The Believers – Zoe Heller

1 January 2011
Prologue and Part 1
A day (or slightly less) in the lives of an American lawyer and an English office worker… and a day (or slightly less) in the life of the same American lawyer and his family 40 years later. The Prologue outlines, without accounting for, the coming together of Joel Litvinoff and Audrey Howard in the unglamorous North London of 1962. He’s 33, she’s only 18 – but they don’t let that stop them. When, in bed, he suggests he might take her away and marry her, she thinks it’s a good idea.

In 2002 he’s still the tall, rangy, likeable human rights lawyer we’ve briefly met. But she has morphed from the not-quite on-message not-quite girlfriend of a left-wing London activist into Joel’s self-indulgently self-righteous ultra-leftist wife in Greenwich Village. It isn’t clear what she actually does beyond some predictable-sounding good works, and making it her business to ensure that everybody around her feels uncomfortable that they aren’t right-on enough. Whatever, she seems to spend her life closing herself down emotionally and gaining no succour at all from the fact that she can act holier-than-thou towards absolutely everybody. I’ve no idea if Heller has deliberately made her so unsympathetic in this first quarter of the novel. Maybe the narrative kick in the arse Heller’s just given the family – and my, doesn’t ex-pat Audrey love words like arse, and the rest of the remembered slang from decades ago? – will teach her a bit of humility and open her up to a bit of human warmth. Maybe.

Anyway, it’s not a kick in the arse, it’s a kick in the head. Joel decides, as you’d expect, that his Muslim client’s case is far too important for him to even think about the appalling headaches he’s been having for some time now. He collapses in court, and by the time Audrey gets to hear about it – she’s giving a friend of hers a hard time about something or other – he’s had two strokes. Instead of panicking – she prides herself on her insouciance, a word Heller actually uses – she finishes her tea, reminds the friend she’s promised to put in a good word to get some work for her no-good adopted son, and leaves for the hospital. She phones her two grown-up daughters, her sister who’s over from England staying with them, the no-good son…. Not one of them picks up, which sends her into the kind of rage that is her other default setting. We see it in its full ugliness a couple of chapters later, when the kids finally do get their messages and arrive, late, in the Family and Friends Lounge.

The family. We get most of their different points of view, often for the whole of a chapter. But Heller isn’t precious about it: she’ll give you a sneaking glimpse into somebody else’s head if it moves things along. Joel gets most of Chapter 1, Audrey Chapter 2…. Heller doesn’t bother with whatever’s going on in the mind of the no-good Lenny, adopted at age seven from activist parents (one dead, one in jail), but she bothers with the daughters. Rosa had been a good disciple of her leftist parents – until she stops, which has happened recently. We’ve just heard about how she’s swapped one belief system for another: she’s suddenly and unexpectedly (even to herself) discovered her Jewish heritage. She visits a synagogue, almost accidentally, and realises that this is what she’s been missing all her life. Go figure.

And there’s undervalued, self-effacing, overweight Karla. What Heller gives her is a chapter of embarrassed self-loathing and an attempt with her husband to get pregnant. He’s New York Irish, imagines having at least four kids, researches all the methods of successful conception. Heller has made theirs the most unerotic sex-scene imaginable: Karla is full of self-blame for not being fertile – she’s decided she’s as ugly inside as out – and she has a vivid memory of the disgusted look on her husband’s face the only time she ever caught him unawares before lovemaking. (We’re forced to think what doesn’t seem to have occurred to Karla: he’s in denial about being gay, and he wants kids in order to prove he isn’t, to himself or his family.)

What have I missed? The Jewishness thing, for a start: All the Litvinoffs are Jewish, but only Rosa has gone against the family orthodoxy of leftist atheism. 9/11, a clear and present memory in New York in 2002: we’ve had Audrey’s response, fully in place before the smoke had cleared, that America had it coming. (Joel’s client claims to have been to Afghanistan only for religious reasons, and tries to self-harm in order to get out of weapons training. I’m not sure if we are supposed to wonder at Joel’s naivety at believing such a story or to applaud his broad-mindedness.) Audrey’s sister and brother-in-law? Not sure what to think about them yet.

