Monday, May 04, 2009

The Believers

Zoë Heller, The Believers (New York: Harper, 2009). $25.99. 335 pp.

The shoving match between Jewish socialists and Jewish religionists may have been settled two generations ago, but Zoë Heller reignites the hostilities to fine effect in her third novel. The religionists did not win the historical fight so much as the socialists lost. Audrey Litvinoff, the matriarch at the center of The Believers, discloses why. “If it was living honestly and decently you wanted,” she snarls at her daughter, who has abandoned three generations of the family’s militant atheism to become Orthodox, “you could have stayed a socialist.” Setting aside the question whether she and her husband—the novel’s model socialists—have lived like that, the truth is that each of their children must find some other way if they are to live honestly and decently. Although each chooses a different path, none chooses the radical Left.

In the novel’s opening pages, Audrey is an eighteen-year-old British Jew (she has a “distinctly beaky, Hebrew look about her”) who meets Joel Litvinoff, a American civil rights lawyer fourteen years her senior, at a London party in 1962. Forty years later, as The Believers turns to the dramatic present, they are married, living in Greenwich Village, with two grown daughters and an adopted, drug-addicted son. Joel is a radical lawyer in the mold of William Kunstler who has earned a reputation for defending terrorists and political murderers. He congratulates himself upon being, in words quoted from Gramsci, a “pessimist because of intelligence and an optimist by will.” On the morning he is to offer the defense’s opening argument in the case of an Arab American who is accused of having been involved with al-Qaeda, he suffers a minor stroke in the courtroom and then a more massive stroke at the hospital, which leaves him unconscious.

He remains comatose for the rest of the novel, leaving a sudden hole in the family that had once revolved around him. His younger daughter Rosa

had been expecting the largeness of her father’s personality to have survived this physical catastrophe. She had pictured him sitting up, making jokes, imposing himself on a new environment with all his usual commanding ebullience. But whatever remained of that man in this frail, speckled creature had gone into hiding. In the frayed, faded blue of hospital issue, her father had become just another enlistee in the vast army of the sick and dying.And yet Joel dominates the Litvinoffs nearly as much by his absence—and by the secrets of his life, which come out while he slowly disappears beneath a “welter of life-preserving gadgetry”—as he had previously dominated them by force of personality. As long as he remains alive, no matter how unresponsive, the women in his life find themselves in a purgatory of uncertainty.

Especially Audrey. Even before the family catastrophe, she had become, according to Rosa, “like one of those paranoid despots who see in every minor disobedience the seeds of a full-scale insurgency.” Her husband’s stroke brings out the worst in her. She is particularly bitter toward his doctors. “Another thing about that girl doctor,” she says of the young Chinese-American attending Joel at Long Island Hospital. “She’s got this horrible little mouth on her. It looks just like an arsehole.” Her opinions do not improve when Joel is transferred to a rehab center at NYU. “I hate that pigeon-chested, flat-arsed, albino bastard,” she says of the white male doctor attending him there. “He gives me the creeps! There’s something not clean about him. He looks like he’s got genital herpes, I swear to God.”

A self-described harridan, Audrey is perhaps the most memorable and perfectly realized bitch in fiction since Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim. Her “brash manner” had begun as a “mere posture—a convenient and amusing way for an insecure teenage bride, newly arrived in America, to disguise her crippling shyness.” Soon enough vituperation had become her public role. “Get Audrey in here,” her friends would cry when someone was acting self-important. “Audrey’ll take him down a peg or two.” She was known as “the cute little English girl with the chutzpah and the longshoreman’s mouth.” In time, though, what had begun as a “beguiling party act” had started to “express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband’s philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate.” As she entered middle age, she was no longer charming. People began scowling behind her back, but by then 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.”

