“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” Thus spake D.H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature. What did he mean? He meant that how a novelist represents himself to the world doesn’t always equate to what his work is about.
A good illustration of Lawrence’s maxim would be the late Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc.), one of America’s greatest thriller writers and great American writer, period. In her personal life, Highsmith was an anti-Semite who privately referred to the Holocaust as the “Semi-caust” — perhaps the nastiest witticism in history — and was an outspoken champion of the Palestinians and the Arab fight against Israel. Highsmith set one of her novels, The Tremor of Forgery, in Tunisia. Its portrayal of the Arabs is deeply unsympathetic. Basically, she characterizes the Tunisians as a bunch of thieving wasters, and allows her American protagonist to murder one of them almost without compunction. Highsmith’s life and politics were one thing; her art something else. This is a distinction worth thinking about when conservatives consider their place, or lack of one, in the contemporary arts — particularly when it comes to the novel.
A few months ago I received an e-mail from a close friend — white, female, late 40s, married, no kids, Bay Area resident, and a “progressive” with an outspoken antipathy toward Republicans, tea partiers, and large swaths of lumpen white America. Bingo! Demographically, that’s the bull’s-eye of the “literary fiction” market. Nor are the marketing gurus incorrect: My friend reads a lot of contemporary novels.
In her e-mail she mentioned Zoë Heller’s The Believers, the saga of a family of left-wing Jewish radicals which disintegrates when the father, a William Kunstler-like lawyer who is defending a suspected Muslim terrorist, falls into a coma in the first chapter, leaving his English wife, the deliciously caustic, pot-smoking, über-radical harridan Audrey, to pick up the pieces. We had both admired the novel greatly, but unlike me, my friend had some caveats. Audrey, she wrote, was “an appalling and deeply unsympathetic left-wing stereotype. No one EVER writes about conservative/rightwing stereotypes with the same verve and panache. It’s a shame really. Someone should. Guess they’re just not as interesting.”
In case you think my correspondent’s claims are crazy, here are two brief passages from the book. In the first, Audrey and her friend Jean are chatting as they flip through a pile of travel brochures. Jean is trying to persuade Audrey, who is depressed, that at 59 her life is not over, but Audrey seems uninspired by the brochure she’s looking at. So Jean points to others on the pile:
“There are lot of other things there,” Jean said patiently. “There’s a Caribbean cruise that the Nation magazine organizes…”
“I’d rather stick a pin in my eye.”
“Oh? It looked quite fun to me.”
“What, floating around the islands with a bunch of old guys quarrelling over who gets to sit in the Jacuzzi with Katrina van den Heuvel?”
And here is Jean again, this time at an anti-war rally in Central Park (it is 2002), dressed up in her “agit-prop outfit” and talking to a group of tweener black girls from the GIRLPOWER Center who’ve been dragged to the rally by a social worker:
Jean smiled with the special goodwill that middle-aged white liberals reserve for young people of color. “Hello! It’s good to see you young ones at an event like this. We’re depending on you, you know, to lead us out of the mess we’ve got ourselves into.”
The girls stared at her.
Does this sound like a “liberal” novel to you? Left-wing Caribbean cruise? I’d rather stick a pin in my eye. Privileged white New Yorker talking to a group of barely educated black girls: We’re depending on you … to lead us out of the mess we’ve got ourselves into. How inane is that?
Can this possibly be anything other than satire, that rude old literary beast so rarely sighted anymore? And no, these are not two isolated comic gems plucked from an otherwise drearily correct-minded novel. There are hundreds of such moments, from casual asides (“Oh, Jesse [Jackson]’s alright, but he does bang on a bit”) to a hilarious portrait of a brain dead trendoid downtown New York narcissist (“He was never going to stop talking. The act of intercourse had been a mere caesura in the truly erotic business of listening to himself speak”). The Believers is not only a very funny book, it is also serious, moving, and written by someone in possession of a fabulous eye for (among other things) liberal hypocrisy and self-delusion.