Tuesday March 10th, 2009

Hunting Big Game


  1. Reviewed:
  2. The Believers by Zoë Heller
  3. Harper, 352 pp., $25.99

Of all the compliments that reviewers mete out to novelists with conspicuous frequency, the word “ambitious” has been responsible for very little good and a lot of unnecessary harm. The adjective connotes scale – a barrel-chested “big” is usually found strutting somewhere in the same paragraph – and nothing seems to bring “ambitious” and “big” more readily to a reviewer’s mind than that grand fictional endeavor, “the novel of ideas.” Perhaps as a sad sign of how marginalized the literary culture has become, critics seem to get especially excited when they’re given something Important and Relevant to refer to, allowing them in some cases a little social commentary of their own.

A fiction writer seeking their affirmation would do well to think less in terms of sentences or even character and more about clashing ideologies and sociological forces. Insert an episode in your novel about immigration, religious fervor, or, better yet, 9/11, and you’ll at least get the attention of the critic whose last few reviews of slim novels about illness and infidelity in Iowa have fizzled away into the electronic ether. None of this is to say that a big novel of ideas is necessarily a bad one; only that ambition is too often used to excuse a multitude of sins. A novel that deigns to make no mention of Islamic fundamentalism or the evils of the pharmaceutical industry may be finely wrought and perfectly told, but our culture of attention has little patience for anything but the grand gesture, the fat volume that announces its themes as so important and timely that it cannot be ignored. The sentences might be slack, the characters insipid, yet such books get routinely praised for their authors’ courageous willingness to go after big game.

The Believers, Zoë Heller’s third and most recent novel, is a departure from her first two books, both of which were taut, psychological thrillers that revolved around the claustrophobic and unreliable minds of their first-person narrators, in all of their self-loathing and self-deception. The new novel, by contrast, tells the story of a family, and, through them, sets its sights on the larger questions of political and religious belief. Audrey and Joel Litvinoff are left-wing Greenwich Village radicals who met forty years earlier in London. A year after the September 11 attacks, Joel, an attorney, is representing Mohammed Hassani, an accused supporter of terrorism, when Joel collapses in the courtroom while rising for the judge. The stroke puts him in a coma, and the remainder of the novel focuses on Audrey and her three adult children.

From the very first sentence, Heller’s use of the third person alerts readers of her earlier work to the fact that she is trying something new: “At a party in a bedsit just off Gower Street, a young woman stood alone at the window, her elbows pinned to her sides in an attempt to hide the dark flowers of perspiration blossoming at the armholes of her dress.” The voice here is vivid and assured. Those “dark flowers of perspiration blossoming” capture the soft bloom of embarrassment that is specific to youth, in all of its immaturity and awkward charm. Even though Heller is employing the third-person, such writing – keenly yet humanely observed – makes marvelous use of the talents she showed in her previous work, and we become surveyors of the scene as well as privy to the consciousness of young Audrey, to whom we’ve just been introduced.

After this prologue, which shows us the first meeting between Audrey and Joel, the novel skips ahead to 2002, to Joel’s crisis in the courtroom. Audrey, we soon learn, has become a noxious harridan, impatient with women (despite her left-wing pretensions) and especially dismissive of her two daughters. When one of them, Rosa, challenges her secular upbringing by attending Orthodox services, Audrey tells a friend that what the “Queen of the Matzoh” really needs is “a good fuck.” Her other daughter, Karla, overweight and unable to conceive a child, is berated for “the extra flab.” Audrey even complains that Joel’s young female doctor has “this horrible little mouth on her. It looks just like an arsehole.”

The character of Audrey seems at first to share much with the antiheroes of Heller’s previous books – skirting the edges of unsympathetic, saved only by Heller’s remarkable ability to round them out and give them life. But in those earlier novels, the entire story is limited to what the narrators tell us (or don’t); their world becomes our world, and every event is filtered through their voice, allowing us glimpses at whatever is buried under the carapace they present to others. With Audrey, who seems to relish her nastiness to the extent that it defines who she is, it’s hard to get past the wicked witch in the mirror, since so much of The Believers is spent elsewhere, following Rosa to the synagogue or Karla to the cafeteria. The tension put forth at the very beginning – What happened to Audrey, the shy and awkward girl from the party? – will turn out to be a minor sideshow to the sweeping saga that Heller wants to tell. In fact, about halfway through The Believers Heller inserts an answer to the question about Audrey’s transformation, thereby deflating any possible discovery through other, less heavy-handed means: the older Audrey is a caricature of herself because she first played at being a foul-mouthed bitch when she was younger and eventually her personality stayed that way. The explanation is dispensed with in two brisk paragraphs, and with the exception of one unbelievable gesture at the end (and I mean unbelievable in the literal sense of the word), Audrey remains the same, as mean and as one-dimensional as ever.

Indeed, the characters are so briskly sketched out that one apprehends only a general outline of who they are: Audrey, the scathing and bitter old lady; Rosa, the pretty daughter searching for meaning; Lenny, the adopted, drug-addicted son who just might turn his life around; Karla, the hapless nonstarter with a penchant for self-sacrifice and simpering humiliation. Correspondingly, the dramas elicited by such characters are easily summarized: Will Rosa persist in her religious awakening? Will Karla leave her unappreciative husband? Will Lenny sober up?

Despite Heller’s attempts to explore belief, the novel gets bogged down in these minor soap operas, and the end result is a novel that happens to be thin on the very ideas it sets out to explore. The whole question of belief never acquires the urgency it does in a novel by, say, J. M. Coetzee or Marilynne Robinson, who seem to wrestle with the very notion of faith and willingly push their ideas as far as they will go. Instead, Audrey’s radicalism and Rosa’s Judaism lie inertly on the page, not so much living specimens of belief but their hollow shells – harmless and pretty to look at, and that’s about it.

When The Believers was first released in England last fall, the critics resorted to the predictable clichés, hailing the book as “more mature and ambitious” than Heller’s first two novels, a “leap forward in strength and depth,” an “old-fashioned novel of ideas.” What they seemed to ignore was the fact that Everything You Know (woefully underrated when it came out ten years ago) and What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal exhibited plenty of depth and maturity, if only the critics weren’t determined to miss the point; those novels just happened to be slimmer volumes that started with a character and then moved the story outward to the larger world, rather than trying to do it the other way around. In a recent interview, Heller herself admitted to sharing her reviewers’ prejudice, even after Notes on a Scandal was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 2003: “I’ve always felt a faint inferiority complex about the fact I can’t seem to write a fat book,” she said, after recalling another interview in which the reporter had called Notes on a Scandal, “small, both literally and metaphorically.”

As much as critics like to complain that they have no influence anymore, here, finally, is a gifted writer who seems to have taken their terrible advice to heart, producing a book that, as far as I can tell, is more “ambitious” than her previous work only by dint of its size.

Jennifer Szalai is a Senior Editor at Harper’s Magazine.

  1. Books mentioned in this review:
  2. The Believers
  3. What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal
  4. Everything You Know