Thursday 16 October 2008

Social graces gone askew

The Believers, by Zoë Heller (Fig Tree)

Ah, the age old quandary of how to follow one’s last novel – when that one was so popular that it was swiftly translated into 23 or so languages and adapted into a film. Heller employs two tactics here: the first is to wait a really long time (five years), perhaps in hope of creating some distance and such. And the second tactic: whatever made your last book famous, don’t do it with the new one.

Whereas Notes on a Scandal employed the services of an embittered yet wryly perceptive narrator, The Believers casts a wider net, this time opting for a third person narration which cunningly absorbs the conflicting perspectives of the assorted characters whose lives it intersects.

Audrey has been married to Joel, a lawyer vaguely notorious for his left-wing sensibilities and controversial clients, for forty odd years. In the course of their marriage she has both adopted and adapted her spouse’s socialist stance; both have inflicted their radical political views on their three children, to varying effect. The eldest, Karla, has endured a rather lacklustre but dutiful marriage to a union activist who treats her with tired condescension at every turn; Rosa has returned from four years in Cuba, wherein her radical ideals have faded into quiet disillusion. To recover from this loss, she has made tentative steps into Orthodox Judaism, seemingly seeking a more spiritual belief system which evokes numerous challenges alongside a sense of solace. Added to the mix, almost as an afterthought, is Lenny, the son whose adoption stemmed from Joel’s misguided attempt to subvert the standard family unit into something supposedly more tribe-like. Lenny’s life is a paint-by-numbers sequence of drug abuse and rehabilitation.

Interestingly, Lenny is not graced with the same honour of a personal voice. Instead, he is seen only through the eyes of his family – perhaps an allusion to his outsider status. It is also his lack of genetic identification which allows Audrey to project maternal feelings onto this child in a manner not bestowed upon her daughters, for whom she manifests an abundance of hostility and distaste. Thus the stage is set: all that is required is a suitably sensational event to bring these people together (for, as it soon transpires, these are people who would not subject themselves to each other’s company without good cause).

That cause is Joel, who unwittingly suffers a stroke in court and descends into the depths of a coma. We then follow our main characters as they proceed to negotiate their tense and often vicious encounters, and we are treated to glimpses of their anger, resentment, shame, weakness, and self-loathing. Such sentiments are expressed (and repressed) with varying degrees of honesty and venom, ranging from enthusiastic precision to resigned politeness. Along the way, each character’s respective values and convictions are tested, discredited, abandoned and amended.

The political side of things is discussed frequently amongst the characters, but the issues themselves are not explored or debated in any great depth, as these matters are, after all, not really what the novel is all about. This is a family whose identity is founded on their socialist/activist ideology; it is what binds then together - originally in shared sentiments and later as an arena for debate. Although for Audrey, whose relentlessly confrontational persona often makes her appear strikingly childish for a mother, these issues are little more than a means of antagonising and belittling everyone around her. Indeed, the motivation behind the couple’s convictions are subject to scrutiny – after all, Joel has fought for social justice from a position of privilege; it is unclear how deeply his revolutionary spirit goes and how much of his position is mere radical posturing.

Heller’s rich mix of linguistic flourishes and bitter humour - immediately apparent in her previous novel – is perhaps more restrained here, waiting until after the understated prologue to come into play and wow the humble reader. Memorable nuggets include a tense conversation with Joel’s doctor, whereupon Audrey’s gaze falls upon ‘a vicious little bouquet of sharpened pencils’; a undignified sexual encounter in which Rosa’s partner (after fussing about with unnecessary mood-setting) conducts himself ‘with the speed and abstracted efficiency of a dog’ and the stocking-less pale legs of women ‘flashing in and out of the party’s undergrowth, like torchlight in a forest’. Save for the occasional slip, Heller effortlessly avoids common cliché in both her descriptions and her details which touch on human weakness with flourishes of piercing accuracy and humour that can be dry and sardonic in one sentence, and almost compassionate in another.

It is on these particular strengths that Heller can be forgiven for the occasional lapse in terms of the story itself – Joel’s ‘secret’, as alluded to on the blurb, is almost an unnecessary detail - one that is not especially interesting or effective - other than to hint at an elicit a murmer of sympathy for Audrey in the moments of vulnerability that it unmasks.

Brilliance shines through in Heller’s depiction of brittle Rosa, whose high standards serve only to alienate her from practically everyone around her. You cannot help but relate to her despair at the idiocy of those around her, such as her ultra-girly flat mate, a rather cartoonish character ‘for whom cuddly toys were a meaningful expression of adult love’. For Rosa, this unfortunate companion presents an ‘appalling anthropological mystery’. Like a younger version of Barbara from Notes, Rosa is the type of woman whose exits from a room are often accompanied from waves of derisive laughter. Likewise, Karla’s daily humiliations born of her weight problems are no less painful to behold despite the everyday nature of such issues.

Heller has a keen eye for nuances in behaviour; her books are chronicles of social graces gone askew, awkward moments, miscommunication and tension. The Believers is not as taut as Notes; the story is composed of loosely-bound fragments rather than having an intense core. If Notes looked at an affair from the perspective of an obsessive friend, The Believers casts a wavering eye around the edges of one, dipping into the personal stories of those on the periphery rather than exploring that of the key players.

This is a more ambitious novel; the complexity of the family dynamics harder to negotiate; the wider focus comes with the danger of the potency being diluted. Nevertheless, Heller has still crafted a thoroughly compelling novel which confirms her skill for touching on multiple nerves to be as finely-honed and deftly spun as ever.


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