Friday, May 15, 2009

The Believers

The on-line book club in which I participate recently finished reading and discussing Zoe Heller’s new novel, “The Believers.”

The story is about the toxic relationships of a left-wing New York City family trying to negotiate the challenges of living in the early 21st century. At the beginning of the novel the patriarch, Joel Litvioff, a famous lawyer known for defending radicals, suffers a stroke from which he doesn’t recover. While Joel is comatose in the hospital, his wife, Audrey, discovers that he had been having an affair with Berenice; Joel and Berenice conceived a son. The novel also chronicles the journey of the couple’s three children, Rosa, Karla and Lenny. Rosa became disillusioned with the family’s political principles during a four-year stay in Cuba and turned to Orthodox Judaism for answers to her questions. Karla was an overweight social worker. She endured a loveless and childless marriage and the relentless criticism of her mother. Lenny was an adopted son who dealt drugs and couldn’t achieve a sustainable recovery.

The novel received criticism for its unlikeable characters. I can hardly imagine what would happen if any of the family was transported into our Midwestern, Minnesota-Nice culture. One of the members of my book-club threw the book in the garbage because none of the characters was redeemable. The characters were independent, acerbic, opinionated—and didn’t care about each other’s feelings. It’s hard to imagine wanting to be a friend with any of them.

Heller responded to this criticism by saying that the purpose of literature is not to write about characters who solicit warm-fuzzy feelings. There’s no Atticus Finch in this book who a reader would admire and love. A commentator on the NPR web site responded to this criticism:
“By refusing to pander, to serve up even one likeable main character, The Believers also raises implicit questions about our readerly expectations about fiction. You may not make new imaginary friends by reading The Believers but, as consolation, this smart, caustic novel reminds readers that fictional friendship can be overrated.”

The book was a fast-read. I found it somewhat interesting because I’ve lived in New York City and remember many New Yorkers who resemble the characters in the family. But this is not much of a novel—don’t read it to learn or explore any overarching ideas about existence. It’s just a story of a leftist family trying to live in New York City in the first decade of the 21st century while trying not to kill each other. It’s no more and no less.

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