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Skirmishes in the Family Garden

David Howells/Corbis
Zoë Heller, New York City, January 2007

Zoë Heller’s last novel, What Was She Thinking?Notes on a Scandal (made into the movie Notes on a Scandal ), was a glorious, myopic slide through the tunnel of one woman’s distorted vision. Unnervingly gentle and bracingly funny in its dark, rabbit-hole spiral to horror and despair, it is a nearly perfect novel about the imperfect perspective of warped love. From within the tight, tart viewpoint of Barbara Covett, Heller reveals the seething bosom beneath the dowdy floral print of loneliness. The novel is narrated by Barbara, a solitary, older schoolteacher writing her observations of an affair between a married art teacher and one of her students—but even as the scandalous tale unfolds, it is the eerie insistence of Barbara’s obsession that creates the driving suspense. The novel is a grand opera of loneliness, a tragedy in which the hero is not blinded by passion; rather she is (brilliantly, I think) nearsighted and picky and prim.

What Was She Thinking?Notes on a Scandal was thrilling in its light, deceptive tone, its subtle but irresistible momentum. In The Believers, Heller’s new novel, instead of hurtling through Barbara’s impeccably lonesome tunnel vision, we find ourselves in the midst of a kind of domestic traffic jam that is deliriously crowded with sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers. The Believers is a darkly buoyant book, full of life and irritation and humor and aching disappointment. It is, in other words, a book about a family, and a terrific one.

The novel begins in 1962 in London:

At a party in a bedsit just off Gower Street, a young woman stood alone at the window, her elbows pinned to her sides in an attempt to hide the dark flowers of perspiration blossoming at the armholes of her dress.

The young English woman is Audrey Howard, and it is at this party that she notices a tall American named Joel Litvinoff. “He’s frightfully clever, apparently,” another woman tells her, then “lowered her eyes confidentially. ‘A Jew, you know.’” Once Audrey would have let the woman talk herself into a corner, then revealed that she was herself Jewish. But this time she just walks away. “Embarrassing the prejudices of your countrymen was never quite as gratifying as you thought it would be; the countrymen somehow never embarrassed enough.” Heller’s ability to describe many things in one observation is almost acrobatic. In this one passing ironical thought, she takes on the snobbery of the English, anti- Semitism, the pleasures of self-pity, and the frustrated contentment of revenge. She comes at all her subjects from unexpected angles, with a quick, glancing touch, but even more than the deftness and surprise in her descriptions, it is this remarkable ability to look both in at and out from her characters simultaneously that makes her work so identifiable, so commanding, and, so often, so devastating.

The party is a comedy of young socialists sweating in the unexpected spring heat, engaged in puerile, pink-faced radical one-upsmanship, and we immediately see that the power of Heller’s satire comes partly from her ability to honor the trivial, to acknowledge its outsized importance, its symbolism—to someone. She has a gift for recognizing the scrambling for status and hierarchy that lurks in even the most innocent of human interactions. When Joel, for example, tells a chatty anecdote about Paul Robeson visiting his summer camp (Wo-Chi-Ca for Workers’ Children’s Camp), his childhood intimacy with the great hero (he peed next to him in the woods) makes the younger men jealous and sets off a sputtering argument about Robeson’s relevance to the struggle.

Because she is interested more in the mechanics of human emotion than in making a political point, Heller’s satire is surprisingly fresh. But perhaps most important of all, the sharpness of her mordant intelligence and wit is always shadowed by a strange beauty—like those dark flowers of sweat, like the pasty winter skin of the girls at the party who take off their stockings: Audrey “could see their poultry-white legs flashing in and out of the party’s undergrowth, like torchlight in a forest.”

Audrey marries Joel Litvinoff and moves to New York and the story jumps to their family in 2002. In those intervening forty years, Joel and Audrey have lived in a brownstone on Perry Street and raised two daughters and an adopted son. The oldest daughter is named Karla, the younger Rosa, good pink-diaper names, and they have been brought up as proper left-wing children, attending the Little Red Schoolhouse in the Village. At first glance, the family seems just what we would expect of radical royalty. Karla is a social worker. Rosa has spent her last four years in Cuba. Joel is representing Mohammed Hassani, one of the Schenectady Six (the five others have made deals, but Joel hates to make deals). And Audrey? She has progressed considerably from the shy nineteen-year-old hiding sweat stains:

Audrey took a much harder political line than [Joel] did on most things these days. He didn’t mind. In fact, he rather enjoyed the irony of being chastised for his insufficient radicalism by the woman to whom he had once had to explain the Marxist concepts of “base” and “superstructure.” When he complained that she had become an ultra-leftist in her old age, he did so in the indulgent tones in which another man might have teased his wife for her excessive spending at the mall.

