By Ron Charles
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
By Zoë Heller
Harper. 335 pp. $25.99
With her arcing wit and searing characters, Zoë Heller is quickly becoming one of the sharpest novelists in America. And we only have her on long-term loan from England. (Born in London, she now lives in New York and writes for the London Daily Telegraph.) Her previous novel, "What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal," was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2003 and sits comfortably next to the best books about sinister high school teachers. (Why, by the way, is the shelf of those books so alarmingly long?) Now Heller turns from sexual intrigue to a more dangerous subject: religion. God knows, it's long been safe to write literary fiction about faith as long as someone's losing it. But, lo and behold, embedded in the middle of this astute family comedy is the story of a young woman going through the humiliating process of losing her atheism. In fact, all the memorable women in "The Believers" must suffer the revelation that what they thought they knew is dead wrong.
Don't grow too attached to the dashing lawyer introduced in the preface. A high-profile liberal lion, Joel Litvinoff suffers a massive stroke in the first chapter while defending an al-Qaeda terrorist and spends the rest of the novel lying in a hospital bed. Jesse Jackson, Judy Collins and other celebrities drop by with well wishes, but what interests Heller -- and us -- is the family members left spinning around Joel's unconscious body, struggling to make their way in the world without him.
Chief among these characters is Audrey, his devoted wife of 40 years, a strident supporter of left-wing causes and a hilariously abrasive woman. She prides herself on her "audacious honesty, her willingness to express what everyone else was thinking," Heller writes, though "it was not the truth of her observations that made people laugh, but their unfairness, their surreal cruelty." Indeed, if you need to like the characters to enjoy a novel, skip right on to something more heartwarming because Heller is the master of unpleasant people. It's a testament to her respect for the full spectrum of human nature that her fiercely drawn characters endure satiric exposure that would burn weaker ones to a crisp.
Audrey rages on throughout "The Believers," attacking the hospital staff, bullying her grown children and treating her close friends with condescension or derision. Only the sudden appearance of Joel's most recent mistress -- an annoyingly calm, New Agey black woman -- manages to rattle her ferocious confidence. "How had she ended up like this," Audrey wonders in one of the novel's most poignant moments, "imprisoned in the role of harridan?"
Woven through this story are two largely separate stories involving Audrey's adult daughters. Poor Karla is the opposite of her mother: a lumpy, gentle woman with a crippled self-image, a desperate desire to please, a reflexive impulse to apologize. Heller describes her marriage to a pompous union organizer with cringe-inducing precision, particularly "their terse bedroom encounters," which may be the most dispiriting sex scenes ever written. One night Karla catches a glimpse of her husband's expression in bed: "equal parts repulsion and resignation -- a sort of stoic anguish, like a child squaring up to the task of eating his spinach." The only pleasure in her obedient life is her affair with a quirky Egyptian who runs a convenience shop at the hospital. It's the sort of life-giving act of adultery you can't help cheering on, but is Karla willing to give up everything and imagine herself happy?
The real heart of the novel belongs to Audrey's younger daughter, Rosa, a lonely, sharp-tongued woman casting about desperately for something to believe in, something to replace the comforting self-righteousness of her family's revolutionary zeal. Disillusioned by socialism after four years in Cuba, Rosa shocks her parents when she announces that she's begun attending an Orthodox synagogue. It's an affront to secular Jews who have long prided themselves on their complete freedom from "the idiocy of faith." (Her father always sent back friends' bar mitzvah invitations with the words "There is no God" scrawled across them.)
Her mother claims she's just playing "Queen of the Matzoh" to get attention, but Rosa's attraction to Judaism is fraught with doubts and objections -- intellectual, political and aesthetic -- articulated in Heller's snortingly funny put-downs. Even while studying with an Orthodox rabbi, Rosa is embarrassed to be "consorting in broad daylight with such ostentatiously Jewish Jews." She thinks the synagogue is decorated with "the dowdy, third-rate quality of dentist art." The women at the mikvah seem guided by "schoolgirlish masochism, some hysterical need for rules and restrictions." Rosa thinks that "the idea of an educated, metropolitan woman voluntarily casting off every vestige of modernity in order to make herself over as a medieval ghetto-dweller was unconscionable." Nonetheless, while she listens to the austere melody of the congregation, "a thought came to her," Heller writes, "as clearly as if it had been spoken in her ear. You are connected to this. This song is your song."
Afterward, Rosa rationally analyzes away her response -- "a momentary and regrettable submission to kitsch" -- but she's drawn back and "filled with a mysterious, euphoric sense of belonging." Try as she might to resist it -- and she tries very hard -- "something had happened to her, something she could not ignore or deny."
All of these moments, even the most painful ones, constantly vibrate with Heller's wit, her steely attention to our delicate egos and desperate longings. Somewhere between the novels of Allegra Goodman and Claire Messud, "The Believers" charts out a terrain all its own. If you haven't read Heller yet, prepare to be converted.
Charles can be reached at email@example.com.