The Believers (Zoe Heller)


The novel starts in 1962 in London when Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff, a radical young American lawyer and follows him back to New York after having taken him on a visit to her parents and also slept with him.

Forty years later we rejoin the story: Joel, who has become a leading and notorious defender of the unpopular accused, has a stroke while preparing to defend a terrorist suspect and spends most of the book in a coma before dying towards the end.  And the other family members have their own crises to contend with.  Of their two daughters, Karla (?Marx) is nearly strangled to death by one of her clients in her job as a hospital social worker while Rosa (Luxemburg?  Parkes??) having returned disillusioned from four years in Cuba is working at an after-school group and becoming interested in Orthodox Judaism.   Meanwhile, adopted son Lenny continues in his career as a drug-taking waster.

At the beginning (the second beginning) Joel wants a bialy [~
bagel] for his breakfast, but Audrey sends him off to court on a boiled egg.  Perhaps this represents a failure of love–Audrey is represented as a very indifferent cook, while Karla does manage to forget about her diet and allow herself to be fed by Khaled, her new lover.   But Audrey is never shown as adequately feeding Lenny, who she does love, though she does worry about what he eats.

The bialy is the first representative of a large amount of Jewish terminology (including transcribed Hebrew and Yiddish prayers)  that the reader encounters.  Sometimes this is explained or glossed and  sometimes not.  In part, this may reflect the defamiliarisation that Rosa experiences upon coming into contact with Jewish practice.  Or maybe it just defamiliarises the reader.

I haven’t worked out whether the rather idiosyncratic Jewish traditions (ritual bathing, avoidance of sex while the wife is ‘impure’ because of menstruation) are meant to offer a positive contrast t0 the vacuousness of Audrey’s and Joel’s leftism (at one stage, Rosa muses that her mother’s views are like her former classmate’s support for obscure indie bands–they would be mortified if they ever became popular), or whether they just look good by contrast.  Certainly things that Rosa comes across like the inappropriately sexualised dance routine choreographed by the schoolgirl Chianti (and the casual brutality with which Chianti’s mother hits her) and the grandfather pimping his granddaughter reported by Chris, who talks a lot of nonsense and then fucks with the abstracted efficiency of a dog do seem to point up the need for the moral law.

The other main piece of plot concerns Berenice Mason, who declares herself to be the mother of a child by Joel, and evokes unbridled fury from Audrey.  With her photograph ‘Black cunt #3’ on display in her corruptly-obtained apartment and her vacuous New Agey books she seems to be easily the most ridiculous character in the book.

KARLA:  Well, you don’t love someone because of the books they read–

ROSA:  Don’t you?

In fact, the most negative characters in the book seem to be the black ones–Berenice, Chianti, and Nicholas the cripple who almost kills Audrey.  But there is Lenny, who appears to be satisfyingly devoid of any redeeming features [and he’s not Jewish of course…]

So who is the main character?  The book starts with Audrey leaving to join Joel after a fellow guest at the party has warned her ‘Jew’ and ends with Karla leaving to join Khaled after a workmate has warned her ‘Arab’.  Audrey as an attractive young woman arrived in a strange country adopted a brash manner to hide her crippling shyness while Karla’s reproductive capacities are annulled by cysts and endometriosis, so their insides are both messed up.  [A bit weak, this parallel…]

Rosa is the other candidate–she seems to me to be engaged in a gauche and priggish but nonetheless genuine search for righteousness, which is an entirely natural thing for a young Jewish woman to do.  And her perceptions are sharply-focused in a language very close to that of the omniscient narrator, so it feels as though she’s at the centre of things.  And she does learn something in the course of the book and act on it:  Accept the truth, whoever it comes from.  But there’s no sign that she ever believes in Hashem, which makes the playing at being a Jew a bit deadly…

At the end, in her funeral oration for Joel, Audrey singles out for special mention  ‘my dear friend Berenice Mason…with her son–Joel’s son, our son–Jamil’ in what may be an unprecedented and unmotivated change of heart, but is more likely a magnificent display of nihilistic cynicism.


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