The first book I almost read last summer was Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, to be found on many lists of perfect beach reading. The author is Julie Metz, a young New York book designer whose husband suddenly dropped dead at age 44, whereupon she discovered he had been cheating on her throughout their 13-year marriage. She devoted the next year to reading his love letters and confronting his mistresses, including a close friend, and now tells all – every last, lurid detail. The problem is that I got hung up on the question “why read it?” – why did I need to know about Julie Metz’s husband’s affairs? – and concluded that although I would have ripped the book off the shelf and devoured it in one sitting as a teenage babysitter, I just couldn’t justify it at this advanced stage of life. Sadly, I’ve come to think that books should have some nutritional value.
And so I decided to read The Believers, by Zoe Heller, in the hopes of being both entertained and edified. Entertainment seemed like a sure thing, since Heller is the author of Notes on a Scandal, the basis of the extremely good movie starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Edification was hinted at by the cover, which depicts a tangled thread festooned by crosses, stars of David, dollar signs, and other symbols. Perhaps there would be crises of faith and conversations about God, though hopefully none of the speechifying that makes the classic “belief” novel, The Brothers Karamazov, slow going. I was sort of hoping for the thinking woman’s (man’s) beach book.
As it turns out, the main character of The Believers has a husband of 40 years who drops comatose, whereupon she discovers he’s not only been a philanderer (she already knew that) but had another long-term partner and child. But no, she doesn’t need to know the details, and doesn’t seek out confrontation. The book really is about belief. Audrey Litvinoff and her comatose husband Joel are radical leftists, he a famous New York lawyer and she his devoted British-born wife. They are militant and utterly certain of all their views, including their contempt for religion – and particularly the Jewish religion they were born into. They are not just atheists, Heller tells us, but anti-theists (nice distinction).
To add to this, Audrey is blunt, insensitive, irascible, and very, very funny. She has no patience for anyone, and feels real love only for her comatose husband and her drug-addled adopted son. That leaves out her two daughters, Karla, a depressed, self-loathing, overweight woman who can’t get pregnant with her loutish husband; and Rosa, a mirror image of Audrey who’s shocked the family by developing an interest in orthodox Judaism.
The cast of characters that surrounds Audrey creates comedy and conflict, all a little thinly developed. The most central of these stories is about Rosa, who keeps taking two steps forward toward orthodox Judaism, then one step back. This daughter of anti-theists winds up being drawn to the most fundamentalist and non-rational variety of religion, first rebelling against its many peculiar commandments, and against its subordination of women, and then acquiescing. Meanwhile, Audrey shows herself to be a woman of faith too, devoted to her husband, and ready to suppress all her doubts about him.
What’s Zoe Heller trying to say? Fiction, unlike philosophy, needn’t say that ____ (fill in the blank). A novel is merely about things. This novel is about over-confident, over-certain, not-very-nice leftist atheists, and the way they are not as far as they think from faith and fundamentalism. Heller’s observations ring true about these fictional characters, and perhaps also elucidate a certain type of person we all must have run into.
Still, it’s hard not to see the book as a volley in the current debate between “the new atheists” and their much-perturbed critics. What has emerged as the mantra of many is that atheism is really, underneath it all, a kind of fundamentalism. It’s really a form of faith, you see. Readers who buy that kind of thing will find this book a perfect illustration of their point. The book has been optioned, which means the “atheism = faith” crowd may have a delicious movie treat coming their way.
When I finished the book I was surprised to learn that Heller is herself a member of a real-life Litvinoff clan. Jewish, atheist, and leftist (like half the people I know), Heller is probably not trying to say exactly what her novel seems to say. If The Believers is a cautionary tale, Heller really means to caution not against atheism, or left-wing politics, but against a certain sort of bull-headedness and failure to empathise; against being a Believer, instead of just having beliefs. The message that leaps off the page is a little more pointed, making this book provocative, but still a pleasure.
Jean Kazez is the author of The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life and and Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals (Wiley-Blackwell). She teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.