Just finished this new one by Zoe Heller, an impressive decline novel about an Anglo-New York pseudo-left family. The prologue is set in London in the early sixties where young activist Audrey Howard runs into handsome lawyer Joel Litvinoff. Even then, when things are full of promise, Heller plays on the clash between high ideals and brute reality: later on, Audrey’s current SWP-style boyfriend rants: ‘You know what you are… A fucking cocktease is what you are…’ after a rejected lunge.
Fast forward forty years. Audrey is now an embittered, abrasive tyrant, with nothing going for her apart from her marriage to Joel, who has made his name defending enemies of the state; a radical lawyer and quasi-celebrity, he is one of the book’s few sympathetic characters. But in an audacious coup, Heller fells him with a stroke as he is about to rise and defend a terror suspect, leaving Audrey as the monster who dominates the novel.
We only know Audrey as a brief eighteen-year-old and a crotchety demo vet pushing sixty. There must have been times when she was full of energy and laughter, and Heller clearly wants us to sympathise with her:
I read a review the other day that said, ‘Joel is the one charming character in the book, and we’re left with this pain in the neck.’ And in one sense that exactly expresses what she’s had to deal with all her life, being the less desirable companion to this charming, charismatic, fabulous man, who is also this gigantic egotist. It’s quite hard work living with that kind of star.
Still, knowing the roots of Audrey’s bullying doesn’t make her any easier to like and the reader often feels like she’s getting what she deserves. One of her final reflections:
It was true: she had often spoken of the accomplishments that might have been hers had she not dedicated her life to Joel. But she had never really believed what she was saying. Deep down, she had always known these aggrieved remarks for what they were – self-flattering delusions, face-saving fantasies. The truth was, Joel had held her back from nothing. He had saved her. Without Joel, she would still be typing in Camden Town, or living in some hellish suburb, married to a man like her sister’s husband, Colin.
Heller captures the way in which Audrey’s former outgoing, no-bullshit charm has degenerated into rudeness for the sake of attention. Andrew Coates, reviewing The Believers for 3:AM, quotes this passage:
For decades now, she had been dragging about the same unwieldy burden of a priori convictions, believing herself honour-bound to protect them against destruction at all costs. No new intelligence, no rational argument, could cause her to falter from her mission. Not even the cataclysmic events of the previous September had put her off her stride for more than a couple of hours. 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 and comparing the event to the American bombing of a Sudanese aspirin factory in 1998.
He also relays Audrey’s most telling line: ‘You want to know what I’d do if the truth revealed itself to me and it wasn’t the truth I wanted to find?… I’d reject it.’
There have been plenty of satires on the liberal left but they have always failed because they don’t get past the ‘politically correct’ diets and amusingly named acronyms – unbelievably, Zadie Smith gave herself four days off writing as a reward for thinking up the name ‘KEVIN’ for an Islamist group. Ultimately, satirists don’t see their targets as human. Philip Roth, in American Pastoral, went on an honest exploration into what attracts people to violent revolt. But I can’t think of any fiction writer this side of the Atlantic who has done the same, even though this is really ideal territory for fiction and there is so much going on with the UK left – enough material for an entire conference.
Heller’s novel is more about the impact of ideas on the individual. It’s devastating and scary. Audrey’s children have all to some extent been retarded by handed-down family dogma. Her adopted son, Lenny, regularly visits his birth mother, a Baader-style terrorist doing life: a link with far-left craziness of the past. Rosa has become disillusioned with Marxism and is trying to find new meaning in Orthodox Judaism.
This was one of Heller’s anxieties about the novel – ‘a leap of imagination, and at various points in the writing of it, I suspected that it was too large a leap for me’ – but she manages to convey, convincingly, what it would feel like to have faith (not that I speak from experience either). However, Rosa finds that doctrinaire Judaism is as much a dead end as doctrinaire Marxism: ‘the expression of some schoolgirlish masochism, some hysterical need for rules and restrictions, the pettier and more arduous, the better.’
It’s what Heller is driving at, the superstition hardwired into the human brain: what Douglas Coupland described as a need to need. ‘I’d read this article about scientists who were trying to locate the belief gene,’ Heller explained. ‘Whether or not such a gene exists, it struck me as a good metaphor’. There was recently some research that seemed to confirm the human need to believe: released to rapture and crowing, of course, from the same people who tell us that science can’t explain everything. It’s a surprise and a delight that Audrey’s other daughter, the miserable, put-upon Karla, is the only character to really break from her family’s expectations.