It doesn’t feel like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I finished a few weeks ago even though every single character and plot detail would fit seamlessly into it: Jewishness, near-fanatical beliefs, 9/11, the relative success of different family members, the sometimes awful experience of sex…. Maybe this is simply what East Coast US art-house fiction has to be about at the end of the first decade of this century. (Heller lives in New York. I checked.)

2 January
Part 2
Four more chapters, another couple of days in the lives of… Audrey Rosa Karla Audrey. Six weeks have passed. Heller’s ex-pat Englishwoman, who carries a lot of the weight of this novel, is an idiot. The impression given in Part 1 – of a self-serving, sanctimonious parasite on the success of her charismatic husband – is reinforced in Part 2. And she seems so thick. In the first of her chapters we see her pointless, furious, public outburst against the doctor in charge of Joel’s treatment. And her easy refusal to believe what is clearly going to turn out to be true: the story of the Black woman at her door that Joel is the father of her child. Her long-suffering friend is with her so she has a sounding-board for her foul-mouthed refusal to believe the woman: ‘I told you she was a crazy, didn’t I? … totally fucking tonto.’ At least it’s a relief to hear her using slang that’s not from her British past.

There are more stupidities in the second of her chapters. During a trip accompanying No-good Boyo on a visit to his mother we see… her prejudice against a woman who is clearly a reformed character, her born-yesterday acceptance of No-good’s story that he’s not spending the money she gives him on dope – we’ve seen how easy it is for him to wheedle $100 out of her, and his smile as he returns from the restroom at their regular stopping-place – and her decision that the best way to deal with the fact that, yes, Joel has always been a serial adulterer and, yes, the ‘crazy’ woman’s story is true is to smash everything breakable in the kitchen. We also get the back story of the adoption. She was the mother of two daughters – but she’d never, ever, felt any maternal feelings until she saw the little boy waiting for the mommy who wasn’t coming to pick him up…. I can’t remember a character I’ve felt so little sympathy with for a long time. If it’s part of Heller’s plan to make sure there’s nothing to like in this woman, I wish it wasn’t.

How about Rosa? She goes on a retreat to a Jewish community upstate, and finds herself being endlessly patronised as a lightweight. She’s a more sympathetic character than her mother; her predicament, and her responses to it seem convincing. As a lifelong Marxist before a long, painful loss of faith during four years spent in Cuba she’s good at self-examination. As her defences go up against the evident contradictions in what she’s now being offered, Heller has her go through the mantras – the ‘ready-made rationales’ – that she’s learnt at her father’s knee when facing the contradictions she encountered in Cuba. One belief system has gone, and Heller has prepared us in Part 1 for the possibility of another sliding smoothly into the void….

The presentation of Orthodox Judaism Heller opts for seems no more fair or unfair than her presentation of the Litvinoffs’ political certainties. This is a novel about extremes – I wouldn’t be surprised if a working title was The Extremists – and she wants us to see these belief systems as problematic. (If anything, by hustling Joel off the stage so quickly and having Audrey give her leftist knee-jerk responses, Heller has the Litvinoffs come off worse than the Orthodox Jews.)

In Karla’s chapter we see her at work, and it’s as gruesome as the scenes from her domestic life in Part 1. She’s nearly strangled by a paraplegic inmate of the hospital where she’s a social worker, is rescued by an Egyptian immigrant whose attempts at kindness make her cringe with embarrassment… etc. Heller lets us see how she was manoeuvred into going for the ‘caring’ professions – i.e. those that are some way down the food chain – by her parents, how she is not the person everybody assumes her to be. This is quite subtle: she’s a far better person than she knows, as demonstrated by her ability to sympathise with absolutely everybody she meets. It isn’t political incorrectness that distresses her as a nurse dismisses her rescuer as ‘an Arab’, it’s the woman’s lack of humanity.

In fact, Karla is full of quite believable contradictions. Her struggle with her weight, her willingness to (silently) condemn friends who are complacent about their own over-eating, the speed at which she thinks the worst of herself when all the evidence points to the opposite…. And her attitude to people from ethnic minorities is the opposite of her mother’s: Audrey, inevitably, says the right things about her immigrant cleaner, but silently resents the lack of deference. (Nope, nothing to like.)

