At the altar of certainty

Nearly all the characters in Zoë Heller's ambitious new novel, "The Believers," are true believers. Each chooses a different vehicle of worship -- socialism, liberal humanism, Orthodox Judaism or the New Age gospel of self-improvement. But all are in thrall to their own certainty, self-righteous about their own beliefs and contemptuous of anyone dimwitted enough to disagree.

They are also believers in their own mythologies, including the roles they have been cast in by their parents or children or followers, the personas that, over the years, they have internalized. Zeal is their default setting, sanctimony their favorite defense.

Whereas Heller's two previous novels, "Everything You Know" and "What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal," were slender tour de forces that explored the gap between private feelings and public perceptions, "The Believers" is a considerably larger and messier undertaking. It attempts to give us a group portrait of a wildly dysfunctional family, even as it tackles the big theme of certainty and its discontents.

Heller is an entertaining writer, and this novel showcases her copious gifts, including a scathing wit, an unerring ear for the absurdities of contemporary speech, and a native Brit's radar for class distinctions. But "The Believers" is also a somewhat scattershot production: brilliant at some times, oddly unfocused at others.

The largely off-screen presence who sets the plot of "The Believers" in motion is Joel Litvinoff, a lawyer famous for defending radicals and accused terrorists. He is regarded by members of his lefty New York circle as a genius and hero who has stayed true to his principles.

When Joel is abruptly felled by a stroke that leaves him in a coma, his wife, Audrey, must confront some secrets from his past and reassess their four-decade-long marriage.

Like many earlier Heller characters, Audrey is selfish, judgmental, intolerant, foul-mouthed and lame-brained. She acts jaded and dismissive with Joel as a means of exerting her spousal status and puts down her two daughters, Karla and Rosa, as disappointing fools.

"How had she ended up like this, imprisoned in the role of harridan?" Heller writes of Audrey. "Once upon a time, her brash manner had been a mere posture -- a convenient and amusing way for an insecure teenage bride, newly arrived in America, to disguise her crippling shyness. People had actually enjoyed her vituperation back then, encouraged it and celebrated it. She had carved out a minor distinction for herself as a 'character': the cute little English girl with the chutzpah and the longshoreman's mouth."

Somewhere along the line, this defensive pose hardened into an identity: "It had begun to express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband's philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate." By the time Audrey realized that "she was no longer a sexy young woman with a charmingly short fuse but a middle-aged termagant," it was too late. "Her anger had become a part of her. It was a knotted thicket in her gut, too dense to be cut down and too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted."

Although such passages are meant to explain Audrey's awfulness, they more often feel like half-hearted excuses for her obnoxious behavior and shrewish outbursts.

Trapped in their roles

As for Audrey's two daughters, whom she admits she has never developed much affection for, they, too, find themselves trapped in assigned family roles. Karla, a social worker, is the doormat, the fat, unattractive, self-loathing daughter who is stuck in a loveless marriage to Mike, a union activist who looks up to her father with sycophantic ardor. Karla feels lucky that someone as attractive as Mike married her in the first place.

Her sister, Rosa, the pretty one, is a believer in search of a cause. Having become disillusioned with socialism, she is now flirting with becoming an Orthodox Jew, a notion that elicits the contempt of her parents, who are as famous for their atheism as they are for their radical politics.

This novel's blackly comic accounts of Rosa and Karla's efforts to get free from their father's ideological shadow and their mother's emotional clutches remind the reader of Heller's ability to navigate between satire and sympathy, sarcasm and sincerity.

Combined with her hilarious evocation of the radical-chic world the Litvinoffs inhabit, her understanding of the Darwinian mathematics of familial politics helps override this book's evident flaws and makes the reader look forward to her next foray into fiction.