Except for Rosa, her family enjoys Audrey’s “ugly view of the world,” even if they do not share it. And though Rosa is probably correct that what raises a laugh in her audience is “not the truth of her observations” but rather “their unfairness, their surreal cruelty,” the fact is that her verbal ugliness and relentless cruelty is shamefully delightful. Audrey belongs to the regiment of acid-tongued women that includes Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy, and it is to Heller’s credit that she recognizes the cruelty of wit as an accomplishment, almost a life’s work. Other than that Audrey has had no life’s work:[S]he had often spoken of the accomplishments that might have been hers had she not dedicated her life to Joel. But she had never really believed what she was saying. Deep down, she had always known these aggrieved remarks for what they were—self-flattering delusions, face-saving fantasies. The truth was, Joel had held her back from nothing. He had saved her.This is one of the few times Heller refers directly to her title, and the reference is significant. For though Audrey replies to a friend’s encouragement by saying that she is “done,” the truth is that Joel’s “physical catastrophe” has freed her to begin again—by abandoning the false belief of independent self-fulfillment and deciding to become the keeper of her husband’s flame.

That the public occasion on which she unveils her decision is a pathetic imitation of a socialist rally—that her announcement is melodramatic, that Joel’s flame has been dimmed by exposure of his secret life—are finally irrelevant. The pattern is set. Each of the Litvinoff women becomes a “believer” by turning away from self-flattering delusion toward the embarrassing truth.

Karla’s change is the most subtle and affecting. The older daughter, Karla is a social worker married to a union organizer. Theirs is a sterile marriage—almost literally. Her incuriosity about sex is resolute; coitus occurs according to a universal formula. If possible, her husband Mike “perform[s] his connubial duties with as little—perhaps less—relish than she did.” Diagnosed with stage-two endometriosis, Karla has been unable to conceive a child. She is not really surprised. She has always known thather body was, in some mysterious and profound way, against her. She had always been fat. She had never been able to dance or catch a ball. Her hair fell the wrong way, and her skin was the troublesome “combination” sort. When she saw a photograph in a book of what advanced endometriosis looked like . . . she found herself nodding, as if in recognition. Of course, she thought to herself, of course: I am as ugly inside as I am out.Until, that is, she meets a man for whom she is not ugly at all. He is an Egyptian who owns the newspaper stand in her office building, and despite the increasing volume of questions about Arabs and Arab terrorism in the wake of September 11, 2001, he is blissfully apolitical. He is as different from her husband Mike as humanly possible:Khaled loved to buy treats for himself. Whenever Karla saw him, he seemed to be eating, or preparing to eat, something delicious: a doughnut covered in soft, white icing; a fat Chinese dumpling shaped like a miniature sack of burglars’ jag; a juicy clementine, rattling in its baggy, pocketed jacket. She was slightly shocked by his guiltless public gorging. She had been surrounded all her life by people who were either indifferent or actively hostile to food, and eating was for her a solitary vice. . . . Mike drank protein shakes for lunch and wouldn’t let anything pass his lips after six o’clock, for fear that he wouldn’t metabolize it before he slept. (“Some people live to eat; I eat to live,” he was always saying, as if his rejection of pleasure were a personal badge of honor.)So it comes as small surprise when Karla permits herself at last to toss away her honor and to accept pleasure with someone who is willing to share it with her.

The best thing in the book, however, is the younger daughter’s conversion from Marxism to Orthodox Judaism. Before starting the novel, after reading the jacket copy about Rosa’s being “drawn into the world of Orthodox Judaism”—not the religion, mind you, but the world—I had meager hopes. As Wendy Shalit observed five years ago in the New York Times Book Review, “Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism—or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with—have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light.” She names Jonathan Rosen, Nathan Englander, Tova Mirvis, and other writers who purport to represent “the world of Orthodox Judaism” from an insider’s perspective: “Ostensibly about ultra-Orthodox Jews, this kind of ‘insider’ fiction actually reveals the authors’ estrangement from the traditional Orthodox community, and sometimes from Judaism itself.” Frankly, I expected The Believers to be another undistinguished contribution to an undistinguished tradition.