Hmm. It would be plausible to present Audrey as a woman trying to cope with a life-changing trauma. And what I call her stupidities could be seen as her attempts, over 40 years, to keep her end up in a marriage in which everything is stacked in the man’s favour. She’s nurtured his children, turned a blind eye to his adulteries – it’s the child she didn’t know about, not the affairs – and kept the household going despite having no aptitude for such a project. She is rather proud of her ability to see through the adulation that accompanies Joel everywhere he goes and to puncture it with a few well-chosen remarks…. And let’s not forget that the doctor has recently raised the possibility that she might have to choose whether Joel is to be kept alive in a vegetative state. Her response to this is what you’d expect: an angry denial of the doctor’s competence – but a lot of hard truths are coming at her in these chapters and, like her daughters, she’s having to cope with an overwhelming sense of loss. If she smashes up the crockery and glassware, symbols of a shared life of domesticity, we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn.

Well, maybe. Maybe this is how Heller wants us to take Audrey – except I don’t believe it. There are just too many unlikeable things about her, too many occasions when she bites, kicks and screams before thinking any of it through. Maybe in Parts 3 and 4 she’ll start to learn… but I’m not holding my breath.

7 January
Chapters 9-14: first half of Part 3
. Heller has just given us the second set-piece display of Audrey’s awfulness in this section alone; the first is her meeting with the mother of Joel’s illegitimate child, but this one is on her birthday as the family gathers round for what turns out to be ‘fraught even by [their] standards’. Karla and her increasingly overbearing husband try to find glasses for the wine – what could have happened to them, ho ho? – and, basically, things go exactly as you would expect. Audrey is vile to Rosa, making unfunny jokes about her new-found Jewish identity. She’s vile to Karla, treating her inability to conceive as though it’s a particularly tedious storyline in a soap…. Lenny, on the other hand, continues to receive her almost fawning adulation, and I still don’t believe a word of it,

It’s as though there’s been no hint of any exploration of Audrey’s inner life before this – but, reader, there has. Early in part 3 – it’s so unexpected, I’ve remembered the page number (172 ) – Heller appears to embark on the project of making us feel some sympathy for this monster. It comes after her meeting with the unmarried mother, in which she is so vicious she shocks everybody in the room, and it’s more or less along the lines I was suggesting at the end of Part 2: her persona evolved to enable her to hold her own in the leftist circles of the Village in the 60s…. But while she could get away with a kind of in-your-face, foul-mouthed deflation of pretensions in her 20s, three or more decades later she’s indistinguishable from a harridan – a word Heller uses.

Heller is presenting us with someone who knows things aren’t working but seems unable to change. Except… when her friend Jean finds her unaccountably laughing with her arms covering her face, she realises that what she’s really witnessing is something she hasn’t seen in 30 years: Audrey is weeping. Ok. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m not feeling sorry for her yet.

Other things are happening in Part 3, independent of Heller’s apparent attempt to humanise Audrey. Rosa appears more and more lost in the world of other people’s certainties: we know about her mother in the birthday chapter, but before that Heller has Rosa meet Carol. The function of this new character, who once started on precisely the same journey that Rosa has now embarked upon, appears to be to demonstrate the nature of the dead end that it can lead to: glorious, smiling, mindless faith. It troubles Rosa terribly… and then Heller takes us with her to her tiny apartment with the room-mate who seems to have bought just as wholeheartedly into the opposite mindset from Carol’s. This woman’s creed is celebrity and mindless consumerism (as represented by her job at Tiffany’s and the uber-kitsch bunny her boyfriend has sent her): you can’t accuse Heller of not setting herself up with easy targets.

The room-mate is an easy target for Lenny as well. He turns up with his no-good friend and Rosa is faced with another dark evening of the soul. She is forced to share it with the room-mate and two men who appear to believe in nothing at all, except perhaps the self-gratification that writers (and readers) of this kind of novel find desperately troubling in his generation. Lenny ends up sleeping with the girl, and Rosa is sickened when she finds out next morning. Not good times for Rosa, these.

