What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Christopher Beha’s debut, is a novel about coming-of-age and coming to terms (or, in many cases, not coming to terms) with one’s past. The novel’s premise, contained in the title, seems relatively straightforward — a college girlfriend reappears after a long absence — but Beha uses it to subtly explore an array of diverse interests — faith, literature, youth — and to bring home the novel’s overarching theme: the power and importance of stories.
I talked to Beha about Catholicism and New Atheism, what makes a novel “old-fashioned,” and what people mean when they say a television show is “real.”
Christopher Beha: As an author, you get this media training and you’re told to bring the interview back to your book all the time. But it’s brutal. Sometimes, if you’re going to go on a three minute radio spot or something, they’ll tell you “Make sure you say the full title of the book three times.”
Alex Shephard: That’s hilarious. I work in a bookstore and nobody knows the title of anything, doesn’t matter who wrote it or how popular it is.
“I want that book by that guy about this woman.”
Within three weeks of working in a bookstore, you gain some sort of alchemical power wherein you can turn any nonsense into a title.
That’s another reason to go to independent bookstores. I told [my mother] about the Donald Antrim book, The Hundred Brothers, and she went into a Barnes & Noble to try and get it. She asked, “I’m trying to get this book, it’s about a guy with a hundred brothers,” and they were not able to figure it out. First of all, the woman [who was helping her] said, “Is it fiction or nonfiction?” Maybe Osama bin Laden has 100 brothers — it’s probably fiction.
It’s funny to go into a Barnes & Noble after spending 20-odd hours a week working in a nice quiet independent bookstore. It’s so disorienting.
Ten years ago, Borders and Barnes & Noble were the big boogeymen for publishing. But now, with Amazon, people are totally depressed that Borders went out of business and they’re desperate to save Barnes & Noble. Something is going to come around at some point where people are going to wish that Amazon still held the sway. There’s always something that’s worse coming down the pipe.
[People will give you shit if you go and work for Amazon.] But so many of the people that [will give you shit] work for HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, or they work for Simon & Schuster, which is a great publishing house that happens to be owned by CBS. These are enormous media companies themselves. I don’t know where they get off being so sanctimonious about Amazon.
For the last few months a friend of mine has been pushing “Who cares?” as a kind of guiding philosophy. It’s been useful for me, whenever I get stuck in a rut, or pissed off about some minor thing happening in some infinitesimal circle, to just think “Who the fuck cares?”
As with everything else, there’s the stuff that’s in the 24-hour cycle and the stuff that actually matters. And not to be sentimental about it, but I do feel like the good work finds a way to last. If people are reading Freedom and The Corrections, which I very well think they might be doing, they’re not going to give a shit about Oprah, they’re not going to give a shit about what Jennifer Weiner tweeted, or what [Franzen] said about not liking Twitter.
The same thing happened with Bellow. He said all this un-PC stuff, he palled around with neocons, he was buddies with Alan Bloom and it made people pretty uncomfortable because they want the Great American Writer of their time to be like Steinbeck, they want him to share certain liberal ideas. But eventually, down the road, the work lasts and you forget about it. People are already forgetting that Bellow was this neocon. They [either] read the books or they don’t.
I was reading the other day about Bernhard’s posthumous ban on his plays in Austria and thinking, “This could not be more irrelevant to the context in which I’ve read these books.” It’s just a dude that learned how to troll an entire country.
Oh, he did! That’s an interesting case because he was so antagonistic. There’s also someone like Roth, who so clearly uses his biography in his novel and makes the fact that he’s using his biography in his novels part of his novels. Then he says, “You idiot readers, who read my biography into my novels. . .” That’s a whole series of provocations. At a certain level it becomes performance art.
. . . There’s Houellebecq, too. I thought that piece by Elaine Blair in the New York Review of Books where she talked about why he makes people uncomfortable in a way that Lipsyte and Shteyngart — people who are writing the same kinds of characters — don’t. And it’s because he actually tries to suggest that he might be one of these characters. He doesn’t allow the reader to stand with the author in judgment against these sad sack, misogynistic people. He’s like, “This is modernity. Deal with it, people.”
