By Zöe Heller
Harper, 306 pages
In post-9/11 New York City, Joel Litvinoff, the legendary attorney and radical activist, has been struck down by a severe stroke. As he lies unconscious in a Manhattan hospital room, his family hovers around his unresponsive body, disoriented and emotionally paralyzed. Joel’s renowned ideological dynamism and organizing energy have disappeared, leaving the family edifice swaying.
In her most recent novel, The Believers, Booker Prize-nominated author Zöe Heller introduces us to a family come undone—abandoned, as it were, at a domestic Ground Zero. Just as the landscape of Heller’s New York is haunted by the space left where the Twin Towers once stood, the geography of the colorful Litvinoff family is haunted by Joel’s ruined body, a body which, as the novel progresses, emerges as a source of doubt in the lives of his wife and children. The Believers paints a compelling portrait of the fragility of faith, a picture of belief that can collapse as quickly and as easily as a human body or a tower. Joel’s family, like the citizens of the city in which they live, must learn to function in a world where all walls fall and all faiths fail.
Well-known for her vivid yet often unlikeable characters, Heller births a whole tribe of crooked, broken individuals. The “believers” struggle with the maintenance of belief, the loss of belief, the recovery of belief and the redemption of unbelief. Drawn with a keen eye and a wry sense of humor which frequently borders on satire, the Litvinoff family emerges as a motley collection of disturbingly realistic characters. Heller’s satire—cutting, yet compassionate—rings with a particularly personal tone. The story is, in many ways, an autobiographical one. Heller herself was raised by leftist parents in a secular Jewish home, and the fictional Litvinoff clan bears a striking resemblance to the author’s family. In an interview with The New York Times’s Patricia Cohen, Heller describes her mother as a Labor Party activist with a “Stalinist inclination,” someone who might consider it “perfectly sensible for the Soviets to invade Afghanistan.” There was a great amount of pressure to “tow the party line,” she recalled in another interview. “My mother once told me, ‘there are only two ways you could disappoint me, darling, by becoming a Tory or becoming a nun.’”
In The Believers, Heller explores the nuanced interaction of a family very similar to her own, with their own strict, dogmatic liberalism. Joel and his spectacularly caustic wife Audrey are staunch social progressives, adamantly secular Jews, and pioneering “experimental” parents. From the beginning of the book, it is obvious that Joel’s personality provides a necessary center of gravity that unifies the whirling, clashing personalities of his family members. Though relational drama abounds, the structure of the family remains intact; while Joel is present, the center holds.
In his little tribe of “wandering Jews,” Joel stands as the patriarch of a new kind of Israel, a contemporary Abraham. In his family he creates a nation of “true believers,” who evangelically preach the Litvinoff gospel. On weekends, instead of going to church or synagogue, the family gathers around the kitchen table to listen to Joel sermonize upon some doctrine of liberal orthodoxy:
On this Sunday the subject of his lecture was the ethics of armed struggle […] Joel strode about the kitchen, messily breaking and beating eggs. He was wearing his standard breakfast attire: a pair of leather slippers, flattened down at the back by his giant gray heels, and a balding terrycloth bathrobe. From time to time, the two sides of the robe would flap open like theater curtains, revealing the proscenium arch of his groin and a terrifying glimpse of pubic froth.
On such occasions Joel parades his virility as well as his ideological power. The reader soon learns that Joel’s success as a patriarch, pseudo-religious leader, and public man is closely related to his sexual prowess. In a classic feminist interpretation of the male ego, Heller links Joel’s political and personal potency to his sexual “success.” Joel is an infamous flirt and is chronically unfaithful to his wife Audrey. His philandering is almost as well known as his politics; his romantic exploits (if not his descendents) are as “numerous as the stars in the heavens.”
