Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Believers by Zoe Heller

Late in this very good novel, George W. Bush pops up to give a speech on a television in the background where he gives his often stated belief that terrorists attacked America in 2001 because they hate America’s freedom, particularly its religious freedom. The appearance is problematic - we don’t know whether the author agrees with what is being said or not. That kind of neutrality is what makes “The Believers” a very engrossing and altogether challenging book - challenging not in how it tells the story, but what it asks of the reader.

The novel follows the Litvinoffs, the kind of family that seems to exist solely to provide anger for Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. The head of the family is Joel, a socialist lawyer in his 70s who has made his mark defending society’s “human debris,” as Rush Limbaugh might term it. His wife of 40 years is Audrey, a Brit who has fed his ego, adopted his politics, and raised his three children. The novel’s brief opening chapter shows how they met in the early 60s and the seeds of their relationship. They are, in a political sense, “true believers,” the kind of people who scrawl “There is no God” on Bar Miztvah invitations sent to them before mailing them back.

But fast forward to 2002, to the city still reeling from the previous September. Joel, naturally, is defending a man accused of terrorism when he collapses in court from a stroke. Before long, he is in a coma and beginning an inevitable slide toward death. The novel weaves in and out of the lives of Audrey and her children - Rosa, a former socialist experimenting with Orthodox Judaism, Lenny, a stoner who needs intervention, and Karla, a social worker ashamed of her own body and unable to bear children.

Much has been said about the unpleasantness of these characters. Most of that displeasure centers on Audrey, a woman who wakes up in her husband’s absence to find the intellectual pose of serial displeasure that she chose in her youth has transformed her into a harridan. To hear her unwanted opinions, her unjustified anger, her knee-jerk judgments (there isn’t any other way of putting it) is to be reminded of everything you might ever have said about “limousine liberals.”

But all of these people have a “gift for conviction” - the ability to find a way of understanding the world and remain faithful to that belief system. Nick Carraway, the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” observes that life is often looked at more successfully from “a single window.” But Joel’s death, the slow reality of it, forces them all to take stock of their lives. Death, the end of life, the certainty of it, reveals many of the truths they have held onto to as being insufficient to sustain them. I don’t mean to say the novel passes judgment on the social justice causes to which they’ve devoted their lives. As I said before, these people’s lives are rendered with an omniscient and benign eye. A reader can reach their own judgments, expecting the author to share them, only to have the tables turned in the next chapter.

Take Rosa, for example. She returns from several years in Cuba disillusioned with socialism and finds a home in a synagogue, to the horror of her parents. But she struggles with its rigor-what she perceives as its “Iron Age” attitudes toward women. It takes her awhile to understand that God deserves the same benefit of the doubt she was willing to give Karl Marx.

A scene involving Rosa’s introduction to purification rites for women introduces her to the idea - almost totally alien to the secular world today - that there is something “different” about God. God is apart from us. He requires holiness to be approached and understood. If this is inconvenient, then He is worthy of worship. If this causes pain, it is because of us, not Him.

Lenny is not really present in the story, though its hard to tell whether this is because he is a ne’er-do-well or because he is not as well rendered as the female characters. Karla, who struggles with self image, embarks on an affair she feels is wrong. But one remembers the impulsiveness of her mother in the opening chapter, and sees her drawn to someone who will tell her she is beautiful.

In fact, all of these people want to believe, in something or someone. They are willing to excuse realities eruptions only so long as they feel some sense of relief. Because the characters are Jewish, I found myself moved by their hitting right up against the idea of Christ but not quite reaching it, or Him. By the idea of Christ, I mean the idea of peace, relief, salvation. They struggle within the idea of belonging to a sacred community - whether it be political or religious - yet they are individuals. They want the ability to say “I’m different” due to the quality of their ideas, but the idea of a personal God is unconsciously longed for and yet somehow unbelievable. When a rabbi later tells Rosa that she must believe before she understands, one senses the gulf that all the world struggles with when the spiritual world beckons, but the offered hand seems stretched over a deep and unbridgeable chasm.

Comic relief, of a sort, is provided by Berenice, an African-American woman who appears from nowhere at Joel’s bedside to reveal her affair with him, and the child she bore him. When Rosa and Karla later meet her, she tells them that Joel wasn’t a bad person:

“He didn’t choose to fall in love with me, any more than I chose to fall in love with him. It was something that happened. The truth is, we all do some hurtful **** in our lives from time to time, but it doesn’t, you know, make us evil. It’s part of what makes us human.”

Rosa walks out on this, offended by the idea of adultery as a humanist gesture. There is no idea of sin here, just the idea of self-gratification that may lead to pain, but that can't be helped. She later walks out on her social work when she finds others ready to give self esteem to children who “haven’t done anything estimable.” When man tries to give God’s love without God‘s presence, she sees it for what it is - something hollow.

Joel’s funeral inevitably takes place in a church, because of the size of the crowd. The mourners sing “The Internationale,” and one is struck by the juxtaposition of ideas, the brotherhood of mankind and how little mankind has actually done to bring itself together for a common good. God’s monumental gesture - the coming of Christ - remains ready to be claimed, as we hold tightly to our lullabies, whispering ourselves to sleep.

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