The Believers

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1871

Joel Litvinoff exists at the center of his family in Zoë Heller’s The Believers , but early in the novel he is rendered insensible by a stroke, leaving a void that intensifies and accelerates a family crisis. Before his debilitating stroke, Joel put himself in a difficult situation by agreeing...

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Joel Litvinoff exists at the center of his family in Zoë Heller’s The Believers, but early in the novel he is rendered insensible by a stroke, leaving a void that intensifies and accelerates a family crisis. Before his debilitating stroke, Joel put himself in a difficult situation by agreeing to defend Mohammed Hassani, an Arab American who is accused of being a member of a terrorist cell. Because Joel is an atheist, there is some casuistry in his defense of his client as an apolitical religious Muslim. His strategy requires him to display strong religious beliefs despite his disdain of religion. Instead of spirituality, Joel grounds his beliefs in the politics of revolutionary socialism. He has been known to return invitations to Jewish religious ceremonies with “there is no God” scrawled on them.

It is thus ironic that Joel seeks to cleanse his client of any political convictions in favor of his religious identity. Joel may have been softening his hard-left stance for some time, however: He has been keeping an African American mistress, Berenice Mason, who has New Age religious inclinations. The two have a son, Jamil. When Joel’s already irritable wife Audrey discovers the affair, she is outraged. She realizes that Berenice is not merely one of her husband’s familiar sexual dalliances. Instead, she has been there to provide a perspective otherwise missing in Joel’s life. It is as if he were not only cheating on his wife but also cheating on his own political ideology.

If a new center replaces the sidelined Joel, it is Audrey. She began her life with Joel as an unformed British teenager, but she has evolved into a hard-boiled radical, perfectly willing to defend the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States as an example of justifiable political retaliaton against American power. Her husband was a “red diaper” baby; his formative influences as a child included a Workers’ Children’s Camp at which songs of praise to Stalin were sung around the campfire. However, Audrey, a convert to her husband’s cause, is now more of a true believer. Audrey is the most controversial character in this novel, by dint of her sheer unpleasantness. Priding herself on her utter honesty and on the purity of her politics, Audrey has undergone a sad hardening process as she has aged; she is less a beacon and a standard for her humanitarian causes and more a self-righteous shrew in whom the milk of human kindness has completely disappeared. At times, in fact, she appears to be on the verge of madness.

Audrey’s is not the novel’s ruling consciousness, however. Instead, Heller draws her readers to the perspectives of Audrey’s daughters, Karla and Rosa. Rosa, clearly and somewhat comically named for the famous radical Rosa Luxembourg, had formed her identity very much in compliance with that of her progressive father. Like Audrey, she has positioned herself to the left of Joel, accusing her father of ideological timidity and choosing to reside for several years in socialist Cuba. By the end of this sojourn in what she hoped to be a socialist utopia, however, Rosa has completely lost her faith in her father’s political ideology. No longer a convinced socialist, she also begins to feel that her upbringing has left her surprisingly unformed and unsophisticated.

Working with underprivileged young girls in New York City does nothing to restore Rosa’s faith. In fact, she finds she cannot bear the way in which she believes the ideologies of both sexual revolution and the self-esteem movement have corrupted her charges. She finds Chianti, one of the girls in her program, particularly incorrigible. She especially finds the salacious choreography Chianti has created for her dance project upsetting not only in itself but also because of the welcome it receives on the part of her more liberal coworkers. Unhappy with what she perceives as the sleazy sexuality of youth culture and unsatisfied with her own sex life, Rosa finds herself returning to her parents’ religious roots in Judaism.

Shunning the more modern forms of Jewish faith, Rosa finds herself drawn to Orthodox Judaism, even as this interest throws her into crisis since there are aspects of this faith that seem to undermine her hard-won feminist identity. Her father’s stroke, his subsequent death, and the general unraveling of her family and all their previous identities bring Rosa to a crossroads. She is inspired to once again leave home, this time choosing not the Cuba of her parents’ socialist dreams but instead their worst nightmarean Orthodox community in Israel. For Rosa, this choice provides her with a faith and a sense of belonging grounded in the tradition of her own family’s past. She is convinced that this return to the faith of her forebears will give her life the meaning and purpose she can no longer find in her former, more modern political convictions.

Rosa’s sister Karla is both less political and less religious than is Rosa. Like her sister, however, Karla has been raised to work in social services. Overweight and lacking in self-confidence, Karlaclearly and comically named after Karl Marxis suitably married to a union organizer and is a social worker in a hospital, but she is far from happy. Her husband would like to start a family, but Karla not only has difficulty conceiving but also is not particularly interested in motherhood. When she stumbles into an affair with Khaled, the Egyptian man who runs the hospital newsstand, it becomes clear that her life, like Rosa’s, is at a crossroads.

