Identity crisis

Zo? Heller's new novel is about a family not particularly given to introspection or self-reflection.

zoe heller book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
zoe heller book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Believers By Zoë Heller Penguin/Fig Leaf 320 pages; £16.99 'Self contradiction," observes Joel Litvinoff pompously, "is one of the occupational hazards of being an American progressive." Joel is paterfamilias of the undisciplined, untidy clan at the heart of Zoë Heller's new novel, The Believers, a New York family not particularly given to introspection or self-reflection. This rare moment of candor sets the tone for an engaging, if slightly uneven, consideration of the emotional intersection among political activism, personal fidelity and lapsed Judaic antecedents, as the self-described "progressive" family collapses onto itself when obliged to test personal fictions against the external reality. Joel is a veteran civil rights attorney - more partisan than patrician - with a reputation for defending public pariahs and espousing unpopular left-wing causes. The newspapers brand him a "rent-a-radical," with "a long history of un-Americanism," epithets that flatter his not inconsiderable ego; as his wife Audrey puts it, "Joel never feels so alive as when someone is wishing him dead." This somewhat overbearing public morality provides Joel ample cover for private failings, weaknesses that Audrey carefully negotiates until he suffers a stroke while in court preparing to defend his latest cause celebre - an Arab American accused of consorting with al-Qaida. As he lies comatose in his hospital bed, Audrey makes a startling discovery, a transgression from Joel's past; an act whose significance lies not merely in its commission, but also in its consequences. Abruptly, her life, her relationship with Joel and her beliefs are laid bare and she is confronted with the discomfiting reality; if the foundations upon which she has built her identity are false, then is her entire life a sham? One reaps what one sows, they say, and Audrey's capacity for ignoring the inconvenient has consequences beyond her own life. Their three children assemble by Joel's sickbed, each one burdened with personal demons demanding exorcism. The troubles that each child struggles with say as much about Audrey - and the absent, unaccountable Joel - as they do about the offspring themselves, and their challenges lend themselves well to this rich domestic drama. Audrey is a complex, complicated entity, a study in unpleasantness, and Heller's fiction is at its finest when it focuses on her contradictions. Overbearing, supercilious, malicious, rude: Audrey is a painfully precise portrait of a person sustained by the courage of her convictions. That somehow she avoids the need to test her prejudices empirically in the real world, and perhaps have them disproved, is almost beside the point. For her, her path must be the only correct one to follow. That she was not always the shrew that Heller depicts so mercilessly is understood from a short prologue, set 40 years in the past and in Audrey's native England. She is 18, a shy Jewish girl from the suburbs, very much in awe of the effortless intellectual superiority that exudes about her in the big city. Heller writes of her uncertain hesitation when she drops the term "vice versa" into conversation, then agonizing over "whether she had used the phrase correctly"; her social and intellectual inferiority are distilled potently into one short sentence, one of many deft touches of characterization scattered across the novel. It would have been easy - too easy - to make Audrey a figure of fun, allowing her to slip into caricature or parody, and it says much about Heller's skill as a portraitist that she is able to make her as unpleasant and poisonous as she is, but still to maintain her as a recognizable - uncomfortably so, at times - character, one that occasionally invites pity, if not quite sympathy. However, the novel's strength - Audrey - is also, in a way, its weakness. Audrey and Joel's three children all present interesting dilemmas of their own. One is sliding into adultery, the second is contemplating the religious life ("She's off dancing the hora," Audrey says venomously. "It's all very gruesome."); the third is a drifter and drug addict, sustained in his habits only by his mother's misplaced munificence. They are all potentially interesting, with useful things to say, and that instead they come across as somewhat underdeveloped is possibly the consequence of being overshadowed by Audrey's overbearing personality. But these are relatively trivial quibbles in a novel that is both entertaining and relevant, without becoming either didactic or patronizing. It might be a useful conceit to think of Audrey as the secular equivalent of a pious fool, a conceit that lends the novel an authoritative bent, particularly since it avoids the partisanship so readily embraced by its principals.