As you’d expect, times are no better for Karla. She’s also lost inside other people’s certainties, always letting them decide things on her behalf. She’s even let Mike, her husband, decide for her that she likes him – a view that nothing in these chapters confirms. Does she like anything about him? He pursues the baby project enthusiastically: he’s on to the adoption services now, finding it easy to eulogise about the joys of family life while she is literally lost for words on the subject. (The half-dozen questions designed to elicit favourable memories ring with a kind of sepulchral hollowness for her.) And meanwhile she occasionally has her lunch sitting with the man at her hospital who rescued her. She likes his company because there’s no pressure from him – until she decides it’s got to stop: people with low self-esteem are good at self-denial. If she’s got a belief system at all it’s based on negatives. She definitely doesn’t believe in herself.

But it’s the birthday chapter in which Heller really lays her cards on the table about what it takes to be a believer as she gets all her main (conscious) characters on-stage together to thrash it out. The real extremist is Audrey, of course, and Heller makes her certainties into unthinking articles of faith. Audrey doesn’t seem to have given any actual thought to her beliefs for decades – if ever – but now her response to anything outside their strict parameters is sneering mockery. To go alongside Judaism – a target Heller has not made difficult in her presentation of it in this novel – come the workings of politics in the real world. Audrey has heard that the union Karla’s husband works for is going to support a Republican for mayor – it sounds as though they have good reasons – and she rips into both of them. We don’t like Mike, of course, and his espousal of Realpolitik comes across as another dead end, pragmatic cynicism rather than any kind of philosophy.

Heller has made sure that in these battles there isn’t any right side to be on. I don’t know if the reader really needs her to spell it out for us, but she does anyway: she has Rosa accuse Audrey of staying at home directing the revolution from her mansion in the Village… (In this argument Karla’s role, as ever, is to keep quiet. According to Mike she will be canvassing alongside him, just as she has always done. Fine. Except it’s becoming more and more clear that she isn’t happy with the arrogance of his assumptions about her. She hasn’t been thinking of taking an active role this time, and Heller is planting the seed of the idea that she isn’t going to be his doormat for much longer.)

There’s another extremist at the party, Lenny’s brainless girlfriend. She has opinions based on nothing but an apparent desire to sound interesting, so everybody – including the reader – discounts them as without any value. (Asked if the war against Hitler was wrong, she says yes, because all war is wrong if you’re a pacifist.) This is the third time in Part 3 that Heller has suddenly introduced a young woman with problematic opinions, and they are always there as a kind of commentary on a main character. This one with her adolescent-sounding views almost seems a caricature of Audrey: neither of them gives an inch and, in the end, they sound as stupid as each other.

And finally…. As though to put on display the moral black hole that Lenny is becoming, he disappears just at the moment when Mike has (unilaterally) decided to announce that he and Karla are going to adopt. No-good Boyo is in the toilet suffering the after-effects of a random cocktail of drugs, and he’s passed out. He recovers, unfortunately, but Mike leaves, his thunder stolen. Karla goes with him: she isn’t independent enough to think of anything different. Yet.

15 January
Chapters 14-18 – second half of Part 3
Suddenly it’s all happening, as the measured structure of Parts 1 and 2 begins to break up and the plot takes sudden lurches. Some chapters are strictly inside the point of view of one character, while in others we move from one character to another, and instead of the strict focus on one or two days at a time, throughout Part 3 Heller has let days pass, weeks. And all three of the Litvinoff women, apparently at a complete loss, are floundering.

Rosa? She’s become completely exasperated by the irrelevant codes of what she now dismisses as an Iron Age society. Heller has had her visiting the place where Orthodox women go to be cleansed after menstruation and it makes her almost physically sick. All Carol’s well-rehearsed arguments count for nothing: there’s no denying the strong implication that for two weeks in every cycle women in this society are unclean. Heller has done what she’s done throughout: by having Rosa explore Orthodox Judaism closely its absurdities become impossible for her to ignore. In a later chapter she hooks up with a man she once knew and disliked, and has uninspiring, unexciting sex with him. This doesn’t work for her either.