I do think you can get away with more as a foreign writer. We seem to give them a little more leeway to be sad sack misogynists.
Yeah, in general you can get away with shit. If Franzen was saying some of the stuff that he said with a German accent, people would be like, “This is what a great novelist is supposed to sound like! Great novelists are supposed to hate Twitter. A great novelist is supposed to be unfit for his own time.” But instead, it’s just “Who is this fucking twerp?” He’s just from St. Louis.
I’ve been thinking about those mid-’90s writers a lot lately. 15 years or so ago, there did seem to be a group of prominent writers who were publicly grappling with the implications of form. Those kind of questions seem to have retreated again, as the “social novel” maintains its dominance.
What it felt like, in my opinion, was that Wallace and Franzen were attempting a kind of synthesis of the two things which were in a lot of ways irreconcilable, and abandoned it. Now most of that crew are just engaged in writing fairly straight-forward literary novels. Have you read The Twenty-Seventh City?
There’s this paranoid plot, but it unfolds through this realist, domestic drama, which is the kind of book that Franzen now writes. And to me, it’s fucking brilliant. It’s a wonderful book. . . . What it did is it showed a kind of writing where he was using the meta-structures of [writers like Pynchon and Gaddis] to write the domestic drama, which is where it seems his heart has always laid. That was so clearly where his heart was, that with each book the outer stuff got stripped away — then eventually you just got a realist domestic drama.
Have you had a similar experience at all?
I was, at a particular point in time, enamored with a lot of those guys. I still love Gaddis; I have a very hard time with Pynchon these days; I still love DeLillo. And Wallace looms very large for me. But I do buy the argument that there is a level of emotional engagement that is possible in the novel that those writers kind of forsake.
. . . The knock on someone like Pynchon is that he’s not capable of writing real characters. Then you have someone like Franzen, who clearly is [capable of writing real characters, and] it seems like the form is not capable of sustaining real characters. Granted, you can say about these writers,“That’s not what they’re trying to do.” But a critic could easily come back with, “That’s what they ought to do. The fact that they’re not trying to do it is an aesthetic failure.”
Whatever the knocks against it, I’ve always liked the term “hyperrealism,” and when I have a problem reading Pynchon or Wallace, it has less to do with the fact that the books are challenging or “hyperreal” than the fact that I’m already so overwhelmed with hyperreality — with trying to experience six or seven things at once. That’s why I’ve more or less quit Twitter, or at least vastly reduced my exposure to it.
Oh, it’s bad. I’m on Twitter a lot. Facebook never made sense to me. I’ve never been tempted to use it — I never go on it and when I do, I’m like an old man: “What is this? People spend their time doing this?” The first time I got on Twitter, though, I was like, “This makes sense to me.”
It’s amazing how much horrible advice there is about how to use social media to promote your novel.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong and this stuff doesn’t work, but a lot of it seems like common sense to me: don’t be an asshole. Make real relationships with people. . . . Then, if there are people who you have relationships with that can help you out, ask them for help and help them out in return. Just do it as a human being.
The phrase “old-fashioned” has come up a lot to describe What Happened to Sophie Wilder, and the book seems to be conscious of it to some extent. Do you think that’s a fair descriptor? Do you know what it means?
One of the things I love about the novel — the form, that is — is that it can do a lot of different things. If there is a weakness to the James Wood approach, it’s deciding that there’s one thing that the novel is really good at and every good novel must do that thing. I do think that people often set up false choices and that a great novel should attempt all of the things a novel can do — because why not?
I do think that most great novels, even comic novels, are dramatizing individual moral choice. That’s what I wanted to do. To the extent that it was self-consciously old fashioned, it was about characters who were faced with the drama of moral choice. If you take the tragic view of this stuff — and what that means is not a character who makes a mistake that they then suffer the consequences of, it’s a character who’s truly faced with an impossible choice, one where there’s no right answer — that’s one way that it may be considered old-fashioned.
And there’s obviously a bit of what I guess you could call structural playfulness in the novel — it’s not just a straight realist novel, there’s lots of self-consciousness to it. It’s self-recursive in a way. That’s partly because of my desire to not just do one thing.
