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.
The opening sections of The Believers are dense with observation. Heller is especially good at rendering the inner workings of families and institutions – and the relations between the children are sharply handled. Rosa, beautiful and her father’s favourite child, has inherited her mother’s withering precision, though tempered by the occasional wish to be kinder. She tries to defend her sister, Karla, from their mother’s attacks. ‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Audrey says to Karla across Joel’s body, ‘don’t stand there looking like a smacked arse. You’re the one who’s meant to have the bedside manner.’ When Rosa protests, Audrey throws her out. But her sympathy for her sister is half-hearted. Karla’s ‘lowly status within the family had only inflamed her ardour for the institution. She reminded Rosa of one of those people who spend four utterly miserable unfriended years at college and then turn up years later as president of the alumni club.’
Rosa herself has spent four years in a hut in Cuba, where she was living out the family political convictions in a way that allowed her to parade the purity of her actions. But ‘she had finally surrendered her political faith and with it the densely woven screen of doctrinal abstraction through which she was accustomed to viewing the world . . . To say that this was a humbling business did not begin to convey her desolation.’ The loss has opened the way for her to take up what Audrey sniggeringly describes as ‘dancing the hora’ – in other words, Orthodox Judaism. Rosa herself is ‘not so swept away that she could not see the high comedy of this spiritual seduction: a Litvinoff daughter, a third-generation atheist, an enemy of all forms of magical thinking, wandering into a synagogue one day and finding her inner Jew’.
As Rosa searches for purpose, Karla struggles with her weight and her husband Mike, a union organiser, who is a despot to her and a sycophant to her parents. After a particularly gloomy scene, it occurs to Karla that ‘she didn’t really believe in the possibility of making good things happen with the sheer strength of your desire for them . . . To get things you had to be careless about them, the way that Rosa was. Rosa, who tied her blonde hair back in an untidy ponytail and wore cheap sneakers until they fell apart on her feet, and washed her face with soap and water, but still looked like a French film actress.’ Karla works as a hospital social worker: she had wanted to be a lawyer like her father, but was dissuaded by the family conviction that she wasn’t smart enough, and the family myth that she was a ‘helper’.
Lenny is the least realised of the children: in The Believers, only women have an inner life and the ability to observe others. None of the male characters – apart from Joel, before his coma – is ever given a line like ‘Lenny thought that’, or ‘Mike remembered when Karla’. Lenny is the biological child of armed revolutionaries: father dead, mother serving a life sentence, adopted by the Litvinoffs in a burst of solidarity and subsequently loathed by Joel (‘the very smell of the boy fucked with his internal weather’) and adored by Audrey (‘the night that she found Lenny . . . she felt a tiny aperture clicking open, a pilot light being lit somewhere deep within’). Lenny turns up at the hospital stoned.
At the hospital too is a ‘tall, middle-aged black woman’ with ‘long, greying dreadlocks’, a photographer. Audrey notices the ‘mannish thickness of her calves’; Karla is impressed by her ‘exotic reality’. Berenice, it turns out, was Joel’s mistress for several years; they had a child together. This news isn’t surprising in itself, since Joel has always been a bit of a womaniser: it is the length and devotion of the affair that disturbs the characters and interests us.
We don’t find out much about what Lenny thinks of his adoptive father, but the women’s memories are recounted, and give the novel a nice rhythm. Rosa remembers that she fought self-righteously against him: ‘“Only ideas are perfect. People never are,” Joel would tell her.’ Karla, better at registering other people, thinks of a Sunday breakfast at which Joel complimented Rosa, told Karla not to eat the last piece of French toast, and laughed at Lenny, who went upstairs to get into bed with their mother. Audrey remembers Joel climbing into bed with her minutes after she’d given birth and putting his hand gently ‘down to the swampy mess between her legs’, singing caressingly to her and bursting out: ‘How long before we can fuck again?’
Here, then, is a carefully worked out arrangement of family members who are responding to a double loss: of a father, and of the sense of a secure city. Our progress through the first two-thirds of the novel is powered by a combination of recognition – yes, naturally Audrey and Rosa would be at each other’s throats – and the wish to have questions answered: what did his marriage mean to Joel? Why is Audrey so angry? Somewhere in Part Three, other questions become more insistent. Why should we be interested in Rosa’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism? What are the secondary characters there for? Why is the pace slowing?
