Bookish: The Believers


About three-quarters of the way through Zoe Heller’s recent novel The Believers I realized that not only did I not like (or believe) any of the book’s characters, but none of them were going to be redeemed by the end either. Indeed, a bitter moment as I plowed my way through to the end of the book just to see what horrible behaviours she did ascribe to them right up until the last pages. Fortunately it’s a quick read as there isn’t much here in the way of deep concept to slow the reader down.

The Believers is the tale of the Litvinoff family: Patriarch Joel Litvinoff, radical Jewish NYC lawyer (think William Kunstler if he had lived until 2008), his wife Audrey – cynical British ex-pat who espouses revolution even as she inwardly curses having to be friendly with the maid, and the adult children: do-gooder daughters Rosa and Karla, and Lenny the crack-addicted adopted child of a father who blew himself up in his NYC townhouse making revolutionary bombs and a mother imprisoned for a seventies-era bank robbery (that’s some original stuff there!) The novel traces the events after Joel’s stroke which lands him comatose for several months in the hospital while the rest of the characters pursue their own dilemmas, discovering family weaknesses and secrets along the way.

At first glance, I thought this would be an interesting read, particularly as I’m acquainted with the left and its problematic personalities. And for sure, Heller nails these folks as caricatures early on in the book – which is exactly the problem for a character-driven plot – they remain caricatures throughout. Audrey is the self-obsessed and self-righteous harpie, Rosa is driven to believe in something, anything (but without ever having a shred of self-awareness about what fuels that), Karla’s union husband Mike is the supercilious prick the media loves to paint union organizers as, Joel secretly flirts with artists and terrorists….. It’s all a little too easy, particularly as Heller rarely delves into the internal monologue of the characters enough to ground the reader in their actions.

The incompleteness of the characters had me thoroughly confused about Heller’s point by the end – is it that to believe too dogmatically is a bad thing? If so, why would the character you are supposed to like (Rosa) end her search by fully immersing herself in another rigid belief system? Is Khaled (the man outside her marriage Karla falls in love with) supposed to be the ideal in his belief of nothing? Besides being nice to Karla, he is the most uninteresting character of the book with an empty life spent making friends on the Internet. Surely that isn’t the model being upheld either? Joel is revered by thousands in the end for his steadfast and lifelong commitment to political principal while Audrey is exposed to be as bitter and manipulative as they come. It’s not that I need a single main message to be satisfied with a book, but a deeper, more coherent analysis could only help such a novel.

I get that dogmatism engenders cartoonish and bad behaviour in people, having been exposed to more of it than I care to recount in my life on the left – but people are much more than just a sum of their bad behaviours and are comprised of thoughts, desires and shaping events that allow us to understand them beyond the soapbox. One gets the impression that Heller wrote this at the height of Bush’s liberal-bashing and simply didn’t want to give the reader a window into the Litvinoffs’ and their ilk as people, but as mannequins for the failure of liberal ideas in the United States. By the end it really does start to read like a series of unoriginal and cheap shots – you could just save your money on the novel and go check out the freeper website for more of the same.

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