“Her worldliness applied to a very narrow band of the world,” Zoe Heller, The Believers

 

Rosa had some cause to regard herself as a worldly woman. As a child, she had broken bread with Daniel Ortega and sung freedom songs with ANC activists in Soweto and played softball with Abbie Hoffman. By the age of eighteen, she had seen both her parents arrested for acts of civil disobedience and had twice been arrested herself. Yet, in truth, her worldliness applied to a very narrow band of the world, and there were large areas of ordinary American life about which her impeccably progressive, internationalist upbringing had left her astonishingly ignorant. Until a year ago when she had answered Jane’s ad for a roommate on craigslist, her contact with bouncy, suburban American young women for whom cuddly toys were a meaningful expression of adult love had been negligible. And even now, twelve months later, most things about Jane—from the ‘Best Daughter in the World’ certificate hanging on her wall and the dog-eared library of Chicken Soup books lining her Pier One bookshelf to the holiday cookies she baked for Eric and the thrice-weekly, hour-long phone conversations she had with her concerned parents in Fort Lauderdale—posed an appalling anthropological mystery for Rosa. She approached all their interactions in the wary, squeamish manner of a schoolchild dissecting a frog.

Happily, Jane’s natural obtuseness, enhanced by years of self-esteem training, had saved her from taking offense. Insofar as she noticed Rosa’s froideur at all, she attributed it to social awkwardness. Rosa, she had decided, was a shy girl, who needed bringing out of herself.

—Zoë Heller, The Believers, Chapter 12

“Opposites attract,” goes the cliché, but in the Hellerverse, opposites repel. In fact, everything repels; I’ve rarely read a book with so many unlikeable characters as The Believers. In this quote, Rosa, the daughter who has come home to New York after four years living in Cuba, expresses her bemusement about her roommate Jane, who works in public relations at Tiffany’s. Having once worked as a temp in a luxury-goods emporium, I am certainly ready to credit Jane with all the vapidity and inanity that Heller can muster. But the passage suffers from a lack of fixed references. The observation that someone with the certain kind of “worldly” background that Rosa has does not understand Jane doesn’t give the reader any particular insight into Jane.

On the face of it, I like the idea of a story about a woman like Rosa, a woman who has just come back from four years in Cuba in a state of disillusionment about the revolution, a woman who is living in a rented, underfurnished room in New York, watching her father spending six months dying in a hospital bed. I’m sympathetic to stories about women who have underfurnished rooms. Having read it through, however, I don’t think The Believers is that book.