“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.
In The Believers, Heller plays a neat trick. The Litvinoff clan is so radical they were able to satisfy themselves that 9/11 was the product of legitimate Arab “rage” within hours of the attacks, despite living only a couple of miles from the smoking ruins. Thus the stream of jabs and witticisms at the expense of New York’s bien-pensant set comes not from the right, but mostly from the hard left, and so Heller absolves herself of any charges of having written a “reactionary” novel. This may be true, but whatever else it may be, The Believers is definitely not a “liberal” novel.
Heller then adds another layer to her strategy by revealing that these radical leftists are themselves prey to snobbery, judgmentalism, reactionary views, occasional flashes of racism and homophobia, etc., as well as “insensitivity” of frequently hilarious proportions. Most of all — and here one could argue they join hands with segments of the right — they detest non-judgmental liberal mush, for whose many spoken registers Heller has a platinum ear.
That her ear is so good is a gift, but that she puts it to the use she does shouldn’t surprise us. Since liberal novelists tend to move in liberal circles, they hear nothing but liberal conversation and often end up critiquing the milieus they inhabit, which are 90% liberal. Unless they write science fiction or historical novels, what else do they have to write about? And those milieus, like all others everywhere, are chock-full of evasion, hypocrisy, status envy, and obfuscation: catnip to a novelist. Do we really expect all of them to resist taking a bite?
Despite this, Heller’s book went unmentioned and unreviewed in conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard, The American Conservative, National Review, the American Spectator, the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, the Washington Times, Commentary, and City Journal. (It was picked up by D. G. Myer’s excellent right-leaning literary blog.) Nor was this an obscure novel from a small publisher. On the contrary, the pre-publication “buzz” around it was impressive. Heller’s previous novel, Notes on a Scandal, had already been made into a successful film which starred Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench and won four Oscars.
Nor did the author lack for an intriguing family background. Her mother was a sharp-tongued English labor activist who fought on behalf of London’s public transportation, and her German-Jewish father, Lukas Heller, was a screenwriter whose filmography includes The Dirty Dozen, The Killing of Sister George, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Who Killed Baby Jane? Her younger brother, Bruno, is the co-creator of HBO’s Rome, and the sole creator of CBS’s hit series, The Mentalist. To top it off, Heller is a strikingly attractive woman who has left her native England behind and made her life in New York. She is married to the American screenwriter Larry Konner, whose credits include The Legend of Billie Jean, The Jewel of the Nile, The Sopranos, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Even more impressive than the novel’s social comedy, of which Evelyn Waugh would have approved, is Heller’s attempt — she is a professed atheist with an M.A. in Marxist theory — to grapple seriously with the question of religion. Rosa, one of the Litvinoff daughters, who has spent four years in Cuba trying to out-radical her father, returns to New York disillusioned with communism. One day she walks into a synagogue out of mild curiosity, and there begins a tortuous and torturous path toward Orthodox Judaism. Although Heller does not bury her satirical radar when tackling religion, her depiction of the Orthodox, and of Rosa’s felt need for some sort of transcendent religious faith, constitutes an impressive feat of imaginative empathy.
In a scene that brilliantly combines spiritual desolation and bedroom farce, Rosa temporarily rebels against the strictures of her growing religiosity by having a joyless one-night stand with the trendy narcissist (a fool, but not a bad person, in Rosa’s estimation) mentioned earlier. Afterward, she retreats to his bathroom, vomits, gazes at a cockroach “perched on the sink faucet, waving its antennae good-naturedly at her,” while her oblivious paramour (who has a voice like “tinnitus”) calls out from the next room: “Hey. … Do you want to hear some really amazing Ghanaian hip-hop?… These guys are meant to be really amazing live….” Overwhelmed by the emptiness of it all, she prays to God (while on the toilet) to give me a sign: tell me what I should do. Moments later, she stands up, “disgusted with her own childish egotism”:
The God she believed in — or wanted to believe in — did not sit about in his cloudy house, waiting to help out drunken doubters with proof of his existence. He was not some whimsical dispenser of signs and special favors. He was God, for God’s sake.
If that last sentence isn’t both witty and profound, I don’t know what is. The Believers is a breezy read, but this is due to the author’s skill as a writer, not to a lack of complexity. Like all good novels, it asks more questions than it answers. But from the point of view of this article, the main question is: Why did every major conservative outlet in America fail to even note its existence?
A few conjectures. One, Heller is from a family that combines political activism with a Hollywood background: ergo, liberal. Two, she was “voluptuously splenetic” (in the words of William F. Buckley) on the subject of George W. Bush, and in 2009 voted Going Rouge (the send-up of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue) one of her books of the year: ergo, lefty. Three, her husband is a former creative director at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, and produced a documentary called Persons of Interest, about the detention of Muslim-Americans following 9/11 (“Ashcroft calls them terrorists. They call themselves Americans”), as well as Zizek!, a documentary about the controversial Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, whom Adam Kirsch in The New Republic (a publication Zoë Heller has written for) called the “most despicable philosopher in the West,” specifically accusing him of glorifying “totalitarianism and political violence”: ergo, super-lefty? Four, reviewers — who are almost always liberals — when confronted with a book like The Believers can be quite clever in describing its contents without giving the game away to any potentially interested conservatives lurking among the book pages.