It is anything but. Not only does Heller nail the experience of the baalei teshuvah—those who “return” to observing the commandments—but she is also the only writer I know who has done so. She gets it right in every tone and detail. She is not interested in striking an attitude toward the experience. She neither celebrates nor satirizes it. Rosa herself is caught off guard by her “return.” On a whim (“a mild, touristic curiosity rather than any spiritual longing”), she enters an Orthodox shul and plops herself down in the men’s section, momentarily satisfied to have caused a “kerfluffle,” but when she is removed to the women’s section, she finds herself lingering and then, against all expectation, the “austere melody” of ets hayim hi (“It is a tree of life”) as the Torah scroll is restored to the ark makes her hairs stand on end: “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.” Rosa is hesitant to follow the thought where it leads. She tries to escape into meaningless sex, feminist contempt for the laws of niddah, and her do-good work as a counselor at the East Harlem GirlPower Center. But she finds a rabbi who talks quiet good sense, and she discovers that she has a taste and a talent for Torah study:Rosa loved the methodical process of unwrapping the layers of meaning in the Torah. She loved the modesty that the process demanded. Above all, she loved the atmosphere of scholarly comradeship—of shared commitment to deciphering a complex, intricate text. It seemed to her that in excavating the wisdom of the rabbinical sages, she was discovering something distinctly Jewish about the way her mind worked.Heller understands that a little of this goes a long way, and when Rosa makes the decision to become religious, she does not become obviously pious. The effect, in a literary genre that is not customarily sympathetic to orthodox belief of any stripe, is devastating.

The critics banded together to miss the point of The Believers, almost uniformly describing it as a “family drama” (Robin Vidimos, Denver Post) or “domestic drama” (Donna Freydkin, USA Today) about parents and children “breathtakingly miserable and dysfunctional” (Heller McAlpin, Los Angeles Times). While she did not mistake the novel for the latest installment of Every Unhappy Family Is Unhappy in Its Own Way, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times also missed the rim, declaring thatNearly all the characters in Zoë Heller's ambitious new novel, The Believers, are true believers. . . [T]hey are all in thrall to their own certainty, self-righteous about their own beliefs and contemptuous of anyone dimwitted enough to disagree. They are also believers in their own mythologies: the roles in which they have been cast by their parents or children or followers, the personas they have had thrust upon them and have, over the years, internalized as their own. Zeal is their default setting; sanctimony, their favorite defense.Kakutani must have been thinking of some other novel. The definitive fictional treatment of sanctimony is The Human Stain. Misled by the resemblance of Heller’s title to that of Eric Hoffer’s 1951 classic The True Believer, she gets the tone and meaning of the novel entirely wrong.

Hoffer’s true believer seeks in dedication to a mass movement the meaning that eludes him in the emptiness of his “futile, spoiled life.” The bass note of his belief is desperation. Consider Hoffer’s explanation of the impulse to fish for converts. Intensity of conviction is not the motive:The missionary zeal seems rather an expression of some deep misgiving, some pressing feeling of insufficiency at the center. Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have.[1]The emptiness at the core of the Litvinoffs’ lives, however, is Joel, abruptly removed by stroke. They are not “true believers” in Hoffer’s sense of marchers in a parade. As Rosa reflects about her mother,For all her alleged dedication to collectivist principles, Audrey had never much enjoyed collective action. Her political opinions functioned for her much as arcane tastes in alternative music had once functioned for Rosa’s eighth-grade friends: they were a badge of specialness; they served her temperamental need to be a member of a glamorous embattled minority.Heller’s women are believers in a deeper and more elemental sense. In order to live honestly and decently, they require belief in something more than badges and group membership.

I don’t know what Heller’s own politics are. This is the first of her books that I have read. What I do know is that Heller is fluent in the language of the Left but not the Right. Her made-up quotation from the New York Post, calling Joel a “rent-a-radical with a long history of un-Americanism” and a “man whose knee-jerk leftism is thankfully now all but extinct in today’s political climate,” is one of the very few things she gets wrong in this novel, because the Post would never had said any such thing, leftism being extinct neither in 2002 nor today. And “un-Americanism” is a term used exclusively on the Left to pound away at the Right for imaginary sins.[2]

Almost unheard of among contemporary novelists, especially those who have soaked in the ideology of the Left, Heller is able to refer to President George W. Bush, and even to quote a passage from his speech at the Labor Day picnic in Pittsburgh, without irony or carping. By the same token, she is obviously skeptical of the Left with its “unwieldy burden of a priori convictions” and its paradisiacal righteousness, while not being estranged from Judaism—not even from Orthodoxy. She also demonstrates what Rebecca West called the “flash of phrase” without ever being a flashy writer. It has been a long time since I have read a novel that is both so biting and yet so tender toward the various commitments of its various characters. Zoë Heller believes in her believers, and also in the steady undercurrent of belief.

