insecure teenage bride, newly arrived in America, to disguise her crippling shyness. People had actually enjoyed her vituperation back then, encouraged it and celebrated it. She ahd carved out a minor distinction for herself as a "character": the cute little English grirl with the chutzpah and the longshoreman's mouth. "Get Audrey in here," they used to cry whenever someone was being an ass. "Audrey'll take him down a peg or two."

But somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will. It had begun to express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband's philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate. She hadn't noticed the change at first. Like an old lady who persists in wearing the Jungle Red lipstick of her glory days, she had gone on for a long time, fondly believing that the stratagems of her youth were just as appealing as they had ever been. By the time she woke up and discovered that people had taken to making faces at her behind her back — that she was no longer a pretty young woman with a charmingly short fuse but a middle-aged termagant — it was too late. Her anger had become a part of her. It was a knotted thicket in her gut, too dense to be cut down and too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted.

Perhaps because she has achieved the status of a sacred monster, at least within her own family, Audrey compensates for her dissatisfactions by saying exactly what she pleases, and doing exactly what she pleases as well. (In one scene that will play grandly in the movies, but that's also a treat to read, Audrey visits massive destruction upon her kitchen's breakables.) Passages of self-assessment are infrequent, but when they appear they confirm our sense that we already know Audrey through her words and deeds. All the more surprising, then, that, as she lurches from confrontation to recrimination, Audrey becomes perversely endearing. She hates getting older in the way that men do: with thundering outrage that affirms the life whose end is felt to be approaching.

The attentive reader will note that I have confined myself to character sketches and said very little about what happens in The Believers. If I have done my job, then these portraits will spark the desire to see what Zoë Heller does with them; I should hate to spoil the fun.

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press

Write to me