The Believers. Zoë Heller. Review.
The Believers. Zoë Heller. Fig Tree. 2008.
Zoë Heller is a spinner of acerbic tales, as those who’ve watched the film of Notes on a Scandal know. The Believers is equally riveting, using literary rivets that is, and as a plus has a cast of interesting figures in a dynamic New York setting. The Litvinoffs, the ultra-radical lawyer, Joel (currently defending suspected terrorist Mohammed Hassani) his English wife, Audry (in the thick of post 9/11 anti-war activism), the grandmother Hannah, offspring (undergoing religious and personal crises) and their politicised milieu. From the first pages, the prose grabs our attention. It begins closer to home, near Malet Street (home of so many left encounters) Audrey and Joel met in London, both on the left – her in the outer orbit of the Healy cult, he a young American legal fighter. Both have a secularised Jewish background – hers, lower middle class Polish, his, assimilated US immigrants, strongly left, himself already soaring in Civil Rights circles.
Why do novels feature these kind of glamorous left wing characters in interesting circumstances? One thinks of Russell Bank’s The Darling (2004), an ex US underground leftist who ends up in the vicious disintegration of one of West Africa’s failed states, or Unity, by Michael Ardetti (2005) about an upper class Brit actress who acquired a taste for Palestinian supporting armed struggle in Germany. Why not, say a fictionalised account of life as an Ipswich activist? Er well..
If, as Heller heads the novel, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusion without becoming disillusioned.” (Gramsci no less), The Believers are much challenged. The unfolding plot, refracted through the prism of intense leftist culture (real and imagined), revolves around a set of potential and actual disillusionment.
Switch to other side of the Atlantic. Joel still perusing his career of defending. defending. Against. Against. Suddenly he is taken ill and falls into a coma. The family gather round. Only for Audrey to be forced to face the news, after understandable reluctance to believe, that her husband had fathered a son by a black woman, Berenice, who (no doubt to make it more hurtful) takes action-art photographs of her vagina, and has a room full of “gerund-heavy non-fiction titles: Mindful Eating, Writing the Body, Understanding Gynocritcal Theory, Reading Tarot”.
Heller portrays Audrey’s leftism in ways which hardly evoke much sympathy. She declares, to cite but one instance, after 9/11 that, “The anger that motivates the suicide bombers is a political anger. A perfectly rational anger against the American hegemon.”
A lippy young Englishwoman she has become a termagant in late middle age (not uncommon – for either sex). A conversation with her friend Jean is the occasion for reflecting on the shrillness of her ideology. For decades now, she had been dragging about the same unwieldy burden of a priori convictions, believing herself honour-bound to protect theme against destruction at all costs. No new intelligence, no rational argument, could cause her to falter from her mission. Not even the cataclysmic events of the previous September had put her off her stride for more than a couple of hours.
By lunchtime on the day that the towers fell, when the rest of new York was still stumbling about in a daze, Audrey had already been celebrating the end of the myth of American exceptionalism and comparing the event to the American bombing of a Sudanese aspirin factory in 1998.”(P 33 – 34) I hate to evoke realist criteria but this is a realist novel: most of the left also went around “in a daze” at that time. Those with Audrey’s response, callow and bellowing, stood out like sore thumbs.
But that may not have been the case in the cosier reaches of Manhattan’s left. Maybe after all Wolfie Smith emigrated and has a smart apartment near Central Park.
A confrontation of another stripe occurs with her daughter Rosa. She had been a believer, a Revolutionary, but a long stay in Cuba had shattered her faith. Not to mention her self-image as a Soviet muscular heroine. The “paradisical era of righteousness had come to an end.
After a long and valiant battle against doubt she had finally surrendered her political faith and with it’s the densely woven screen of doctrinal abstraction through which she was accustomed to viewing the world.” Absorbed in the discovery of her Jewish interior Rosa attends Synagogue and religious education classes. These lead to more believing. The Red Heifer sacrifice (which purifies the recipient’s but pollutes the sacrificers) and many other ideas which “cannot be explained in logical terms that defy human reason.” are easily absorbed. Audrey tries to sneer her conversion away but Rosa brushes this off. She insists on Israel’s right to exist and defend itself (the ultimate betrayal to the WRP-culture of her mother). Auderey is lost in a welter of feeble counter-arguments, unable to deal with things seriously – rather a cop-out on the issue one might think.
As can be gathered, The Believers has a fine sense of character. It is studded with miniature portraits, prickly and sharp. Her wayward drug abuser adopted son, Lenny, floats in chaos, yet Audrey wraps this in cotton wool. His birth mother, gaoled as a terrorist in the ’70s for the semi-Weather Underground New York Cong, is a blinkered pathetic hard-case. Audrey’s overweight social-worker daughter, Karla who flees from a loveless marriage to the arms of an apolitical Egyptian lover, Kahled, a Newsagent owner, is so put in her place than one wonders if her feelings ever register. Karla, a ‘caring person’, is somebody one warms to, a sickly heat when one realises just what a meaningless choice she’s made.
The dénouement of The Believers takes place at Joel’s funeral. Audrey recognises her husband’s lover and son. She speaks of being part of a ‘tribe’, and the guests, the exotic fauna of American leftism, political and artistic, attend. Indeed in many senses her politics are a cultural, not ideological choice, for originality, striking a pose. That is, it suggested that they are like the “arcane tastes” of adolescent Indie Music enthusiasts. Chosen for their rarity. More fundamentally Heller suggests that this kind of leftist will never recognise any refutation of her beliefs. As Audrey spits out, `You want to know what I’d do if the truth revealed itself to me and it wasn’t the truth I wanted to find?” Audrey smiled, “I’d reject it.”
For all the undoubted talent shown in The Believers, its taut syntax and its stylish ethical satire (that is: I liked it), and that anyone, there are some indeed, who hides in this shell merits a few verbal lashes, this is not a leftist approach. Indeed I would expel and shun not to say eradicate from the pages of History, and refuse to listen to anyone anyone who dared to advance such views!