Muriel Spark is really good at this. She’s one of my favorites. She writes novels that could be called “metafictional,” in the sense that the author is pointing out the fact that her characters are just characters, or the characters are aware that they’re characters, or there’s just some sense that we’re not trying to pretend that these words make autonomous human beings. They’re just words on a page. At the same time, she’s using those words on the page to investigate serious issues like the problem of evil or what it means to be human. . .
Before the novel begins, you have to have the 30 page introduction about how your book isn’t going to cause women to have premarital sex.
Yeah! And the page-long dedication to your patron.
I would love to return to a patronage system.
There’s a lot to be said for the patronage system. The New Yorker is essentially run on the patronage system in the sense that if Condé Nast was a publicly traded company they couldn’t keep The New Yorker. You can’t say, “We make all this money from Vogue and Vanity Fair and we’d like to spend it to let The New Yorker do their thing.” No. Shareholders would say, “We want the money! We don’t have loss leaders. We don’t have prestige titles.”
Do you think that the New York literary scene has become a kind of straw man? In your novel, for instance, one of the reasons Charlie’s first novel is a failure is that it just focused on the shallow goings on of that scene —- sleeping with publicity assistants and gossiping and whatever.
I tried to write characters who generally care about this stuff. In my experience, most of the people that do this stuff do care. That’s why you’re doing it. There’s other ways to make more money, to be more plugged in to what’s central in the culture. To decide to go the literary route is to marginalize yourself. You don’t do that unless you genuinely love it.
It’s an easy thing to make much bigger and more important than it really is, especially if you’re on the periphery of it.
That’s true. What happens is that if you spend your time reading blogs that cover the publishing industry, you should read Entertainment Weekly and you’ll know exactly how much publishing matters in the culture. You’re going to get half a page for the E.L. James thing and when Richard Ford novel comes out it gets a letter grade with 30 words. Thirty words explaining to Entertainment Weekly’s audience who the fuck Richard Ford is in the first place.
And then you read New York media blogs or literary blogs and it seems like Jonathan Franzen is Tom Cruise. It can be nice to step back and remember that there’s no such thing as a famous novelist, except maybe James Patterson.
And he doesn’t even write his books anymore. With Richard Ford, when Lorrie Moore wrote her appreciation of him in the New York Review of Books, half of that is explaining who Richard Ford is. That piece was pure identity politics, in a lot of ways —- “He’s seemingly lived in every state beginning with the letter M” or whatever.
I really like Lorrie Moore. But I was struck by that review, by how much of that was biographical. My suspicion with that is that she knows him in some way and she didn’t like the book that much and doesn’t want to write about how she didn’t like the book, so she spends her time writing about how great Richard Ford is. She’s also not a New York person — she’s in Wisconsin — so maybe she feels a little bit simpatico with him in that way, which is why she’s talking about the fact that he does not worry about being in the hive of publishing.
At any rate, when people spend a lot of time talking about the author and what their story is and not a lot of time talking about the book under consideration, I become a little bit suspicious.
I remember that she wrote another piece for the New York Review of Books about The Wire that was similar, in that it had been more about celebrating the existence of something than critiquing it, or really digging into the ideas in it — which is fine. Her piece about The Wire was breathless, but it’s nothing like Bill Simmons writing 50,000 words a couple of years ago about how great that show is after arrogantly dismissing it while it was on the air.
I have to admit that I’ve never seen a single episode of The Wire. I’m a bit embarrassed about it. For that reason, I also avoid reading people who write about The Wire because I do intend to sit down and watch it at some point. Because everybody has seen it at this point, they’re assuming their readership has watched it so they can just give everything away. I would like to come at it fresh at some point. . .
I’m always surprised by how people exaggerate the show’s authenticity. It’s an incredible show that captures so much about urban life in America, but the reality of the show itself is obviously heightened, exaggerated, and compressed. It’s always disappoints me when all people can say about it is how well it captures Baltimore because, well, aside from a few local words, Baltimore in The Wire could be a lot of cities in America.