One of the challenges of writing this novel must have been finding a counterweight to the demonic Audrey when the only character large enough to set against her was Joel. I began, almost without noticing it, to read with less attention in the sections where she wasn’t present. There is a strict system of rotation in the novel’s first half: one chapter in which the story is seen largely from Audrey’s perspective; then a chapter in which Rosa is central; then one for Karla. It is when, in the third section, Heller begins to deviate from this pattern that the pace slows and the novel’s weaknesses become apparent.
Audrey frequently appears with Jean, and Jean’s presence helps to keep her human. In a scene in the middle of the novel Audrey asks Berenice why she didn’t have an abortion: ‘Did you see a little sonogram and come over all soppy about your unborn brat?’ Then she starts wondering what Jean thinks of her and remembers ‘something she had read once in a school history book: “King Henry was much feared by his people but he was never loved.”’ Later, sitting alone, she asks herself: ‘How had she ended up like this, imprisoned in the role of harridan?’
Audrey mocks Jean and her inherited wealth and ‘mannish’ clothes, and it’s possible that Jean’s otherwise inexplicable devotion is motivated by an idea of lesbian self-sacrifice. But many of the novel’s best observations are Jean’s, and it is partly the possibility of her kindness that makes the scenes of conflict fiery and alive. At a family birthday party, with Jean absent, Audrey’s behaviour is hideous and the scene unbearable.
Rosa and Karla don’t have an equivalent foil: both appear in scenes with men who lack Jean’s capacity for reflection. Rosa is also saddled with a series of excursions into the land of the Orthodox (rabbis’ homes, Talmudic study groups, visits to mikvahs) and an unsatisfying day job in which she shepherds about young underprivileged African-American women from Harlem, who have names like Chianti and Chanel, and whose predilection for practising bump-and-grind dance steps annoys her. Apart from that Rosa has a painful date with a friend from college who is still a drip; many not very compelling conversations with the devout; a non-conversation with the sodden Lenny; and a near-friendship with a light-skinned African-American man called Raphael who works with her at GirlPower, affects a ‘homeboy’ personality despite the fact that his father is a Kenyan professor, and mortifies Rosa by rolling his eyes ‘like Al Jolson’ and addressing everyone as ‘Child’. What’s wrong here is not so much that the minor characters are based on stereotypes: the biting descriptions make these people individuals too. But they have been defined so rigidly they cannot surprise us.
Things go better and more vividly for Karla. One day at the hospital she is attacked by a legless patient and rescued by ‘a middle-aged brown-skinned man with a large crumpled face and a prodigious crag of a nose’ who runs the shop at the hospital entrance. He is Egyptian; his name is Khaled. As a premise for an affair, this might seem a bit thin, but Karla experiences a complex range of emotions during her developing relationship: ‘Never had she been filled with so much reckless magnanimity. It was one of the discomfiting paradoxes of her adultery: sin had made her a better person.’ When she breaks it off and is lying in bed next to Mike, ‘with a filthy film loop of the things she and Khaled had done together running through her head’, her depression ‘bit her in the neck and kicked her in the groin’. Rosa, meanwhile, has to march through eight chapters (a third of the novel) in which she is the sole subject, with only the occasional conversation with Raphael to break up her thoughts. Karla’s big scenes are almost always placed in the middle of chapters in which other things are going on, and her understanding of her own feelings comes as she watches Berenice talk to Rosa, or sitting in a hospital corridor with Audrey. ‘I was going to say,’ Audrey says, and we are as surprised as Karla is, ‘if things weren’t good with you and Mike, I wouldn’t want you to think you had to stick at it.’
It’s as if Audrey has now finally broken away from the family pattern according to which she is a viper, Rosa is beautiful and interesting, and Karla gets noticed only fleetingly. The attention the novel gives to each of them matches the attention they demand for themselves, but the curious consequence is that what we see of Karla, side-on, is interesting, and what we see of Rosa, laboriously detailed for inspection, isn’t. The book in some sense gives the characters what they are capable of experiencing – Karla is involved with other people in a way Rosa isn’t – but the resulting problem in the narrative would have been better solved by jamming Rosa in among other people: in fact, she’s at her best fighting with Audrey.
At one point, Jean tries to persuade Audrey to go on a cruise with her or to write a memoir. ‘No, Jean,’ Audrey says: ‘it’s no good. I’m done.’ Heller seems to be inclined towards a similarly fatalistic view of character, and in Notes on a Scandal she rode out the wave of unchangingness. Here she makes careful choices about which characters soldier on, and which, hesitatingly, try to discover in themselves a capacity for transformation. It seems to me right to defend the idea that there are people who, when their husband or father has a stroke or their city is bombed, consciously consider change, and the novel is nowhere better than in the moments when characters choose to act on that impulse.