This sociopolitical comedy of manners concerning a radical lawyer in a coma is beyond the novelist’s satiric command.
The main problem with the latest from the British Heller (What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, 2003, etc.) is that it lacks focus. It could have focused on Joel Litvinoff, a famous activist attorney described by those who despise him as a “rent-a-radical with a long history of un-Americanism,” but he’s unconscious in his hospital bed for the bulk of the book. It wants to focus on his wife Audrey, like the novelist a British-born transplant to New York, whom the older Joel seduces in London when she is 18 and who remains married to him for 40 years. The problem is that Audrey is the least compelling character, with little explanation as to how she has become such a doctrinaire radical harridan (much more rigid than her husband), a “champagne socialist” hypocrite and unloving mother to her two daughters. Maybe Karla and Rosa, the daughters estranged from each other, could have provided the focus. The former is a heavy, good-hearted woman who must choose between her loveless marriage and an improbable affair. The latter is more attractive and resents the superficiality of her beauty; she is an extremist in everything she does, having returned from four years in Cuba to embrace, or at least investigate, the Judaism her parents long ago rejected (and which runs counter to her own feminism). Unfortunately, their stories only connect at the bedside of their comatose father, a center that cannot hold. Adopted son Lenny, from an even more radical family, mainly provides comic relief as his mother’s marijuana supplier, until he cleans up. What promises to propel the narrative is Joel’s deep secret, revealed while he is unconscious, but even that seems on the periphery, before its unlikely resolution provides something of a climax.
Tom Wolfe might once have had vicious fun with such material, but this novel lacks the edge to make it sharper than soap opera.