But even as Joel attempts to mold his world and his tribe into perfect temples of liberal orthodoxy, the structure of this “house of Israel” has already begun to crack. The children—the “bearers of the promise”—refuse to tow the line. Rosa horrifies her parents with a sudden interest in Orthodox Judaism. Karla marries a man whose political opinions directly contradict their own. Lenny, the only son, lapses in and out of addiction, chronically unemployed and politically apathetic.
Underneath the facade of a “super-successful progressive family,” the Litvinoffs struggle with frustration, dysfunction and failure. In the same way, Joel’s sexual strength is challenged even as his domestic life fragments. In the first chapter he is inordinately disturbed by a young woman’s rejection of his advances. “The woman looked away disdainfully. He felt a moment’s befuddlement at the failure of his gallantry and then an urge to take the woman by the scruff of her neck and give her a good slap.” For Joel, his sexual and parental failures suggest the possibility of some deeper personal and ideological collapse. And this vague foreboding soon comes to fruition: minutes after the woman’s rejection he suffers from a stroke, collapsing on the court-room floor.
Though it isn’t until after Joel’s removal that the family structure actually begins to crumble, the fatal structural flaws have been latent from the beginning. Heller illustrates the instability of the Litvinoff belief structure by exploring literal structures—especially houses and apartments—with literal instabilities. Broken domestic spaces parallel broken faith: sterile apartments point to sterile relationships, and, as Joel notices early in the novel, filthy living quarters seem to suggest “a failure of will, a moral collapse of some kind.” Homes crumble even as the Litvinoff system crumbles and the faithful begin to doubt.
Heller uses Audrey’s particular failure of belief—paralleled by her domestic failure—to explore the dynamic of ideological collapse. Throughout the novel Audrey’s Greenwich Village mansion slips into filthy abandon. Months pass and the airless rooms begin to fester as left-over food rots on top of the TV and trash collects on the floor: “The mess was epic. A sinister brown substance was oozing from one of the three gaping trash bags. The filthy linoleum sucked at Karla’s shoes.” In Joel’s absence Audrey cannot muster the energy necessary to maintain her home.
But even in the best of times, we learn that the Litvinoff house was a dark and inhospitable space, containing a dizzying collection of nick-knacks and unmatched furniture: “There was almost no natural light at the front of the house […]There was not a single item of furniture here that could be said to represent a considered aesthetic choice.” Living in cluttered, shuttered rooms, Audrey and Joel shut off their home from the outside world. The windows admit no light or air. Set adrift in the midst of a huge metropolis, Joel and Audrey create an isolated simulation of reality within the walls of their home.
Instead of looking out their windows into the larger world, Joel and Audrey attempt to trap pieces of this world, creating the illusion of comprehensive complexity. The rooms are filled with cheap souvenirs and snapshots from their travels. These objects function almost like voodoo dolls: simplified reproductions of larger realities which give their possessor the illusion of power. Caught in the form of a trinket, international tragedies, societal changes, nations, human beings, political movements—all can be fully comprehended and controlled. For Joel and Audrey, the objectification and reduction of these realities neutralizes their potential potency. Collected in pieces, hidden in glass cases, the world no longer presents a threat to the fragile structure of belief which Joel and Audrey have carefully constructed. Reality can be digested—or ignored.
This domestic shuttering serves as an illustration of how the Litvinoff belief system functions and finally fails. Just like her house, Audrey’s mind is a collection of “facts,” horded and displayed like her souvenirs. Audrey promptly discards any fact that she cannot readily incorporate into her existing worldview structure. In Chapter Twenty-two, a perplexed Rosa questions her mother: “If you thought you’d found the truth about something, would you walk away from it just because it wasn’t the truth you particularly wanted or expected to find?” she asks. “I can’t answer that,” Audrey counters, “The truth would never reveal itself to me in that way.” “But what if it did, Mom? What if the truth did reveal itself to you in that way?” After a chilling pause Audrey answers: “I would reject it.”
