marginalia || The Believers, by Zoe Heller

The world’s bookshelves are rife with risky books. Some are deemed so because of their subject matter, others are deemed so because of their form, their storytelling. And then there are books that audaciously and assiduously attack both. The Believers by Zoe Heller is one of them. I had the dubious pleasure of reading this book as part of the TLC Book Tours, and, well, huh.

The first draft of this post attempted to express my thoughts on the story, without dipping into my reception of it. That is, I wanted to talk about what Heller talked about, and not how she went about doing it: the characters, the narrative, the language. I wanted to separate my discussion of the circumstances that surrounded the telling of the story.

But it was too hard. Heller’s story is interminably entwined with how she presented that story. Because, well, as The Believers is a chronicle of the lives of The Litvinoffs, a seriously dysfunctional family based in New York—The Believers is, at the same time, a seriously annoying novel about incredibly hateable characters. The Litvinoffs are dysfunctional partly because of how they interact with each other, partly because of how essentially hateable each of them is. Half of them you wanted to slap silly, half of them you want to lock in the basement. And that just annoyed the bejeebies out of this reader.

But I read it all the way through. And found myself enjoying it. Huh.

It’s a study of contradictions, and, well, dramatic irony: the Litvinoffs think of themselves as social activists, but they’re so blissfully unaware of what kindness and decency actually is. They run the gamut from pathetic to ingratiating to selfish to just plain unhappy. Halfway through the novel—and it was a fast read; Heller knows how to hurtle us through the narrative, her language precise and biting—I realized that I liked these characters. I liked the characters. If I were stuck in a room with the Litvinoffs, I would have found a window to jump through. But as characters, crafted by a novelist who seems to thrive on these un-sympathetic beings, they’re kick-ass. There’s a patriarch in a coma, with dark secrets. There’s an overbearing, self-absorbed, incredibly complex matriarch in Audrey, whom I liked–I mean, the chick amused me. Wouldn’t want to have coffee with her, but she amused me from my vantage point as a fly on the wall. The Litvinoff children range from the manipulative (drug addict Lenny), confused and faux-devout (Rosa), obese and loveless-marriage-saddled (Karla). What’s amazing is that although they’re incredibly abrasive within this family, there’s a whole lot of indifference as well. And love. The toughest, most annoying, most self-centered and multi-dimensional love, but love still.

It seems priggish to say that I liked this book intellectuallycerebrally. That I admired what Heller did with it, how she spat on the Creative Writing 101 dictum that states Write sympathetic characters. That beyond the storytelling, the narrative, the language—the very bravery in crafting a novel with characters so completely detestable inspires awe in me. So, yes, I admired this book. I admired the behind-the-scenes of it more than anything else.

But, well, it ended there. I will certainly not snuggle with this bed—I read this book, back rigid, in a crowded café, and the expression on my face must have gone through the spectrum–a large part of my Moleskine scribbles consisted of What What WHOA What. Zoe Heller was gutsy. And I kept wondering if I’d mistaken guts for gimmick. There’s a certain all-too-familiar arrogance threaded in this novel, and I hate thinking the author is sniggering while I read her book. It influences my thoughts on these kinds of books—on one hand, I want to scorn it and leave it at that; on the other hand, there’s an odd pressure to like it, just to prove how intelligent I am, how worthy of the author’s risks.

Bah. Leave it to Zoe Heller to attack my self-esteem, no?

Still. It’s one of the many mysteries of my relationship with literature that I consider this a good read. It had me thinking, for one, had me examining the intricacies of the reader-novel dynamic. It had me scratching my head. It also had me looking forward to new work from the author, one that would focus on not-so-icky people. I mean, once you get to three novels that just rides on the whole “expert with unlikeable characters” spiel, then you’re just gimmicky. And as icky as your characters. Just sayin’, Ma’am.

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This book—and my post—is part of TLC Tours (many thanks, Trish and HarperCollins!) The following bloggers are part of the book tour for The Believers, so head on over to these blogs for their thoughts–take note that Heller’s novel defines “polarizing book,” so you’re sure to come across, well, polarized reactions:

Thanks for dropping by, y’all.

15 thoughts on “marginalia || The Believers, by Zoe Heller

    1. The characters are some of the most annoying I’ve come across, but that writing of Heller’s manages to lead me on, though. I don’t understand it, really.

      And I love what you said about Audrey being “execrable”!

  1. I used to really want to read this, but now I’ve read too many blogger reviews that make me go huh. Don’t really feel like reading a book right now that I’m only going to like “cerebrally!”

    1. Yes, it’s not for everyone, and I think I was in a certain mood when I read Heller. I certainly did not feel fuzzy towards the characters.

    1. Thanks, Aimee. I think I’m going to steer clear of the intellectual books as well, after Heller. I’m giving my brain a week or two to rest. (In the meantime, I’m reading books with characters I actually like.)

  2. I’ve been wondering about this one. I’ve never read any Heller, but I have a copy of Notes on a Scandal, which was made into a kick-ass movie about two thoroughly unlikable people. For some reason, I like reading about unlikable people, as long as the writing is good. I’ll probably give this a try at some point if I end up liking the writing in Notes on a Scandal.

    1. I’ve actually had Notes on a Scandal on my radar for quite some time now–the premise was wonderful, and I wanted to read that book so much I didn’t want the movie to give me spoilers, haha. Heller’s language and storytelling are, well, kick-ass–in my opinion, that makes the irksome characters more bearable.

  3. I love this review. I’ve read books and thought, I KNOW I should like this. If I was smarter, I would like this. I’m curious what Heller thinks of her characters, if she likes them at all.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

    1. Thanks too, Trish. So many books come to mind that has made me think “I should be liking this,” haha. And that’s an interesting thought–does she just look at her characters as literary exercises, or is there some glee in writing unlikeable characters? Hm.

  4. I haven’t read this yet but I will in the future. I read Notes on a Scandal and I absolutely love it. Heller *is* a gutsy writer especially since the way she wrote Notes is pretty funny! It seemed a little inappropriate to be giggling when reading that book. :-)

    1. Hi, Mae. I haven’t read Notes on a Scandal, but I’ve always wanted to–and now I’m curious about your inappropriate giggling, haha.


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