September 18, 2010


Do ‘Liberal’ Novelists Always Write ‘Liberal’ Novels?: Why did America's conservative press ignore a novel which combines a full-blown send-up of New York’s left-wing intelligentsia with a serious exploration of religious faith? (Brendan Bernhard , 9/17/10, PJM)

“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” Thus spake D.H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature. What did he mean? He meant that how a novelist represents himself to the world doesn’t always equate to what his work is about. [...]

In The Believers, Heller plays a neat trick. The Litvinoff clan is so radical they were able to satisfy themselves that 9/11 was the product of legitimate Arab “rage” within hours of the attacks, despite living only a couple of miles from the smoking ruins. Thus the stream of jabs and witticisms at the expense of New York’s bien-pensant set comes not from the right, but mostly from the hard left, and so Heller absolves herself of any charges of having written a “reactionary” novel. This may be true, but whatever else it may be, The Believers is definitely not a “liberal” novel.

Heller then adds another layer to her strategy by revealing that these radical leftists are themselves prey to snobbery, judgmentalism, reactionary views, occasional flashes of racism and homophobia, etc., as well as “insensitivity” of frequently hilarious proportions. Most of all — and here one could argue they join hands with segments of the right — they detest non-judgmental liberal mush, for whose many spoken registers Heller has a platinum ear.

That her ear is so good is a gift, but that she puts it to the use she does shouldn’t surprise us. Since liberal novelists tend to move in liberal circles, they hear nothing but liberal conversation and often end up critiquing the milieus they inhabit, which are 90% liberal. Unless they write science fiction or historical novels, what else do they have to write about? And those milieus, like all others everywhere, are chock-full of evasion, hypocrisy, status envy, and obfuscation: catnip to a novelist. Do we really expect all of them to resist taking a bite?

Despite this, Heller’s book went unmentioned and unreviewed in conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard, The American Conservative, National Review, the American Spectator, the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, the Washington Times, Commentary, and City Journal. (It was picked up by D. G. Meyer’s excellent right-leaning literary blog [2].) Nor was this an obscure novel from a small publisher. On the contrary, the pre-publication “buzz” around it was impressive. Heller’s previous novel, Notes on a Scandal, had already been made into a successful film which starred Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench and won four Oscars. [...]

Even more impressive than the novel’s social comedy, of which Evelyn Waugh would have approved, is Heller’s attempt — she is a professed atheist with an M.A. in Marxist theory — to grapple seriously with the question of religion. Rosa, one of the Litvinoff daughters, who has spent four years in Cuba trying to out-radical her father, returns to New York disillusioned with communism. One day she walks into a synagogue out of mild curiosity, and there begins a tortuous and torturous path toward Orthodox Judaism. Although Heller does not bury her satirical radar when tackling religion, her depiction of the Orthodox, and of Rosa’s felt need for some sort of transcendent religious faith, constitutes an impressive feat of imaginative empathy.

In a scene that brilliantly combines spiritual desolation and bedroom farce, Rosa temporarily rebels against the strictures of her growing religiosity by having a joyless one-night stand with the trendy narcissist (a fool, but not a bad person, in Rosa’s estimation) mentioned earlier. Afterward, she retreats to his bathroom, vomits, gazes at a cockroach “perched on the sink faucet, waving its antennae good-naturedly at her,” while her oblivious paramour (who has a voice like “tinnitus”) calls out from the next room: “Hey. … Do you want to hear some really amazing Ghanaian hip-hop?… These guys are meant to be really amazing live….” Overwhelmed by the emptiness of it all, she prays to God (while on the toilet) to give me a sign: tell me what I should do. Moments later, she stands up, “disgusted with her own childish egotism”:

The God she believed in — or wanted to believe in — did not sit about in his cloudy house, waiting to help out drunken doubters with proof of his existence. He was not some whimsical dispenser of signs and special favors. He was God, for God’s sake.

If that last sentence isn’t both witty and profound, I don’t know what is. The Believers is a breezy read, but this is due to the author’s skill as a writer, not to a lack of complexity. Like all good novels, it asks more questions than it answers. But from the point of view of this article, the main question is: Why did every major conservative outlet in America fail to even note its existence?

Zoë Heller: Metamorphosis (Sam Leith, 13 Sep 2008, Daily Telegraph)
Heller's starting point was a magazine article about scientists trying to locate the 'belief gene', evidence of a genetic predisposition 'to credulity, to faith in religion, politics, love, whatever'. And 'faith in religion, politics and love' is exactly what The Believers is about.