Karla’s story goes where we’ve been expecting it to go: she’s practically climbing the walls in response to Mike’s nagging about their application to adopt, and when he forces her to go back to work to print off the tissue of half-truths she’s written about her family, along comes Khaled, her one-time rescuer, to rescue her all over again. In a later chapter… etc. In a hotel room overlooking – guess – Ground Zero. He’s awkward, she feels dreadful about it at first – and then she realises that there’s always been something fundamental missing in her marriage. Respect? Caring? Maybe…. Is it too early to talk about love?

And meanwhile, Audrey continues to crash about the place like – like what? – like a drunk. She isn’t drunk, but ever since Heller introduced us to her New York persona she’s been as inconsiderate, uninhibited and downright bloody-minded as someone who’s been on the booze for a week. That’s why I dislike what Heller has done with her: monsters in fiction should be entertaining, but with Audrey it’’s always on one note, always the bloody same.

In these chapters she bites and scratches her way, metaphorically speaking, through the question of what to do with Lenny. Jean, the long-suffering friend, has offered to get him to some kind of rural retreat for a few weeks, and Audrey unaccountably treats the idea as some kind of treachery. Lenny behaves as badly as he always does, but goes in the end, not before calling his doting mother some very bad names. Later she talks to the doctor as if he’s the shit on her shoe when he raises the question of letting Joel die. And later still, when she’s out of Joel’s hospital room, the other woman arrives. The next thing we get to know about this is through a phone call Karla gets in the Ground Zero room. This time, the biting and scratching sound as though they might not be metaphorical: Audrey has attacked someone in the hospital. That’s how Part 3 ends, and I wonder if there’s any chance at all of her mending her ways in Part 4.

16 January
Part 4 – to the end
Nope. I mean, she doesn’t mend her ways. Heller gives us a sort of twist in the final chapter, and does her best to make Audrey more interesting than she has been for the previous 23, but it doesn’t work for me. In fact… there’s little in Part 4 that moves anything on much. Is that fair? Maybe not, but that’s my impression. I’ll get back to you.

[Later] Part 4 begins with a surprise: in this uber-metropolitan novel we’re suddenly in the presence of a deer, for goodness’ sake. We’re at Jean’s country retreat – did I mention she’s a rich widow? – and several weeks have gone by. Enter Audrey, taking the piss as Heller tries to persuade us she’s only eve been to the country a handful of times in her life. (Cue bad memories, taken from stock, of an awful family weekend in Kent.) In one exchange she manages ‘to take and give offence in the same sentence’, and I realised that that’s it. We have Heller to thank for summarising what she’s been doing all her adult life.

She’s there to pick up Lenny – whose month in the country has done him more good than anybody would believe. Including this reader. But Heller needs him sorted out and optimistic, just so that Audrey can belittle his achievement, and the huge service Jean and the people in his rehabilitation programme have performed. I think the ‘offence’ sentence is spoken to Not-so-no-good Boy’s mentor, who wants him to become an apprentice carpenter. Audrey assumes he’s gay and fancies her darling. How we laughed.

Rosa… decides to swallow her qualms and go for whatever Orthodox Judaism can offer. We see her with the rabbi, understand how hard it is to get both the heart and head convinced. Not that we really are convinced on her behalf: by the end of the novel she’s going to spend some time in Israel, and it’s easy to predict that it’ll be Cuba all over again for her. She needs a belief system, she needs truths – and this is her current one. She’s even wearing a headscarf by the end.

Karla… gives up Khaled and goes back to her highly unsatisfactory marriage. Mike – who isn’t gay, so we never know why sex is torture for him with the woman he married – carries on being exactly as bad as before. But… something’s changed. In the way Heller reports it, Karla can now see him for the controlling, undermining, disrespectful shit he is, although that doesn’t stop her going along with all his projects. She still can’t make that final move. Yet.

Which leaves Audrey. She’s harried the medical staff into keeping Joel alive all summer, but by September even she’s been dragged – kicking and screaming in precisely her usual way – to the point of accepting that he’s at death’s door. Cue hospital scenes, contempt for everybody, bitterness, recriminations…. And she’s being vile to a nurse in a corridor at the moment when Joel dies. Let that be a lesson to you.