Update: When I wrote the above, I had not yet read Ron Slate’s challenging review of The Believers. Astonishing—how two critics, both with a long experience of literature, can read the same novel to diametrically opposite conclusions. Slate asks, “Is this novel a send-up of liberal New Yorkers, a satire that ‘preserves the ideals of sincerity, honesty, and authenticity’—or does this story fluently pander to our taste for fashionable cynicism?” Slate comes down on the side of the latter view. “Shrewdly aware of its audience, winking its chic eyelashes at us,” he says, “The Believers is ironic, then cynical, then ironic again.”

I come down on the other side, of course. Slate misreads the tone of the novel, in my opinion. He says, for example, that Heller’s “unnamed narrator is apt to see things from the caustic viewpoint of Audrey,” giving as an example this sentence from her consultation with Joel’s doctor: “Audrey was sitting quite still, gazing at a vicious little bouquet of sharpened pencils on Dr. Krauss’ desk.” His comment: “But Dr. Krauss isn’t insensitive; he’s simply rational. Heller keeps us teetering, in other words, and frequently we slide completely into Audrey’s cynicism.” Heller’s narrative effect, however, is more careful and balanced than this. For the simple fact is that the novel has no “unnamed narrator.” Each chapter is narrated in the style of free indirect discourse, while always withholding something, never fully immersing the narrative in any character’s perspective or thoughts. In hearing of the “vicious little bouquet of pencils on Dr. Krauss’ desk,” we immediately recognize both what is being described and Audrey’s “caustic” twist on the reality; we are able to distinguish the one from the other. As a result, we remain outsiders to the characters’ viewpoints. We understand the Litvinoff women; we partly sympathize and partly demur; but we are forever aware that their viewpoints are theirs.

Heller’s literary problem, as I see it, was how to affirm what I call above the steady undercurrent of belief in an age of fashionable cynicism. “[T]he novel’s title puts the moral commitments of its characters on its hit list,” Slate writes, agreeing with Michiko Kakutani (while reasoning far more clearly and writing a far more striking hand). The more uncomfortable truth is that we live in an age that is immediately suspicious of moral commitments; we are ironic about our own and cynical about others’. We live, after all, in an age in which public intellectuals and the well-known representatives of the official literary culture, almost universally, are unbelievers. Like George MacDonald Fraser, who was confronted with the problem of how to rehabilitate the heroic mode in English fiction in an age that no longer believes in heroism, Heller seeks to affirm belief in an age that scoffs at it. Her narrative solution is “ironic” only in avoiding the puddle of sincerity. She has found a way in which her readers can admire the moral commitments of her characters while not sharing them or even entering into them fully, because they themselves remain divided and unsure, while undertaking them anyway.

Slate’s review is a marvelous account of irony, but Heller’s novel is even better than he makes it out to be.

[1] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements [1951], 2nd Perennial ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 110.

[2] Thus Barbara Ehrenreich: men who came of age in the 1950’s “were encouraged to equate effeminacy with un-Americanism and to use their leisure to escape—into sports, hunting or simply the basement—from women and all things feminine” (New York Times, May 20, 1984). In a Washington Post reporter’s fantasy of what would happen if Sen. Jesse Helms were to take over CBS, “[Dan] Rather would refuse to knuckle under to thought control and would walk off the job the first day. Helms would call a news conference and announce that he had fired Rather for ‘un-Americanism’ ” (Judy Mann, “Helms’ Plan for CBS,” March 6, 1985). When Vice President George Bush called Governor Michael Dukakis a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” during the 1988 presidential election, R. W. Apple wondered whether the charge carried “implication of ‘un-Americanism’ ” (New York Times, Sept. 18, 1988), while Richard Cohen said it “likened Dukakis’ membership to a loathsome un-Americanism” (Washington Post, Sept. 22, 1988). Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed (April 13, 2003) that “It was not until the cold war that Americanism became the exclusive property of the right, particularly when the House Committee on Un-American Activities made ‘un-Americanism’ a synonym for every sort of left-wing activity”—even though the only uses of the term, as this summary of a Nexis search of the last three decades reveals, was on the Left.