To the outside world, the Litvinoff family appears to be a faithful family collective, ardent believers in the progressive cause. As Audrey’s friend Jean notes, after being roundly corrected by Audrey on the purity of her antiwar position:

There were some people with a gift for conviction—a talent for cutting a line through the jumbled phenomena of world affairs and saying, “I’m in: this is my position.” Audrey had it. All of the Litvinoffs had it, to some extent.

Jean remembers a World War I movie she once saw in which a group of French soldiers are assigned to drag a cannon to a certain position, collapsing, deserting, and dying on their long and increasingly absurd trek. Even when the cannon is discovered to be useless, the captain pushes on. “Audrey’s attachment to her dogma was a bit like that, Jean thought. For decades now, she had been dragging about the same unwieldy burden of a priori convictions….”

From within the Litvinoff circle, however, the family faith is showing some cracks. Rosa, for one, has come back from Cuba with some doubts about that battered a priori cannon, announcing “that her lifelong fealty to the cause of revolutionary socialism was at an end….” Disorienting as this is, it is only the beginning:

Recently, she had delivered another, infinitely more shocking punch to the collective family jaw by informing them that she had begun attending services at an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side.

Audrey is appalled. And to some extent, so is Rosa. The absurdity and indignity of the mikvah attendant checking for telltale menstrual stains, the prissy, parochial self-regard of the womenfolk of the rabbi’s household she visits in upstate New York, the unfashionable long skirts, the forbidden toothbrush on Shabbat—the accessories of her blossoming new faith are an embarrassment to her and a challenge. At first, the Orthodox synagogue she visited one afternoon on a whim held an exotic appeal for her:

She enjoyed the odd mixture of formality and casualness…the way they kept breaking off from the headbanging fervor of their prayers to wander about the sanctuary and chat. And there was something sweet, she thought, about the way they handled the Torah—undressing it and dandling it and parading it about as if it were an adored infant. The whole thing had a faintly preposterous, Masonic quality, but it was, she conceded, not without its anthropological charm.

But from her perch in the women’s section upstairs, Rosa undergoes a kind of religious conversion. She has been brought up in a household vigorously hostile to all religion, but particularly to the one closest at hand: Judaism. Nevertheless, as the congregation sings, there is “something in the prayer’s austere melody” that strikes at her heart. She thinks,

You are connected to this. This song is your song. When next she glanced down at the siddur lying open in her hands, she was amazed to see the little ragged suns of her own teardrops turning the wafer-thin pages transparent.

Heller makes this unlikely moment as tender as she makes the upstate visit comically gruesome. Rosa is caught between genuine emotion and intellectual dismay. Some other woman might settle the issue by joining a less stern iteration of the faith, but this is Rosa, for whom it took four years in Castro’s Cuba to tire of one totalitarianism. We worry for Rosa throughout the novel, and root for her to find emotional peace and intellectual integrity, but sometimes, too, we cannot help but cheer on the awful Audrey:

Audrey looked at Rosa’s calf-length navy skirt and high-necked black blouse. Her eyes narrowed. “Is this something Jewy?”

Actually, I’m attending a Shabbaton.”

And what the fuck is that when it’s had its hair washed?”

Rosa is a complicated, thoughtful absolutist—intelligent, curious, and well-meaning—but her dogmatic yearnings and judgmental surveillance seem almost instinctive at this point. She is so judgmental, in fact, that she disapproves of physical beauty, even her own:

The reckless goodwill that her own looks inspired in total strangers had always been an embarrassment to her; she tended to regard other conspicuously attractive people as participants in a con game that she was doing her best to renounce.

Rosa’s older sister Karla, on the other hand, does not suffer from this same burden of physical attractiveness. She has battled with her weight all her life, and battled for her parents’ attention as well:

Karla had always been the least noticed of the Litvinoff offspring, the one who had to work hardest to elicit the palest ray of her parents’ approval or interest. But by some strange process, her lowly status within the family had only inflamed her ardor for the institution.

It is Karla who constantly tries to make peace between the caustic Rosa and the even more caustic Audrey. People are always telling her that she is a “born social worker.” But we discover that she originally wanted to be a lawyer, like her father:

It was only in late adolescence that her commitment to a career in law had faded. Picking up on certain familial hints—the mood of rueful skepticism that arose whenever she spoke of law school, her mother’s breezy speculations as to whether she might not be “a bit dyslexic”—she came to understand that she had horribly overestimated her potential.

Karla submits to her family’s verdict that she is a nurturer, even though “it had not escaped Karla that being a nurturer occupied a very low rung of her parents’ hierarchy of valuable life pursuits.” She marries Mike, a good-looking, sought-after union organizer who explains that he did not choose a prettier, more desirable mate because he wanted someone who shared his ideas, and she feels grateful to him for his condescension. One night as Mike reaches for her, she turns to him and catches him “off guard, wearing a look of such intense unhappiness that she had almost cried out in sympathy.”

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