The Believers – Zoë Heller

The Believers(HarperCollins 2008)

Meet the Litvinoffs: Joel, head of the family and radical left-wing socialist human rights lawyer; Audrey, England-born wife and uninterested mother who passes the time angrily criticizing the family and the government; Karla, eldest daughter who is obese, passive, and the surprise starring lead of the novel; Rosa, angry with the world and looking for answers in religion, the last direction her parents would ever point her in; and Lenny, the adopted son with a bad drug habit and at 34, lives with his parents.

Heller sets up a fascinating family to follow and, beginning with a charming story of how Audrey and Joel met, you can’t help but instantly warm to them. When Joel suffers a stroke in the middle of a court proceeding and his family is left to restructure themselves, Audrey, Karla, Rosa and Lenny struggle to meet the expectations Joel had for a tribe-style family that was passionate about politics and would engage in spirited debates. Instead, the family jets off in their own directions while fighting to understand why nobody understands them. 

Heller’s writing is hilarious, positioning humor quietly back to back, so that a joke is created without actually being there. Originality and adeptness streak through the lines of the novel, and what makes this story so interesting and unique is the juxtaposition of characters that all claim to have passion for social justice and the friction they have with the actual problems of the world. Heller cleverly creates situations for the characters to prove their intelligence or compassion, and time and time again they all strain to come up with adequate responses, instead reciting philosophies and general statements. For example, when Audrey spends time with her political-just-for-fun friend, Jean:

“Oh, don’t be daft,” Audrey said. “This whole Allah thing is a total red herring. Al-Qaeda is a political organization, not a religious one. People band on about fundamentalist Islam and religious fanatics, but it’s obvious no one is inspired by bin Laden for religious reasons.”

“Aren’t they?” Jean asked. “I mean, aren’t some of the al-Qaeda lot motivated by religion?” She was wishing, as she often did in these talks with Audrey, that she had bothered to read more about the subject under discussion. She was quite sure that Audrey was wrong about al-Qaeda—or, at the very least, not wholly right—but she could sense, even before she began, that her flummoxed protest was doomed. There was nothing wrong with being the one who always pointed out that things were more complex than supposed: it was a perfectly honorable and even necessary job. But it wasn’t what won you arguments.

All the family’s energy focuses on one-upping your conversation partner in politics and concern for social justice. The game is being able to contradict somebody and refute their claims with your own cultural evidence and philosophical remark, and if you’ve managed to stump them, then you’ve conquered them. The characters interact brilliantly and in their own unconscious narrations they judge each other, sometimes blindly, and sometimes completely on the mark. The dealings between all of the characters crackle with energy, and we delight in being able to follow them around New York and watch them anguish over their decisions while making hilariously private remarks.

The only hint of a complaint is that at times the book becomes like one of Aesop’s Fables, in which the characters reflect on their lives and have dull moments of understanding, and then the moral of the story appears. However, this is balanced out by the book’s narrating focus switching from character to character, and so because the reader can see what choice the character should make, Heller levels the playing field and remains omnipotent by making the character just as morally swift as the reader.