Belief is hard to illustrate; and The Believers is hard to precis. It is peculiarly shaped. Its central character, a grizzled silverback of a New York human rights lawyer called Joel Litvinoff, spends almost all of the story in a coma after suffering a stroke. His younger English-born wife, Audrey, a fearsome grande dame among Greenwich Village radicals, finds herself suddenly crowded with uncertainty. Her dignity as the wife of the great man - her faith, in a sense, in Joel - is under threat from a woman who comes forward to claim that Joel fathered her child. And her dogmatic leftist secularism is affronted as her elder daughter, Rosa, finds herself drawn, albeit falteringly, towards Orthodox Judaism.

For Heller, who has never been a believer - except, she laughingly recounts, for a week-long burst of pre-teen devotion inspired by a religious painting - 'the challenge with Rosa was to write sympathetically and not sneeringly about somebody's road-to-Damascus experience'. Heller struggled mightily with the architecture of the book, not least because this is her first attempt at third-person narrative.

'You always hear writers saying, "After the second chapter Jenny just came alive and dictated where it all went." And I'm always thinking, "Really?" I was reading an old Paris Review interview where someone quoted Nabokov, who was asked: "Are you a writer like EM Forster, whose characters leap from the page and sort of tell him where to go?" And he said: [she adopts a hammy Russian accent] "Who is zis EM Forster? Augh! He can't be a very good writer. No. All my characters are galley slaves." And I thought, "Right on!"'

The standout character in her last novel, Notes on a Scandal, was its angry, obsessive, loneliness-crazed narrator, Barbara. In The Believers it is Audrey, with her vile temper, self-righteousness and patrician hauteur. Heller has a strong line in unsympathetic female characters, I suggest.

'Well,' she says, sounding a little crestfallen. 'They're not meant to be extremely unsympathetic."

The phenomenon of "liberal" authors accidentally writing novels that endorse the views of their political/philosophical opposites is as old as the form itself.

Zoë Heller, The Believers (DG Myers, A Commonplace Blog)

Except for Rosa, her family enjoys Audrey’s “ugly view of the world,” even if they do not share it. And though Rosa is probably correct that what raises a laugh in her audience is “not the truth of her observations” but rather “their unfairness, their surreal cruelty,” the fact is that her verbal ugliness and relentless cruelty is shamefully delightful. Audrey belongs to the regiment of acid-tongued women that includes Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy, and it is to Heller’s credit that she recognizes the cruelty of wit as an accomplishment, almost a life’s work. Other than that Audrey has had no life’s work:
[S]he had often spoken of the accomplishments that might have been hers had she not dedicated her life to Joel. But she had never really believed what she was saying. Deep down, she had always known these aggrieved remarks for what they were—self-flattering delusions, face-saving fantasies. The truth was, Joel had held her back from nothing. He had saved her.
This is one of the few times Heller refers directly to her title, and the reference is significant. For though Audrey replies to a friend’s encouragement by saying that she is “done,” the truth is that Joel’s “physical catastrophe” has freed her to begin again—by abandoning the false belief of independent self-fulfillment and deciding to become the keeper of her husband’s flame.

That the public occasion on which she unveils her decision is a pathetic imitation of a socialist rally—that her announcement is melodramatic, that Joel’s flame has been dimmed by exposure of his secret life—are finally irrelevant. The pattern is set. Each of the Litvinoff women becomes a “believer” by turning away from self-flattering delusion toward the embarrassing truth.

on The Believers, a novel by Zoë Heller (Ron Slate, On the Seawall)
The center-of-consciousness here hovers near, if not often through, the perspective of Audrey Litvinoff, imported from England at nineteen, a lower-middle class child of Jewish immigrants, to marry Joel. But with Joel in a coma and her marriage shaken, Audrey is stripped down. Her friend Jean suggests “reinventing herself and moving on,” but it’s no use:

“Audrey shook her head forlornly. It was true: she had often spoken of the accomplishments that might have been hers had she not dedicated her life to Joel. But she had never really believed what she was saying. Deep down, she had always known these aggrieved remarks for what they were – self-flattering delusions, face-saving fantasies. The truth was, Joel had held her back from nothing. He had saved her. Without Joel, she would still be typing in Camden Town, or living in some hellish suburb, married to a man like her sister’s husband, Colin.
She looked down at the brochures splayed on the floor. ‘No, Jean,’ she murmured. ‘It’s no good. I’m done.’"

But not so fast. Heller is at her nimble best when shifting her characters between their own caustic or self-critical insights and driven natures. After the scene above, Audrey and Rosa meet at a political rally. Rosa announces that she has quit her job and is going to practice Orthodox Judaism:

“Audrey turned to her. ‘You want to know what I’d do if the truth revealed itself to me and it wasn’t the truth I wanted to find?'


Audrey smiled. 'I’d reject it.'"

In this way, she rejects the truth discovered about the “self-flattering delusions” and Berenice’s child, and pays tribute to her husband instead.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2010 7:38 AM
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