Zoë Heller Keeps the Faith
In her entertaining new novel, The Believers, Zoë Heller takes a New York family of left-wing nuts and steers them on the path to righteousness.
Zoë Heller began writing a column for London’s Independent more than 15 years ago, when “Nick Hornby was on holiday.” Her editor asked to her to file dispatches from New York—the little-Brit-in-the-big-city beat—and Heller wrote openly about her Manhattan adventures, including drinking, sex life, sloppy breakups. Hers were the sort of columns that would today be stamped with the diminutive “Carrie Bradshaw-esque” label and shoved into the general category of confessional female writing that is neither taken seriously nor easy to ignore. “The truth is I was writing from America, so I never read the columns,” the 43-year-old author says now, speaking from her home in the Bahamas, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. “But I would go back to England, and the bank teller would say ‘Hiya, and how’s the boyfriend?’ It was then that I felt quite, inappropriately, affronted. Of course, I had no right to. I had been spilling my guts in public and this was the inevitable result. I am still slightly maddened by having written those columns.”
“I don’t see it as my job as a person or a novelist to show the world that liberals are lovely, because they’re not.”
For one thing, Heller notes, her early days as girl-about-town made it difficult for her to pursue her real goal as woman of letters. “More often than not,” she says. “Women are pushed for the ‘soft edges’ of the paper. They're always called upon to write readable, personal, frilly stuff. I have residual irritation about that. I'm slightly maddened by the fact that if a man writes about fly fishing, no one stops to question his fundamental seriousness. But generally speaking, a woman who stands up and talks about her interests in fashion has a hard time being regarded as something other than a flibbertyjibbit. You can't write about emotional life in newspapers and then have anything serious to say as a novelist. I've been enormously lucky to have written books now. But If I was giving advice to my daughters I would tell them to be very wary of doing that kind of thing. It's incredibly exposing.”
Her most recent novel, The Believers, is a thoughtful meditation on faith and family relations—far from the ‘soft edges’ that had once been Heller’s bugbear. This is not Heller’s first big novel in the spotlight; her last work, 2003’s What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal became a movie starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, as an art teacher who has an affair with a young student, and the old colleague who is alternatively obsessed with and repelled by the affair.
In Notes on a Scandal, the older woman, Barbara Covett, is a lonely lesbian whose diaries and cats are her only friends, though her evil ways and crude scheming make it difficult to feel sympathetic. In fact, she is downright unlikable, a trait that carries over into The Believers. In the new novel, Heller has written an entire family’s worth of memorable characters, all dealing with varying crises of faith—and not one of them is particularly amiable or easy to spend time with. But this is part of Heller’s talent as a writer; though her characters are often loathsome, they are compelling, as are so many real people who may be deeply flawed but still worth examining.
“These characters are in a great emotional muck,” says Heller. “They're all stuck in their mental prison. One of them is falling in love and one of them is figuring out whether she can believe in God. Some are cool, bordering on cold. But those characters are bliss for me to be around. Monsters are quite fun to write.”
The monsters in The Believers are the members of the Litvinoff family, a wildly liberal Manhattan clan headed by the famed Communist lawyer, Joel, who suffers a coma-inducing stroke and is rendered speechless for the duration of the novel. Left behind is Audrey, his fervently leftist British wife, whom Joel swept away from England when she was 18, and who has devoted her life to her husband and his various battles for justice. So in love is Audrey, that she turns a blind eye to his many infidelities, and also holds in contempt (or has no love leftover for) her daughters, Rosa and Karla, whom she tends to view as miserable failures. Rosa, the beauty, has suddenly found God, and has decided to return to her family’s deep roots in Orthodox Judaism (much to her mother’s chagrin; Audrey thinks all organized religion is propagandist, antifeminist hooey). Meanwhile, Karla is depressingly overweight and living in a loveless marriage to a paunchy union organizer, while secretly falling in love with the balding, Middle Eastern deli man who works near her nursing job. The Litvinoffs’ adopted son, Lenny (the child of a ‘60s radical jailed for Weather Underground-type activities), is the only child Audrey seems to care for, though he is a relentless heroin addict and deadbeat, and, at 34, unable to get his act together.
