Room with a worldview

Novelist Zoe Heller ponders the difference between believers and skeptics.

Zoe Heller
CONVICTION ARTIST Heller expclores the stability of her characters’ opinions.

Shortly after Zoe Heller turned 40, she noticed an important distinction among her friends. Some had stuck with the convictions they’d held since they were in college; others were conceding that some of their ideas on, say, revolutionary socialism, might need reconsidering. At about this time, Heller also read a magazine article that said scientists were attempting to locate a gene that would predispose a person to faith, be it in Catholicism, Communism or their marriage.

“It occurred to me that whether or not a gene exists, there has always been, to me, an observable difference between those with a fundamentally skeptical turn of mind and those who are drawn to comprehensive systems of beliefs,” says the British-born New Yorker, now 43.

That insight became the basis for Heller’s third novel, The Believers, which explores the joys and agonies of belief through the lens of a leftist family living in Greenwich Village. When civil-rights attorney Joel Litvinoff suffers a stroke, his wife, Audrey, is forced to confront closely held convictions about her marriage and herself—realizing, for example, that her blithe dismissals of long-term life support wither in the face of a hospitalized spouse. Meanwhile, her adult children are having their own conversion experiences. Karla, the eldest, discovers her saintly image doesn’t quite hold up to reality, and her sister, Rosa, begins exploring Orthodox Judaism—greatly offending her mother’s atheist sensibilities.

As in Heller’s previous novels, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal and Everything You Know, the prose in The Believers is razor-sharp and the characters fiercely intelligent, even if they aren’t always sympathetic. Audrey, for example, is particularly grating as she monologues about her cherished political opinions, reflexively cutting down anyone who questions them.

“One question I frequently get is, 'Why are your characters so unlikable? Is your view of humanity so dim?’?” says Heller. To the contrary, she believes genuine affection for our fellow human beings should include tolerance for their less attractive sides, and she doesn’t think it’s the job of fiction to present readers with people they’d want to sip espresso with. “A novel’s most important task is to generate sympathy for people unlike yourself, whose morals and ethics you find difficult to understand or accept,” she says.

The Believers achieves this because its characters, rather than being mouthpieces for any particular ideologies, are complicated individuals who frequently see the self-destructiveness of their behavior and the limitations of their worldviews. Rosa knows she can be priggish and judgmental, but she is also a smart, thoughtful woman who, like many people, needs a unifying theory to give her life meaning. Having become disillusioned with revolutionary socialism years earlier, orthodox religion is an understandable next stop. “Both systems function as grids through which you can feed any experience and come out with an explanation. They provide an answer to everything, even if it’s 'That’s God’s way,’?” says Heller.

Though Heller doesn’t subscribe to any organized creed herself, the novel never belittles the ideologies it explores. Rosa is exposed to some of Orthodox Judaism’s more bizarre rules about light switches and menstrual blood, but she also works with a rabbi who is intelligent, perceptive and quietly persuasive. “I don’t mean to say that all believers are hopeless suckers, grasping at any old baloney to keep them warm at night,” says Heller. In fact, the author admits that she has at times asked herself the questions that Rosa does—that perhaps her skepticism is actually a failure of imagination on her part. “As soon as you’ve met really smart people who have faith, it’s impossible to believe that it’s the refuge of idiots,” she says.

Though some readers may view The Believers as a satire of the far left, Heller says this wasn’t her intent. Audrey can certainly be obnoxious as she cleaves to her beliefs, but Heller thinks many of us are susceptible to such stridency—witness that dinner party with your friend’s Republican husband. “She is extreme, but I have known people like this. More to the point, I have argued in that way—that panicky way in which you’ll grasp at anything to keep your side up.” Such exchanges, she says, rarely lead to any mutual understanding or enlightenment. “They’re just wrestling matches to see who can get the other one down on the floor first. At best, it’s theater,” she says.

Heller is certainly familiar with the gap between different perspectives. Born in England, she has lived in the United States since she was 27, mostly in New York City. Though she loves her adopted country, she says that being part of two cultures can, at times, challenge her sense of identity. “It’s odd. If I say “to-MAY-to,” it sounds like an affectation, but if I say “to-MA-to,” it sounds equally affected, like I’m clinging to my ancient English roots,” she says. “I’m straddled between two cultures, two accents, two ways of writing. I don’t know quite what I am anymore.”

The Believers (Harper, $25.99) is out now. Heller reads Mar 5 at Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle.

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