Monday, January 5, 2009

The novels of Zoe Heller

ZOE HELLER is an interesting British author now living in New York. As is often the case with author's books, you read the latest one that has just come out, and if you like it, read the earlier ones next, and therefore miss out on the opportunity of allowing them to unfold before you in chronological order, discovering the development of the writer.

As is to be expected, EVERYTHING YOU KNOW, the first one, published in 1999, is the weakest. I read NOTES ON A SCANDAL- the middle one- some time back, so I don't remember it very well (except for its beautifully clear prose and extensive vocabulary), and the newest, THE BELIEVERS is exceptionally good.

Zoe Heller's vision in her first novel was a bit limiting. It told the story of a sad, ageing writer of scandalous memoirs called Willy Muller who is drifting through life burdened by memories of mistakes made in the past, and their consequences. His wife died when she hit her head against a refrigerator door handle during a violent argument between the two of them. Even though he served a short time in prison, he didn't admit to pushing her at the time, and it is a long way after the event that he finally admits to what he has done. At the start of the novel one of his two children, Sadie, has recently committed suicide. His other daughter, Sophie, only wants to make contact with him because she needs his money. She lives in a council estate in London with her heroin addicted boyfriend. Both daughters have illegitimate children.

Willy's level of satisfaction is compromised further by his poor, guilty treatment of his girlfriend, Penny, who, although a bit stupid, deserves much better. His alcoholic friend, Harry, brings him down even further, by encouraging him in his slothful ways. The main thrust of the story, along with his sorry attempts to achieve some sort of equilibrium in his life, is the journal that Sadie has sent him before she died, detailing amongst other things an abusive relationship she had with an older man which resulted in the birth of her daughter Pearl, soon to be a motherless child.

A new excerpt in italics from Sadie's journal begins each chapter. You are meant to get the feeling that Willy is reading this journal bit by bit as he goes along, and you wonder what sort of effect Sadie's sad tribulations will have on her father.

Inside the front flap of this book there is mention made of Willy's 'unlikely path to redemption.' I guess there is a redemptive aspect to Willy's character in the closing sections of the story. He unexpectedly makes a visit to Sadie's daughter and her guardian at the very end of the novel. It is as if Willy is finally coming to terms with his reckless past and the part he has played in a generation of family members feeling grief or dislocation of some sort. However, the sense of redemption is blurred a little bit because the main focus on the story has been about wit and satire and sex throughout. These are the sections of the novel that stay with you the longest, so the ending doesn't have the same impact, as, say, the moving finish to a book like 'The Remains of the Day.'

Here are some good illustrations of Zoe Heller's writing, the wit and the satire in particular:

'I removed the toothbrush from the glass and drank back the fibre mixture. I paused for a moment, concentrating on not gagging, and then I stepped closer to the mirror, to examine my face. The whites of my eyes are yellow these days- as if someone has been pissing in them. My skin has the ancient, batterred look of fried liver. My ears, which seem to have grown exponentially in recent months, are developing a violent tinge at their curly edges, like exotic salad leaves. I returned to the basin and hawked up three dime-sized gobs of khaki-coloured phlegm laced with black stuff, like- what is that stone?- like agate. A spider was lurking in the shadow of the plug. I reached for the tap, intending to wash it away, but the movement sent the spider careering madly around the slopes of the basin. (50)

Describing bodily flaws is one of Zoe Heller's onbsessions, as it is with the Australian author, Beverly Farmer. The difference is that Heller does it with humour, whereas for Farmer her descriptions have tragic undertones.

In this excerpt, you get a sense of the way in which Willy's friends weigh him down. Harry is not much help for him:

' When we got back from the Cabana last night, Harry raged about the house for a while, managing, in the process, to spill a full ashtray into the swimming pool and pour red wine on to Sissy Yerxa's white rug. Eventually he fell into a drunken swoon on the sofa with a lit cigar in his fat hand. He woke briefly as Penny and I were dragging him upstairs and expressed his desire to give someone (or something) 'a good rogering.' In his room, we got his shoes off and levered him onto the bed. And then, as we were leaving, he surfaced into semi-consciousness once more. "Where are the wenches? he was calling plaintively into the darkness as I closed the door.

During the night, he crowned his achievements by copiously wetting his bed. I know this because in the morning, as he was lying out on the veranda sucking up a pint of Bloody Mary, the maid called me into his room to witness the befoulment of her snowy linens.' (98)

There isn't a lot of poignancy in this novel- much more in Zoe Heller's next two novels- but there is a lovely moment near the end where, after his mother has died, Willy decided to have a rummage through the things she has left behing, mostly junk. Amidst the junk is a purple crayon drawing of a house that Willy evidently drew for his mother when he was a small boy. It triggers something in Willy, and he ruminates on the discovery, wistfully:

' I must have love her, I thought. She must have loved me. You think you know who you were all your life, but you don't. You can't hold Paradise Lost in your head, so why should you be able to retain your entire existence to date? You forget things. You forget things. You have to. You make do with cribs. People ask you about other times in your life and you give them vague topic headings: 'Oh, I was unhappy as a child... My twenties were very wild...We had a bad marriage.' You have to use those precis, otherwise you would spend your life being a bore, like those people wo think 'How are you?' is a rea question and insist on giving detailed answers. The terrible thing, though, is that in the end you believe the cribs yourself. The past, in all its epic detail, gets lost. Years pass and pass until you simply don't know any more that you were once a boy who liked his mother enough to draw her a purple picture.'

Interesting that Zoe Heller chose to write her first book from the point of view of a mostly selfish and obnoxious male. There is plenty of her satirical writing style in her recent third novel, THE BELIEVERS. This one is from the point of view of an acerbic female, and is better because it is more multi-layered and complex, and asks much more interesting questions.

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