Unfortunately for Audrey and her family, not all facts can be so easily rejected or ignored. In the end, the Litvinoffs cannot contain the tragedy of Joel’s illness: they are unable to convert it into an easily manageable souvenir. His physical failure points to the ultimate and inescapable failure of death—a fact that no one can escape or deny.
Though the Litvinoffs attempt to capture and control reality, they fail when they place their faith entirely in their own system, when they hope to conquer the “vast and chaotic and unmasterable” world which surrounds them. They “seek[ ] to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite,” writes G.K. Chesterton, describing the “lunatic” imagination which, if it has faith, has faith only in itself. Like Chesterton’s “lunatic,” Audrey attempts the impossible feat of synthesizing and controlling all things. Obviously, this mad voyage is doomed from the start and, by the end of Heller’s tale, even the dogmatic Audrey must face facts. Throughout the novel she slowly comes to realize that “reality [is] not a series of discreet tableaux stages solely for her benefit.” She discovers that “even the people she saw every day—even her family—contained worlds that she would never fully fathom.” This revelation throws Audrey into a confusion which borders on despair. With her husband gone, her belief structure swaying, her family fragmented, Audrey does indeed come perilously close to the edge of madness.
According to Chesterton the alternative to lunacy is poetry. “Poetry is sane,” Chesterton explains, “because it floats easily on [the] infinite sea” which the lunatic and the Litvinoff believer seeks to cross. But though the lunatic goes mad, the poet remains sane because, according to Chesterton, he doesn’t attempt to cross the “infinite sea.” Heller’s believers stumble in the dark, disoriented and disillusioned with their faith and loss of faith. But in the end, Heller, like Chesterton, seems to suggest that belief is indeed possible—even essential—in the overwhelming and disorienting world of the 21st century. But faith must become the faith of the poet, rather than the inflexible and impossible dogmatism of the logician and the lunatic.
In Chapter Sixteen, Audrey’s daughter Rosa considers her own failure of belief as “a failure of imagination” and “an inability to appreciate metaphor.” “Poetry,” she recalls, “had been the one subject in which she had never excelled at school.”
Even when she brought the full weight of her intelligence to bear on certain poems, they refused to give up their meaning. She remembered her English teacher telling her once, in exasperation, “You want to extract the idea from the poem like a nut from its shell—to find out whether it is “right” or not—but if the poet had wanted to say something that could be summed up in a sentence like that, he wouldn’t have written a poem, he would have written a slogan.” Perhaps believing was like poetry in this regard. It required a delicacy or subtlety of mind that she had yet to attain.
In Orthodox Judaism Rosa begins to discover a belief which functions more like poetry than dogma, and a doctrine which bears more resemblance to a metaphor than a slogan. As a strict Litvinoff liberal, Rosa had been unable to accept human weakness and complexity. In the face real poverty and individual inconsistency she quickly loses her faith. But in the metaphors and mysticism of Torah, Rosa begins to build a belief that will not shatter under the burden of infinite complexity because it refuses to define or contain the complexity it finds. This new faith survives by remaining open to the unknown and the divine. The study of Torah requires humility in the face of actual events, a submission to a reality that cannot be contained but only experienced through the poetry of faith: “King Solomon himself declared ‘I have said I am wise, but this matter is remote from me.’”
Zöe Heller weaves an intriguing tale. Despite her close proximity to catastrophe and collapse, Heller manages to approach the chaotic world she creates with admirable humor, compassion, and a curiosity untainted by cynicism. In the face of almost certain disaster, the book seeks out some sort of positive redemption. As Heller’s characters are stripped of their most precious beliefs they find themselves at Ground Zero. But this site of disaster emerges, in the end, as a location of possibility, a place where new faith might grow in the wreckage of ruined belief. In the end, this faith seems to depend less on doctrine than on metaphor, less on certainty than on poetry. This renewed belief must allow for mystery as well as the possibility of failure. It must even allow for the possibility of death.