Christopher Beha’s debut, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (WHTSW) could have been the worst kind of novel. That’s because it is, at its most reductive, a novel about novels; a story about writing, told by writers. This level of literary self-reflexivity is the terrible legacy of postmodernism, and it can suck real hard—clever instead of wise, absorbed but never transcendent, Borges at his worst, Paul Auster at his best—and this book is self-reflexive as hell. But it has to be: Beha is taking that shitting bull right by the horns. The self-awareness is at once this book’s biggest and most egregious flaw, yet is also the element most vital to its relevance and its overall success. And WHTSW is undeniably a success—Beha pulls it off, winks, nudges and all, offering up an ambitious, measured, and wise first novel. It’s annoying to read about writers—and both main characters here are writers—but that’s sort of the point: when you’re in real danger of having written yourself to death, and Beha seems to be afraid we have, then only a story can bring you back. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been waiting for that.
Charlie Blakeman is a young comfortable white guy from New York, writing in a world that’s “simply tired of young comfortable white guys from New York.” His debut novel garnered a hefty advance from his publisher, but it made little impact on the literary world and “quietly sank from view,” leaving Charlie adrift at twenty-eight, “the age where it no longer makes sense to talk about promise.” He now lives out what seems to be a literary fantasy, the stuff of fiction: the money from his advance affords him rent on a palatial townhouse right on Washington Square North; the building’s owner is often overseas, and so Charlie and his cousin Max, a film critic and blogger working for a Village Voice-type weekly, have the run of the place, the lower floor more or less a revolving party for the city’s hip, young, and irritating literati. Irriterati. But while Charlie is living this seemingly literary life, and professes to be working on his follow-up, he really hasn’t written much of anything, and it looks more and more to us like he never will.
But then Sophie Wilder returns, and young Charlie’s heart goes a-pitter-pat. Ten years earlier, Charlie and Sophie established an intense romantic connection in a college writing workshop, a relationship fueled by and entirely predicated upon writing, upon storytelling. The end is inevitable to anyone familiar with the literary heartbreaker genus: After college, Sophie disappeared from Charlie’s life, robbing him of his muse, and in the bargain marrying an econ major and publishing her thesis, a short story collection, to critical acclaim. She reappears at one of the Blakemans’ impromptu literary cocktail parties, newly estranged from her husband, and, apparently, seeking out Charlie. Feckless young Charlie, still believing his own myth, imagines they’d been “returned to each other,” and he falls hard and fast again: “If I could be just one thing now, that would be it: someone going somewhere with Sophie Wilder.”
Here, Beha expects us to know a few things. He expects us to know that first novels—that your first novel, Roger—are largely crap; self-absorbed, interior, small and ephemeral splashes in the sea. And it’s through this lens that we’re supposed to view Charlie Blakeman, who, like Beha (same initials), is a first-novelist. But Beha, an editor at Harper’s who in 2009 published a memoir about reading the 20,000 pages of the Harvard Classics in their entirety, knows his tropes, and Charlie Blakeman is a familiar literary type: the hopeless romantic. As is his counterpart, Sophie Wilder, the literary heartbreaker. And with these types in play, we’re set up to expect a certain type of literary love story to spin out—dauntless but hopeless man falls, again and again, for the inexplicable and unattainable allure of the beautiful and broken. And, to quote another dauntless but hopeless man, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” But when Sophie disappears for a second time, we realize that this is not that story.
Beha alternates narrators every chapter, from Charlie’s first-person to a third-person following Sophie, and through the latter we learn that in the intervening decade Sophie not only separated from her husband, but also converted earnestly and wholly to Catholicism, gave up writing, and cared for her husband’s terminally ill and spiteful father to a protracted and brutal end. But Charlie, who lacks the “capacity for faith,” can’t make sense of Sophie’s conversion, and, primed as we are in our age of irony, we can’t really make sense of it, either. At first, it struck me that Sophie approaches religion just like she approaches writing, with a literary, almost analytical attitude toward the Bible; but we also wonder if she’s simply cultivating a quirk, if, consciously or no, in turning to religion, she’s searching out more writing material, only to turn back again. But Beha pushes us through this doubt, and Sophie follows up and makes good on her faith. And the greatest thing about this book is Beha’s tremendous, and successful, effort at reconciling the spiritual surrender required of faith with the self-absorbed interior work of writing (the book’s two parts are titled “The Stars Above” and “The Law Within”)—and, most importantly, why they both should matter.