But before this, she’s had one of those minuscule epiphanies when Heller seems to want us to perceive some spark of humanity hidden among the nastiness. She reaches an insight, of a sort, into the relentless juggernaut that has always been her adult persona.
It comes near the end, just before the chapter in which Joel dies. She’s niggling away at Rosa’s new-found faith and Rosa, exasperated, asks her if she’s actually listening. Audrey’s reply demonstrates that she didn’t get to where she is by listening to anyone or anything: ‘…if the truth revealed itself to me and it wasn’t the truth I wanted to find… I’d reject it.’ It isn’t big, it isn’t clever – but it’s palpably the truth about her.

And what about that twist I mentioned? Everybody, including Audrey, is worried about Joel’s memorial service. The tabloids have been printing dirt about his adulteries, she herself has had a fight with Berenice, the mother of his four-year-old son. What on earth will happen? Well, whatever would be the outcome in the real world, given what we know of this idiotic woman, what Heller lets her have is a triumphant moment of astute intelligence. She gives a speech in which she pretends that Joel’s good work is all that ever mattered, that Berenice and her son are welcome in the family, and that she is inaugurating a foundation to carry on fighting the good fight. it’s impressive – and totally implausible. The point is, Audrey is proving what she was saying earlier: she believes in whatever will work for her. If it had been remotely credible it would have been a wonderfully neat rounding-off. As it is… never mind.

It isn’t the end of the novel anyway. First we get Lenny, deep in conversation with his New York girlfriend – the one he’d given up – deciding he doesn’t think carpentry’s for him after all. And then we get Karla to finish things off. As Mike behaves like a sycophantic toad (her phrase, more or less) with the famous people in the family apartment after the service, she gets on a subway train to go and live with Khaled after all. Has she become a true believer as well? In herself at last, maybe… or in the power of love? (Only kidding. I think.)

17 January
I’ve been wondering why Heller ends the novel with Karla. Is it because, of all the Litvinoffs, she’s the one who isn’t governed by a (fairly arbitrary) belief system? (Lenny doesn’t count because he’s adopted; Joel doesn’t count because he’s dead – and when he wasn’t dead or comatose he was a philandering schmuck.) That leaves Audrey and Rosa in contention. Ha. One is living a lie, and the other deliberately blinds herself to contradictions in whatever is this month’s set of beliefs until she can’t stand it any more. A plague on all their houses: Karla, buffeted constantly by what other people set up for her – career, marriage, politics – can’t be doing with beliefs any more. I hesitate to say so, and Heller wouldn’t dream of it, but she follows her heart and we rejoice with her.

Except there’s a different way to look at how the novel ends, and for this to work, we need to accept Audrey as someone to be taken seriously. Underneath the routine offensiveness, she provides a thorn in the side of Rosa’s complacency, asking exactly the sorts of questions her daughter doesn’t want to face. And she provides Karla with something even more valuable: as Joel is dying in the intensive care unit, out on the corridor Audrey is giving Karla permission to leave her husband. ‘I wouldn’t want you to think you had to stick at it,’ she says, and rides Karla’s ‘What?’ by clarifying: ‘I mean, if you were really unhappy.’ When Karla pretends not to understand, Audrey replies blandly, ‘Yes you do.’

I’m sure that by the end of the novel, Heller wants us to feel a kind of grudging respect for Audrey: the awkward-squad persona and the life she’s had in New York are choices she made decades ago, and they no longer stand her in good stead. But she’s going to soldier on with them anyway, because there’s nothing else she can do. She swallows all the bitterness she feels at finding out the truth of Joel’s feelings towards her – Berenice was the one he wrote poems for, not Audrey – and does what she promised a couple of chapters back. Faced with an uncomfortable truth, she rejects it. Her children can go with what they feel is right for them – a change of faith, a change of partner, a change of mind about rehab – so, well, why shouldn’t she? It’s not about truth, it’s about what works in your own life.

I nearly believe it, but I don’t. For me, the rehabilitation of Audrey the monster is one step too far.


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