Indifferent to politics, Khaled is a nominal Muslim whose true beliefs include astrology and esoteric Enneagram charts. They are beliefs of which Karla’s parents would wholly disapprove. None of this, however, matters to Karla; it is Khaled’s empathic personality to which she responds. Choosing love over a compliance that has left her secretly seething and mysteriously liberated by her father’s death, Karla impulsively abandons her plan to join her husband and family for Joel’s memorial service in Manhattan and instead hops a subway to Khaled’s borough. As the train barrels away from the platform into the dark tunnel, it becomes a perfect metaphor for Karla’s brave decision to leave the old, the familiar, and the disappointing for the greater possibilities inherent in the new and unknown.

The third child of the Litvinoff family is the adopted Lenny, whose mother, a 1960’s-style radical, has been imprisoned for bank robbery since he was a baby. Unlike the girls, the raffish Lenny has no interest in social service, having struggled with drug addiction and general aimlessness for most of his adult life. His recent return to yet another rehab program, under the guidance of a strangely angelic carpenter named Dave, seems to have made a major difference in his life. His testy stepmother Audrey loves Lenny dearly and probably best of all, but she is nevertheless a major obstacle to his recovery. As an atheist, she belittles the spiritual aspects of his twelve-step program, unwittingly making it more likely that drugs will continue to control Lenny’s life. Audrey’s general harsh vitriol is directed toward her children, her friends, and even the doctors and nurses who are looking after Joel. Eventually, it seems to poison even herself. She sinks into squalor, as her always recalcitrant cooking and housekeeping degenerate to such an extent that, both physically and psychologically, she seems to have sunk into an abyss of her own making.

One of the points of Heller’s beautifully developed novel is that things and people change. As Rosa returns to her ancestral religious roots, as Karla finds happiness with a Muslim shopkeeper, and as Lenny turns a corner into sobriety, so Audrey is miraculously and mysteriously transformed by the very thing she had fought tooth and nail to prevent: her husband’s death. While her husband seemed at one point utterly necessary to the very integrity of her personality, his death seems to emancipate Audrey in surprising ways, as it emancipated Karla. Joel’s death actually inspires the cynical Audrey to turn affirmative, as she invents a new role for herself as Joel’s loyal widow, the keeper of his flame. Amazingly grateful, Audrey not only celebrates Joel’s achievements but also genuinely understands and appreciates the degree to which Joel permitted her to share his own good life.

In the wake of Joel’s death, Audrey begins a foundation in his name, and at his memorial service she invites all his liberal and left-wing friends to commemorate his good deeds. In keeping with the narrative’s satirical perspective, however, the memorial service is over the top and preposterously ideological, featuring a program that culminates in the congregation singing the anthem of international socialism. Despite the service’s relentless secularity, the influence of Lenny may be felt in the fact that it takes place in a Christian church, the famous and politically progressive Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Appropriately, the service features an Audrey who seems suddenly the very soul of Christian charity. Having previously behaved in a heartless and ugly way toward Joel’s patient mistress, she publicly proclaims her new familial friendship for Berenice and Jamil, virtually from the pulpit. Audrey’s political beliefs have been sustained, but they seem to be inching closer to an alliance with the progressive wing of Christianity; more important, Audrey is no longer the “wicked witch of the West Village,” and has relaxed into a more open and accepting perspective that has allowed her to age gracefully into a far more generous friend and mother than she was in her jaded middle years.

In the end, Audrey gives her blessing to everyoneRosa, Karla, Lenny, Bereniceas a significant page has been turned in the life of all the book’s major characters. Significantly, this is a family that has decentered and dispersed; no longer under one tent, the family scatters to various locales and comes to be shaped by diverse perspectives, none of which can be said to reflect the previous, purely radical vision that was the foundation of Audrey and Joel’s marriage. While only Rosa has officially embraced a faith rooted in her own family traditions, all of the family’s members have developed spiritual beliefs or affinities, whether involving Judaism, Islam, Christianity, New Age philosophy, or twelve-step therapies. While this novel is as much about the dismantling of political beliefs as it is about their perpetuation, there is a spiritual optimism in its concluding embrace of various religious perspectives that recalls the early socialist faith in the future that was so much the ground of Joel’s own convictions.

Both satiric and empathic, this entertaining novel asks some serious questions. Heller not only examines the current condition of one of the last century’s most powerful political ideologies but also does so within the intimacies of family life and human relationships. As a result, her novel is at heart a psychological exploration of what happens when losing one’s politics is equivalent to losing one’s religion and of how such a crisis can represent an awakening and an opportunity for personal exploration and transformation.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 62

The Boston Globe, March 8, 2009, p. C5.

The London Review of Books, November 6, 2008, pp. 35-36.

Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2009, p. E1.

The New York Review of Books, April 9, 2009, pp. 48-51.

The New York Times, February 26, 2009, p. C1.

The New York Times, March 3, 2009, p. C1.

The New York Times Book Review, March 8, 2009, p. 9.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 26, 2008, p. 23.

Toronto Star, March 3, 2009, p. E2.

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