As Charlie says, when he and Sophie were in college, “we spoke about our own lives almost exclusively as material”; together they learned “how to give up this world and live in another long enough to make it seem real.” And for readers, writers, and mystics alike, when our lives become stories, when they transcend their material essence, only then do they assume significance. We obsess over our own endings, which are of course all unknown, all unknowable, and only understandable if we’re the ones writing them, if we’re the faithful. And so Beha offers us a test, a mystery, in the deceptively loaded title: What Happened To Sophie Wilder. Question mark? Charlie writes his version, Sophie has hers, and Beha has his, sending us back and forth, in time, place, and character, and in the end we’re not so much left wondering which was the true account as we are wondering at the beauty of both—the written word and the Word; fiction and non; the life lived, the life imagined, and the meaning to be found in both.
Beha is an extraordinary writer, but this is not a perfect book. In fact, for a while I wasn’t sure if I even enjoyed it, and even in writing this review, having myself fallen for the unsettling, spectral allure of Sophie, having been dazzled by Beha’s agility and pellucid thought and the beauty that is its byproduct, I still catch myself mincing, hedging here. Part of this is because I’m currently revising my first novel, and I found this book was staring me down as I read it. So it may be that as a young writer I’m too primed, predisposed to looking for this stuff—and it occurs to me that there’s maybe an argument here for why writers shouldn’t read this book—but WHTSW often reads like an instruction manual on how not to write your first novel. (In this interview, Beha reveals what seems obvious now, that he’s got a real first novel tucked in a drawer, and that in many ways WHTSW is very much a reaction it, to the “the traps that first-time novelists often fall into, particularly solipsism and a certain degree of formal preciousness.”) Not that Beha’s wrong at all, or that his novel is overtly didactic, but young writers beware: this book glowers at us, alerts us to our own solipsism and preciousness. But more importantly, though, I think I had some trouble getting behind the novel because I feel that ultimately, the book is an intermediate step.
In a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Beha remarked on the contemporary writer’s struggle against the cultural pervasiveness of irony: “[Irony] once had a good purpose—to break down old, outdated norms—[but it] was not very good for building something back up in their stead and perhaps, had outlived its usefulness. This is all very broadly speaking. And then the struggle is: What comes next?”
Beha, like me and like the overwhelming majority of writers I know, views this as one of the major literary tests of our time, and it seems to me that although Beha is a committed atheist, his answer is faith. Faith is the opposite of irony, be it religious faith, or faith in writing, in imagination, in the power of a story. In his memoir, Beha writes about leaving the Catholic Church, saying, “this doesn’t mean that the old books or the old gods no longer matter. On the contrary, it is a reason to read those books and study those gods, not to discover the order of the world, but precisely because there is no order except the one we make.” And so here’s why I say this book feels like an intermediate step, why all the “meta” rhetoric in the first half of the novel chafes me so hard: in those self-reflexive moments this is not a story, but a story about how and why to write meaningful stories, about how and why to rebuild and redeem literature. But Beha comes from the literary world—his memoir makes clear that he is wholly in it and of it—and in WHTSW, he dwells too long in it. (The only possible relief might be the flippant Max, but he’s portrayed as a snark, ironic and corrosive.) Instead of writing about writing a real story, why not just skip that middle step and write the story? The book doesn’t break out of its self-reflexive mode until Part Two, when Sophie is taking care of her father-in-law and he falls out of bed and shits himself, and Sophie has to clean it up. Then we’re off. Then we have a story; then we’re building anew—and it’s because Sophie refuses to write about it.
Tempting as it is for her to write about this turn her life has taken, Sophie puts the pen down for good and lives it out, turning not to writing for understanding, but to religion; her counterpart Charlie turns the other way. But faith is the fulcrum for both, and by Part Two the book has launched this lovely rotation in earnest. We see why this is a book of twos, of pairs and binaries—two narrators, two points of view, two parts, and two lives—the life lived and the life imagined. Faith, too, in religion or in writing, is binary—it is all or nothing, our only salvation. And all of us—writers, readers, mystics, and skeptics—are turning, too, waiting for redemption, trying to make sense of our own endings.
If you happen to be enamored of writers, you’ll love this book. If you yourself are a writer, you’ll love it or you’ll hate it. But don’t put it down. Christopher Beha knows everything you do about writing, and more. The epigraph posits a question from Robert Bolano: “If you don’t believe in God, how do you believe in a fucking book?” A challenge for our time if ever there was one, but Christopher Beha has some answers.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.