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Skirmishes in the Family Garden

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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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Giles Keyte/Fox Searchlight
Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in the 2006 film Notes on a Scandal, based on Zoë Heller’s 2003 novel, What Was She Thinking?

Karla, clearly, does not expect much out of life, and so it is with the same profoundly disorienting shock that Rosa experiences in her religious conversion that Karla falls truly, deeply in love with Khaled, an Egyptian man who runs the newsstand at the hospital and finds that he loves her back. They meet when, in a ghastly burlesque of her unhappiness, a legless patient tries to suffocate her, and Khaled comes to the rescue. Even in their early, tentative friendship, Karla starts to sense that she has been rescued in more ways than one:

In spite of, or perhaps because of, their lack of shared interests, they seemed to have bypassed the prescribed stages for polite coworker relations and advanced straight to the free-flowing, aimless talk of intimates. Often, in his company, she felt a weight lifting from her—a burden of cares whose heaviness she had not fully realized.

Then there is Lenny, the Litvinoff’s son, adopted at seven when his mother, one of Joel’s revolutionary clients, went to jail for making bombs. Joel considered the adoption a “subversive gesture— a vote for an enlightened, ‘tribal’ system…. Lenny, however, had proved to be an uncooperative participant in the tribal program.” After a childhood of tantrums, an adolescence of dealing pot from the Perry Street steps, a young adulthood of dropping out of various small colleges his parents had pulled strings to get him into, and then getting fired from a job at Habitat for Humanity, Lenny is now a thirty-four-year-old unemployed hanger-on addicted to drugs. For Joel, he is a “mendacious, indolent fuckup, that was all—a mortifying reminder of a failed experiment.” Audrey, on the other hand, adores him.

Audrey is contemptuous of both her daughters, of Karla’s passivity and Rosa’s spiritual drama. When, for example, Jean suggests that Rosa might be depressed, Audrey’s response is:

Bollocks!… Rosa’s not depressed. She only ever went to Cuba to show everyone how special and interesting she was. Now she’s tired of playing peasant, and she wants to see how much attention she can get by becoming Queen of the Matzoh.

One minute later, Audrey is wheedling Jean to hire the utterly incompetent and undependable Lenny as her painter. The woman so devoted to shrewd cynicism is completely under the thumb of her wayward son. From the moment Audrey sees Lenny as a little boy glued to the television set waiting for a mother who will never come home, she loves him in a way she cannot love her daughters:

As the coauthor of Karla and Rosa, she could not help but look upon them with the dissatisfied eye of an artist assessing her own flawed handiwork. Lenny, on the other hand, was an unsolicited donation: she was free to enjoy the gift of him without any burden of genetic responsibility for his imperfections. She had chosen to love him.

Audrey’s ability and insistence on choosing is one of the aspects of The Believers that raises it above the ordinary novel of a dysfunctional family. In a novel so saturated in sorrow and discontent, there is always a sense of individual power and possibility. In London, forty years ago, Audrey chose Joel and chose a life far from her grim, plodding parents and her grim, plodding job. And by choosing Joel, she also chose her own identity. Yet now, she wonders,

How had she ended up like this, imprisoned in the role of harridan?…. She had carved out a minor distinction for herself as a “character”: the little English girl with the chutzpah and the longshoreman’s mouth….

But somewhere along the way, when she hadn’t been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will. It had begun to express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband’s philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate. She hadn’t noticed the change at first. Like an old lady who persists in wearing the Jungle Red lipstick of her glory days, she had gone on for a long time, fondly believing that the stratagems of her youth were just as appealing as they had ever been.

Even when her identity turns out to be a kind of trap, however, and becomes just another variety of isolation, there is the sense that Audrey will not give in without a fight. She is a wonderful character, infuriating, selfish, touchingly self-destructive, a champion of blind, furious will.

