The question of which characters in a novel get most space is generally decided early on, often for reasons that are at first unclear. In Zoë Heller’s new novel, The Believers, a large number of characters are briskly and satirically drawn, and most are given lines of dialogue that reveal something of the way they see themselves. Among them are four women (and a man who disappears early). For all of them life is shocking, and they’re shocking to themselves. At the centre of the book, as in Heller’s previous novel, Notes on a Scandal (2003), is a character who manhandles both the world and other people: Audrey Litvinoff in The Believers – abrasive, self-deceiving, mordant, furious.
The novel opens in 1962, at a party in London, where 19-year-old Audrey Howard, the child of Polish Jewish immigrants, a secretary with an angry reserve and a nearly crushing sense of her own ignorance, watches Joel Litvinoff, white-toothed and brilliant, an American lawyer with the physical assurance of an athlete and the intellectual assurance of someone who has just been asked to work on Martin Luther King’s legal team. He rapidly takes stock of her beauty – ‘Is she one of mine?’ he asks a member of the calmly anti-semitic crowd – and guesses, as the reader does, at some intensity in the young woman that seems to match his own bravado and verbal force. Still, she is shy, and when he says, ‘That’s what I should do: marry you and take you to New York,’ we are pleasantly surprised to hear her say: ‘Take me.’ It’s daring on Heller’s part to turn Audrey, over the undepicted forty years that follow, into a monster.
When we next see the couple, in New York in 2002, Joel is the defence attorney in the latest of a long sequence of high-profile radical left-wing cases: his client is Mohammed Hassani, who four years earlier had visited an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan. On the first day of the trial, Joel and Audrey bicker before going out, each in their own direction, to spend the day rehearsing their views to other people. Audrey’s private court is her friend Jean’s apartment, where she argues all cases to her own satisfaction; today’s subject is what motivates al-Qaida. Audrey is decisive: ‘It’s all bollocks. They’re fighting us because we support Israel and every other shitty regime in the Middle East. And we’re fighting them because there’s a bloody great big oil pipeline that goes across Afghanistan.’ Jean remembers Audrey’s view of 9/11: ‘By lunchtime on the day that the towers fell, when the rest of New York was still stumbling about in a daze, Audrey had already been celebrating the end of the myth of American exceptionalism . . . The speed with which she had processed the catastrophe and assimilated it to her worldview had been formidable in its way, and, at the same time, Jean felt, a little chilling.’ Heller’s characters are good watchers of one another.
Meanwhile, Joel and his ugly assistant – ‘there was, he had to admit, something rather soothing about not wanting to fuck his assistant’ – have entered the courtroom. Joel has greeted his client with a giant bear hug (he ‘rarely managed to get through a case without falling a little in love with his client’) and looked over the jury (they emanated ‘the usual stagy solemnity of citizens fulfilling their civic duty’). Then he has a stroke. By the time Audrey and the couple’s three grown-up children – Rosa, Karla and Lenny – have arrived at the emergency room, Joel is in a coma, and the novel is properly underway.
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