Heller proceeds to show the family navigating through the difficult period of acting without a patriarch—with Audrey as the de facto leader, things start to fall apart. Rosa dives deeper into her Orthodox practices, alienating her family and her co-workers at a Harlem girl’s center. Karla, who is barren on top of pudgy, struggles with adopting a child with a husband she can’t stomach. Lenny is in and out of sobriety, and a mysterious figure from Joel’s past appears, threatening to break Audrey down completely. What is perhaps the most exasperating—and also thrilling—about Heller’s narrative is that the Litvinoffs are unique (as all unhappy families are) in their individual commitments to their own beliefs, each member stubborn to a clear fault. Audrey speaks with unwavering confidence about ending the war, and Roe v. Wade, but can’t bring herself to feel empathy for either one of her daughters or their feelings while their father lies supine and on life support. Each character is living in his own universe—solipsistic, self-pitying, and often mean. And yet, we want to fight for the Litvinoffs—and this is Heller’s genius—because they are a real family. They are messy, and arrogant, and crazy-making. And also, one of the more accurate families I have read about in quite some time.
What you get in The Believers is a family held together by liberal beliefs and a tenuous faith in the political left, while falling apart at almost every other seam. It feels like a particularly timely subject, as the liberal majority is finally flexing its legislative muscle and Democrats are being newly thrust into the ideological spotlight.
“I don't know whether it's well-timed, actually,” says Heller. “In some ways it's not. Any attempt to connect it in any direct way with what's going on politically in America at the moment would not be particularly fruitful. I started writing this book five years ago, when Obama was just a twinkle in somebody's eye. It's definitely a book about politics. And it's definitely a book about religion. Mainly it's a book about belief. The people I most admire in life are people who cannot reject belief systems but who can free themselves from their investment in theories of everything and are genuinely intellectually open.”
What makes The Believers a redeeming read, and not just an overlong examination of self-involved liberals with white guilt, is this openness, the mind-shifts that Heller writes into her characters toward the book’s conclusion. Though Audrey remains close-minded about politics, she opens herself to her daughters, giving Karla permission to fall in love, and offering Rosa guidance, even when her spiritual beliefs rattle of Audrey’s foundations. Karla, a constant depressive whose religion is food and self-loathing, makes a confident, empowered choice. And Rosa, who spends most of the novel wound tight, finds that through a particularly burdensome religion like Orthodox Judaism, the unlikeliest place for a woman to search for personal freedom, she can finally experiment with fomenting her own ideas.
The Litvinoffs are fundamentalist liberals, so tied to progressive thought that they are rendered immobile to act in their own emotional lives. They bring to mind Salinger’s Glass family—a kooky tribe with boundless intelligence and education, and a little bit of malice, who can cause each other more turmoil and confusion than a less-enlightened brood. And just as Salinger showed that in small moments of grace a family can be a wonderful thing, Heller allows her characters the redemption of final epiphanies—though they are not grand. It’s not that Heller ever redeems the Litvinoffs from their ultimate unlikability, but she shows that gradually, gradually, people can change, or at least not be so terrible toward each other. And in families, especially those founded on unflinching ideologies, small concessions can have big consequences.
Heller knows intimately about these types of rigidly left-wing clans—her mother was a Labor Party activist, her father a Jewish screenwriter who raised her as an atheist in North London. “The novel is not, in that sense, autobiographical,” she admits, “But liberals are the people I know. Their political counterparts on the right go through the same range of anxieties and struggles to maintain their beliefs, sending off evidence that’s contradictory to the ideologies they’ve committed themselves to. Both sides do this. I don’t see it as my job as a person or a novelist to show the world that liberals are lovely, because they’re not.”
So lefties are as stubborn as right-wingers, liberals can be as unforgiving and brutal as conservatives. It may seem a reductive thesis, but in a post-Obama America, it’s a powerful sentiment. “I hope if the book succeeds that the reader recognizes something of their own behavior patterns in the conversations that the religious and political people have,” Heller says. “One of the other things I read while researching for this book about faith called The God That Failed. There’s something incredibly moving about the classic Communist travelers of the 19th century—people who invested their entire identities, and the meaning of their lives, in the revolutionary socialist cause—stepping back and saying, ‘We aren’t who I thought we were.’”
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.