Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Believers, by Zoe Heller


The Believers is Zoe Heller’s third novel. Her previous book was the phenomenally successful Notes On A Scandal.

While her first novel I didn’t enjoy much (it seemed unfocused), and her second featured a perfectly suspenseful plot that ticked along without missing a beat, The Believers is somewhere in-between these two novels in style.

There’s plenty of wit, brilliantly turned sentences and smart observations, but not much of a plot really. Heller seems to have started her book with a concept for which a plethora of ideas sprouted in her mind, but no plan on how she would actually finish her novel, or even arrange such spontaneity.

When compared to Notes On A Scandal, which was so poised, The Believers is a loose, freewheeling riff on the problems of family life.

The theme of the book, starkly encapsulated in the ironic title, is about the disparity between our idealistic beliefs and how life is really lived.

The book follows an atheist Jewish family, the Litvinoffs. The family is headed by a famous civil rights lawyer, Joel, who suffers a stroke at the start of the book. For the rest of the novel we experience the other family members playing out their own personal dramas, while Joel withers away in a hospital ward.

Politically the family is to the left, yet worryingly their daughter Rosa is dabbling with orthodox Judaism while the other daughter, Karla, is an obese loser in an unhappy marriage. The mother, Audrey, is an overbearing, self absorbed and unsupportive monster.

I couldn’t quite figure out what the take away from the novel was. It’s comes across as a Woody Allen / Christina Stead style slice-of-life story. Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters kept coming to mind as I read.

The book promises a thought out thesis on the ironies of political and ideological belief systems, how we’re all basically hypocrites, but Heller seems to prefer making a string of smart observations without figuring out any conclusions to the issues she raises.

In a sense you’re led to believe that this will be a political novel with a trenchant look at the delusions and vanities of sixties counter-culture and the liberal politics it spawned. But Heller only stands at the gates of her theme looking in.

Indeed, Heller on the final pages leaves her reader in a literal black hole trying to figure out what will happen to one of her characters next. You get the distinct impression that she simply didn’t know how to finish the book.

As you can probably tell from this review, I preferred Notes On A Scandal. I enjoy these Christina Stead style novels that take a scalpel to their characters, but found that Heller had set herself an ambitious theme which she couldn’t deliver on.

Sometimes her characters were not properly integrated with the ideas that the book purported to explore. For example, the adopted son Lenny, whose biological mother was in prison for activities related to a radical political group she was involved in, seemed tacked on. The reference to Lenny’s mother’s extremist politics comes across as an irresistible joke that Heller could not help but indulge in.

Having said that, there’s a lot of good stuff to be savoured in this novel. I laughed out loud a lot at Heller’s brilliantly dark humour and pithy observations. It’s just a shame Heller couldn’t pull everything together into a coherent whole. Her heart seemed to be more with the characters of the daughters Rosa and Karla, while the mother, Audrey, looks like a grotesque invention, something made up and not real. Heller's real theme seems to be, strangely enough, lonliness.

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