Lee said...

Between you and Rona Slate (and being an ethnic Jew myself), I simply must read this novel, particularly since I'm now very curious indeed about the place irony holds in it.

D. G. Myers said...

If you mean irony toward the characters and their beliefs: none at all. The entire polarity of sincerity and irony is missing from this novel. Heller never permits the narrative voice to betray an attitude.

Robert Levy said...

Very interesting review. It reminds me of a comment from a shul member who sits in the row ahead of me. His mother was a committed secular zionist/socialist. He notes there are no (exaggeration) second generation devoted secular zionists in America.

Robert Levy said...

I forgot to ask - is this a real book? Is this a May fools day joke?

D. G. Myers said...

That’s funny. Someone who sits in front of me in shul says the same thing.

Read the novel; it deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Ron Slate said...

A deep pleasure to be in dialogue with everyone about this book which, as DG says, may be an even more significant novel than my review may suggest. I was in the grip of the narrative all the way through -- this is Zoe's huge talent at work. So I most certainly recommend the book as a sheer good read that provokes, it appears, all sorts of thoughtful response.

D. G. Myers said...


Many thanks for the gracious reply, and I really am not trying to pick a fight, but one of us is wrong. And I am horribly worried that it might be me!

Either The Believers puts the moral commitments of its characters on its hit list, or it doesn’t. I believe that Heller has found a narrative method for affirming belief in an age of fashionable cynicism. Have I persuaded you? If not, where am I going wrong?

Ron Slate said...

As I wrote in the review, I believe Heller wants it both ways. It's a novel with too keen a desire to make it with everyone (believers and cynics), and thus satisfies itself with a narrative smudge instead of a clear soundprint. It isn't attitude that the narrative voice won't betray. Rather, it's the author's marketing plan. But perhaps the real cynic here is yours truly.

D. G. Myers said...

I have a similar worry. Perhaps my own Orthodoxy makes me inclined to hear things that aren’t really there. That is why I tried to place the novel in the context of recent fiction about Orthodox Jews and Judaism, which has not been friendly to them. I hope the context was sufficient to counteract any wishful thinking on my part.

Lee said...

Whoops, Ron, sorry for the trigger finger typo of your name. I will weigh in - modestly - on the irony question once I've received my copy of the novel.

Ron, does it have to be a marketing plan rather than ambivalence on Heller's part? Or even, based on the understanding that belief polarises society dramatically, Heller tunes the novel so finely to reflect this very polarisation - a bit like those optical illusion drawings in which you see vase or old woman depending on how you look at it?

Of course, not having read the novel, I may be talking through my hat!

Lee said...

I'd also like to add that this is precisely the sort of discussion which restores my confidence in blogs (well, some of them) - and in people to learn to disagree fruitfully. And this latter is certainly relevant in the context of belief, moreover!

Unknown said...

I tried to read the book but gave up half-way through - I didn't like and couldn't sympathize with any of the characters. I don't accept the idea that you can have a beautiful picture of ugly objects - unless you can show that beauty lies hidden in the ugly objects. In this book the ugly objects are just shown up in all their ugliness. On the other hand my wife enjoyed the book because she enjoyed the writing.

NigelBeale said...

I interviewed Heller recently about The Believers. We talked about some of the points you raise. You may wish to listen here:

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

Way late to the party again--but as I said on my own blog, I came here to correct a misapprehension, and have done so.

It was this sort of thing:

The critics banded together to miss the point of The Believers, almost uniformly describing it as a “family drama” (Robin Vidimos, Denver Post) or “domestic drama” (Donna Freydkin, USA Today) about parents and children “breathtakingly miserable and dysfunctional”

even on the jacket that led me to avoid the book. But your description sounds wonderful and now I can't wait to read it.



Jerard said...

Thanks for your review of this novel.It made me want to read it and I wasn't disappointed when I did. The way Heller portrays Rosa's exploration of Judaism was particularly impressive.But the whole novel was both witty and moving.