Given her husband’s documentary about Muslim-Americans and 9/11, a particularly piquant passage from Heller’s novel comes near the end. Karla, the other Litvinoff daughter, has begun an affair with Khaled, a middle-aged Egyptian who owns a newspaper store next to the hospital where she is a social worker. Like her sister, Karla has been raised to be highly critical of her own country. She has just discovered to her horror that Khaled’s cousin was rounded up immediately after 9/11 and briefly imprisoned. “There’s American justice for you,” she remarks bitterly, but to her surprise,Khaled, who owns a small newspaper store, turns out to be utterly blasé about the so-called illegal detentions, and unsettlingly positive about his adopted country:
Khaled shook his head. “You’re always saying bad things about America. This is a beautiful country. You don’t know.”
Karla sat up. “How can you say that after what you just told me?”
“My cousin wasn’t beaten or tortured. He was set free after two days. In other places in the world, we would never have seen him again.”
“Khaled! America is bombing civilians in Afghanistan, and any minute now, we’re going to invade Iraq. That’s all okay with you?”
“Oh –” Khaled waved his hand. “All countries are like this. All of them — they would do just the same if they had as much money and power as America. It’s the way the world works, the way people are.”
“But, Khaled, nothing would ever change if everyone took that attitude.”
Khaled shrugged again. “Things don’t change.”
The reception of The Believers suggests that, as a result of America’s cultural divide, a (presumably) left-leaning author can publish a delightfully satirical novel about America’s liberal intelligentsia, from twee multiculturalists to borderline Stalinists, without the right even noticing. But how? Did the novel just slip through the cracks? It seems unlikely. Could the author’s political reputation have put them off? Equally unlikely, since conservative journals contain some of the best arts pages going, and neither the reviewers nor the artists reviewed are necessarily Republicans.
Heller’s case is perhaps an extreme one, but it certainly isn’t unique. See, for example, pages 110-13 of Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December, published in March, for an entertaining dissection of a left-wing student group and its primer on how to win any political argument. (“Once you’d got into their way of thinking, there was nothing it couldn’t explain: everything could be seen as the wish of the powerful to exploit the weak.”) James Hynes’ Next, a novel published earlier this year about a lost soul from the bottom shelf of Boston academia who goes job-hunting in Texas only to get caught up in a nation-wide terrorist attack, didn’t strike me as particularly “liberal” either, even if the author occasionally pretends it is. “He wishes he were a Republican,” Hynes writes of his protagonist, “full of absolute certainty and righteous, tribal wrath.” But that’s just a Keith Olbermann-style cheap shot the author should have saved for his Twitter account. If anything’s made fun of in the novel, it’s not Texas — which the novel’s protagonist seems somewhat awed by, and whose self-confident women he admires as if they were an entirely alien and superior species — so much as the petty left-wing academic politics of Boston.
Even Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, currently at the top of the best-seller list, which really is a liberal novel, takes plenty of pot-shots at its own side, and contains a rich portrait of full-blown environmentalist dementia to go along with its evil neo-cons. It also features a sustained and surprising thread of dislike for New York City which should tickle many a Red State heart. As one of the main characters, who has fled to Minnesota, muses sarcastically: “There was, of course, nowhere better in the world to be than New York City. This fact was the foundation of her family’s satisfaction with itself, the platform from which all else could be ridiculed, the collateral of adult sophistication that bought them the right to behave like children.” You can be a New Yorker (as I am) and still see the truth of that, just as you can delight in Franzen’s subversively nasty descriptions of tiny, rent-controlled, cat-strewn apartments in “chic” neighborhoods and the decaying dreamers who inhabit them.
One could argue there’s an upside to conservative publications ignoring novels like The Believers. So long as conservatives don’t start trumpeting the fact that left-wing novelists sometimes produce work that is a lot less left-wing than they think it is, said novelists will feel safe to produce more of them. Unlike film, TV, painting, drama, dance, music, opera, etc., the novel is the most private and secretive of art forms. Most readers of the literary fiction produced by liberals are themselves liberals or tending that way, as are the professors who assign and teach the books to students, along with the preponderance of agents, publishers, and reviewers who oversee and control the entire process. In effect, what you have is an almost closed circle.
Think of it as a kind of “JournoList” in which liberals let their hair down, but instead of plotting how to get their nemeses out of office, frequently critique and question themselves and the culture they have helped create. It’s more dangerous to do that in a movie or on TV — too many people see that stuff. But literary fiction? Low readership, majority female, and mostly left-wing or left-of-center. The risk of exposure is slight. In an age of increasingly totalitarian technology, the novel is one of the last redoubts of privacy, introspection, and the three-dimensional view. Conservatives shouldn’t give up on it without a fight, but perhaps they should be sly about how they approach it as well.