Imagine that

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.

  1. People who think atheists are just another kind of fundamentalist have not met Julian Baggini.

    Best wishes from a non-atheist tpm fan

  2. Hi Jean:
    I received a Google alert regarding your blog post. I do not normally write to bloggers but I was intrigued by your polite “dissing” of my book. I think that you might find upon reading Perfection that my book has much to offer those who have lived through life-altering trauma, the “nutritional value” you require. Though Perfection appeared on the New York Times “Girls of Summer” list, my intent was not to produce a lurid book, rather an examination of the lives many of us try to hide from the world. My husband was something like Donald Draper in Mad Men. And like Betty Draper, I was too afraid to look at the reality of my life. In order to remake my life I had to look. I did not want to repeat my mistakes.

    I receive many letters from readers, including some men, who tell me that the book has helped them grapple with their lives after infidelity and divorce, as they begin the process of re-inventing their lives.

    I am not a religious person but very grounded in a desire to live a moral life. My guess is that we have more in common that you might imagine.

    Very best wishes–
    Julie Metz

  3. Julie, Thank you for your polite complaint. I really thought a lot about reading your book–visited your website, read reviews, read a bit in a bookstore. Maybe if I’d been in a different position in my life I would have appreciated the nutritional value. In fact, I might have wanted to read the book a few years ago when I was writing my own book about the good life, since I explore issues about deception there. So–OK!–I grant there could be reasons besides voyeurism to read it.

    I just have to say that I didn’t have them when I was deciding what to cover in my column. I did find it intriguing, though, how your book and The Believers had some similar themes. So I “lead” with your book. For all I know, my readers will run out and get your book, not Zoe Heller’s….if my column has any influence. So (I hope) no harm done!

    Thanks for your response.

  4. I read the novel after reading this column of yours, Jean (months ago – I read your column before almost anyone!). I found it oddly gripping but I can’t agree that Audrey is very very funny – or even funny. I thought she was a bad misfire, because totally unconvincing – and all on one note, which is boring. She’s always furious and belligerent – she’s almost never even moderately decent, except with the adopted kid whom she spoils (I’ve forgotten his name).

    I think if she meant to warn against a certain kind of bull-headedness a more nuanced character would have done the job better. Audrey is so unpleasant that she wouldn’t convince anyone of anything, so she’s a pain but not a danger. A bull-headed charmer is much more of an issue.

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