So this is the Litvinoff family, 2002. On the morning of the high-profile Hassani trial, Joel is a famous, somewhat self-satisfied lawyer and notorious ladies man known as the Left-wing Lothario, his wife is a pillar of angry wisecracks, their son takes money from her wallet, Karla is unhappily married to a man fixated on her fertility problems, and Rosa is checking out mikvahs. Joel leaves the house on Perry Street annoyed that Audrey did not buy bialys. The next time Audrey sees him, Joel has had a stroke in court and lies in a coma in a hospital bed. And so the battle begins, not just for Joel’s life, but for the meaning of all their lives.

Even after Joel has been in a coma for weeks and the doctors have decided his case is hopeless, Audrey refuses to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order. This is not an ideological decision; quite the opposite:

How often had they congratulated themselves on the fact that, as atheists, they were uniquely well equipped to face the end of life with dignity?… Yet now…that she was confronting the possibility of actually presiding over her husband’s death—she understood how cowardly their former bravado had been….

She reached over now and tried to stroke his hand through its awkward anticontracture brace. She had always loved Joel’s hands: the dry, fleshy palms, the long, knotted fingers. His touch, she used to joke, was his secret weapon, the balm for all marital resentments.

Audrey chose Joel. But she cannot choose to let him die. It is her hidden vulnerability—she loves him.

After “that first, exhilarating spike of catastrophe had subsided,” Audrey finds herself living in the squalor of lethargy and insomnia. “Without Joel, she didn’t have the gumption, the discipline, to call a halt to the day by herself.” When Jean convinces her to attend a planning meeting for a peace rally during which there is a heated discussion on the relative merits of Tim Robbins or Susan Sarandon attending, Audrey is sickened. “It did not reassure her to know that life in the great world was going on as before: it offended her.”

Just as Heller can brilliantly, thrillingly graph the tiny fluctuations of hurt feelings or triumph in a conversation about anything from wine to shoes, she tabulates the minuscule calibrations of the progress of Audrey’s grief. At the bar after the meeting, “several people had approached her to ask after Joel’s health. She had been waiting impatiently for some acknowledgement of her troubles, but as soon as it came, she found she didn’t want it, after all.” That adverbial tap of the foot, “impatiently,” in this compact emotional dance of demand and rejection: this is not just anyone’s grief—it is specifically, uniquely Audrey’s. There is something Dickensian in Audrey, an outrageousness that refuses to be left behind in caricature, that insists on her humanity. At one point, the ever helpful and hopeful Jean bravely offers to take Audrey on a restorative vacation, saying:

There’s a Caribbean cruise that the Nation magazine organizes….”

I’d rather stick a pin in my eye.”

Oh? It looked quite fun to me.”

What, floating around the islands with a bunch of old guys quarreling over who gets to sit in the Jacuzzi with Katrina van den Heuvel? You know, don’t you, those boats are riddled with Legionnaire’s Disease?”

Audrey makes many mistakes, she is cruel to her daughters, she is, in a word, a bitch. But Heller never allows us to lose sight of her as a human being, as someone struggling, making her way in the world, choice by choice. And more unexpected choices await her. Even as she sits dutifully by her husband’s unconscious body screaming at doctors and nurses, continuing her decades-long struggle over Joel with her ancient mother-in-law, Audrey is faced with a new shock. Joel, it seems, had a secret. A tall, turbaned black woman turns up with the news that for three years between 1996 and 1999, Joel had an affair with her. She is a photographer named Berenice Mason. If Audrey has accidentally reinvented herself as an unholy incarnation of Tony Soprano, Don Rickles, and Mother Jones, Berenice has the smooth, presumptuous confidence of Dr. Phil.

The affair in itself would not have upset Audrey too much—she has grown used to Joel’s infidelities, consoling herself with the fact that he always came home to her, to his family. But this time it’s different. Joel and Berenice had a son in 1998 named Jamil. In a letter oozing unconscious sanctimony, Berenice writes:

Even though Joel and I are no longer romantically involved, our friendship has endured and the bond we share as Jamil’s parents can never be broken. Joel has a very special love for his son and he has always supported him both financially and emotionally.

