Author Meghan Daum writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times. Her most recent book is Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House.
Just about any writer who's had his or her work dissected in a writing workshop is familiar with the complaint: "I simply don't like this character." What it means is that unlikable characters make for unlikable books.
I don't agree. Case in point: Zoe Heller's novel, The Believers. It's infused with so much wit and intelligence that you don't care a bit that it's populated with some jaw-droppingly prickly people. At the center of this bitter goulash is the Litvinoff family. There are three grown children — Rosa, Karla and Lenny. Then there's the sour British ex-pat mother, Audrey, and the father, Joel, a well-known radical lawyer in the William Kuntsler mode. Raised in a bubble of lefty intellectualism in Greenwich Village, they attended the Little Red School House. They also sat in rapt attention as their father expounded about Marxism over pancakes. Now, the kids are struggling to find their own doctrines. Rosa, adrift after living in Cuba for four years, has become enamored of Orthodox Judaism. Karla, who's struggling with infertility and married to a humorless union organizer, finds solace in an unlikely sexual dalliance. Meanwhile Lenny, whom the Litvinoffs adopted at 7 in a rather self-congratulatory goodwill gesture, is a heroin addict.
The story revolves around Joel. He spends most of the book unresponsive in a hospital bed following a stroke. But his presence — which is to say the residue of his ego — is felt on each page, not least of all through Audrey, who despite being, like her husband, a proud atheist who had often, Heller writes, shaken her head ruefully at "dotty sanctity-of-life types," insists on keeping him alive through artificial means. Along the way, she also discovers her husband has a longtime mistress with whom he fathered a child.
I could tell you more of the plot of The Believers. But it's not what's best about this novel. For me, what's so exhilarating is Heller's ear. Not just for her descriptions and dialog but for her tough, compassionate observations of human pettiness. I love this exchange between Rosa and Karla after a visit to the apartment of their father's mistress:
"Did you take a look at her idiotic books?"
"No," Karla lied.
"It was all How to Read Palms and diet books."
"Well, you don't love someone because of the books they read."
The Litvinoffs aren't just a family, they're a symbol — of earnest leftiness, of NPR listenership writ large, of downtown Manhattan as locus of bohemian idealism. But even though this book is a satire, it's also tender about the ways these family members now find themselves profoundly unmoored. Their solution: to search for ballast in the form of belief systems; to fill the hole left by Joel's imminent death with an equally doctrinaire, if ultimately less loving, set of gospels. The result is a poignant, sometimes outrageous and very often hilarious novel about the courage — and also the cowardice — of standing by your convictions at all costs. I recommended it to more friends than I can count.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.