Audrey is suddenly left without any of her beliefs intact. “For forty years now, she had been confusing proximity with intimacy—believing that she had plumbed her husband’s mysteries—when all the while, she had been making love to his shadow.”

Now that Joel is lying on his deathbed, Berenice wants to “honor the important connection that we have—for our children’s sake, at least.” The scene when Karla and Rosa finally do go to visit Berenice is one of farcical, dizzying, magnificent awfulness. Berenice’s placid narcissism fills the page like some sickly incense. Her bookcase is crammed with “gerund-heavy titles.” She tells the sisters that her attraction to their father was a ” rapporto di pelle.” She delivers a velvety pious lecture about how the girls should not hate their father, for “the truth is, we all do some hurtful shit in our lives from time to time, but it doesn’t, you know, make us evil. It’s part of what makes us human.”

Rosa, in a rage of filial disillusionment and resentment, responds with a derisive snort: “a very convenient philosophy for you. Adultery as a humanist gesture,” while poor Karla, in an attempt to be polite, examines a photograph on the wall,

a blurry, tenebrous close-up of something—what exactly, she was unsure.

Was this taken underwater?” she asked, pointing at a mass of coiled, springy-looking matter that looked as if it might be seaweed.

Rosa shook her head. “Look at the title, Karla.”

The title is Black Cunt #3.

Is…is that one of yours?” she asked, gesturing at the photograph.

Berenice smiled. “Yes. My photograph, my vagina.”

The Believers is the story of the petty yet vital skirmishes within the epic war that we all must eventually lose—the intense drama of the mundane amid the essentially static drama of death. In much the way that What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal was the strange, claustrophobic drama of one skewed perspective, Heller’s new work is the ragged, urgent drama of conflicting perspectives between sisters, between parents and children, between husband and wife, and, perhaps most painfully of all, between each of the character’s intensely personal visions and the rest of the world’s blithely callous disregard of them. No one really seems comfortable in the roles they have somehow learned to fill, no one seems to feel free in the part they play in the world.

No one except Joel. Even when imprisoned in his coma, Joel Litvinoff still manages to embody the radical patriarch. He is the one whose attention they crave, in spite of the fact that he no longer has any attention to give. He is the symbol of the Litvinoffs and what they all accept that they stand for. Watching her mother and grandmother engaged in the “low-level hostilities” that characterize their relationship, Rosa reflects that they

were never going to give up the ghost. They would go on jostling with one another like groupies at a stage door until the bitter end. In fact, now that Joel was sick, the battle between them had only intensified. In his silence, Joel had become a perfectly passive prize, an infinitely interpretable symbol: a Sphinx whose meanings and ownership they could squabble over forever, without fear of decisive contradiction.

This is a skirmish between a wife and a mother-in-law over who better understands their precious Joel, but it is also the battle of all the members of the family to be heard and, ultimately, to be loved. Joel may be bound, unconscious, to his hospital bed by tubes, but it is really the others in the family who are imprisoned. And it is only when Berenice slides onto the scene, a soft-spoken snake in their chaotic, strident garden, that Joel’s position slips, and the world without Joel at its center reveals itself, a new challenge for each member of the family.

When Audrey first finds out about Berenice and Jamil, she remembers shopping with her mother long ago and seeing her third-grade teacher buying apples with her fiancée. She had, until that instant, regarded the world, like most children, “as a frozen parade of people and scenes that only came truly alive in her presence.” But then, suddenly, she was forced to recognize that reality was “vast and chaotic and unmasterable. Even people she saw every day—even her family —contained worlds that she would never fully fathom.” It is this lesson, one Heller understands with such expansive precision, that Audrey and her children must learn all over again.

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