What’s interesting about the conversation surrounding the show is that serious television is still in its infancy. If people are getting that excited about verisimilitude, that was getting people excited/bothered about the novel in the 19th century. And when you think about it, verisimilitude is a very low bar to be setting for a work of realist art. Maybe it is true that television has never done that before.
A lot of time the standard for reality on TV seems to be other TV, which is an incredibly strange bar to set for what’s real.
I remember when I was growing up, Roseanne was on — All in the Family was similar — and it was showing lower-middle-class people with two working parents. I don’t know how “realist” it was, but what people actually meant was that it was showing a significant portion of the population that doesn’t get seen on TV. When a show tries to render African-American experience, for example, sometimes what people are responding to is that there were long eras in TV that if you were going to try to reconstruct America based on what you were seeing all of America would be upper-middle-class suburbia. By that measure, you’re being more expansive.
I also have not seen Girls — I saw Tiny Furniture and quite liked it — but I’ve been interested in the debate about race in Girls. Because my take is that there should be shows on television showing things other than upper-middle-class white girls out of college but that’s not a failure on Lena Dunham’s part that they’re not being shown. She’s trying to render something out of her own experience and she’s entitled to do that. It seems weird that that anger is directed at her.
I was disappointed that that conversation never really seemed to gain traction outside of talking about that show and its perspective (or lack of perspective) on race and privilege. It seems like we’re never quite able to step outside of whatever instigated these controversies to talk about race or, for that matter, the even structural racial and economic problems that a show starring four white children of famous people represents.
When Obama was running for president [in 2008] the big moment where we were supposedly going to have a national conversation about race was when his black preacher was insufficiently patriotic.
Of course, there are no black characters in your book.
That’s true. In all seriousness, I would say that the people who have responded negatively to the book, I think [they’ve done so because] the characters are upper middle-class. They’re trying to sort through these moments in their late 20s in New York, but one thing they don’t have to worry about is how they’re going to eat — or not even how they’re going to eat, but just general resources.
I actually do hope in time to write about those issues. But to me, these questions of moral choice get really clarified when you don’t have external material pressures. . . . Did you read the Edward St. Aubyn Patrick Melrose novels?
They’re fucking great and they’re all about the über, über wealthy. The characters in my book are not one percenters. His book is about the one percent of the one percent of the one percent. First of all, a lot of them have been completely ruined by money. And second, there’s just a lot of stuff about life that money doesn’t buy you protection from. Third, that’s St. Aubyn’s own experience and that’s what he’s going to write out of.
I’m definitely of the school that humans are more alike than not, across large swaths of time and race and class, and that you can make something out of a character in any situation. The two schools of thought are the Fitzgerald school of “the very rich are different from you and me” and the Hemingway school of “yeah, they have more money.” I fall more in the latter category [when it comes to fiction,] although in most areas I side with Fitzgerald.
More often than not there is a difference in talking about the ways in which wealth is diffused and distributed and in talking about those who do or do not possess it. No one is immune from the structures that help govern these things though, of course, some certainly have more control over them.
Certainly. When Marx, for example, talks about this stuff he’s very careful to separate out the individuals who are capitalists from the capitalist system that forces the people to behave in these certain ways.
What I do like about a writer like Franzen is that they are trying to write about these broad social forces and I am interested in doing that at some point. But it wasn’t what I was interested in doing here.
Why have Sophie convert to Catholicism? In books everybody seems to convert to Catholicism, which is something that I sometimes resent. I’m a religious convert myself, but I did it halfway, by literary standards, by converting to Protestantism.
First of all, my background is Catholic. Not a practicing Catholic or a believing Catholic, but I am very moved still by the structure of the church. I think that people who convert to a certain kind of evangelical Christianity, for lack of a better term, often want solace and a sense of a personal relationship with Jesus or with God.
The Catholic Church is an institution. [When] people like Waugh and Graham Greene and Muriel Spark — these British writers who converted to Catholicism — and Eliot, who converted to Anglo-Catholicism, high church Anglicanism — you had the decline of the crown and certain social structures. I think very often what they wanted was the hierarchy, the structure, and the tradition of [the Catholic Church.] Those are things that are interesting to me that I struggle with, that are appealing to me in a lot of ways. I find myself revolting from them at the same time. To me, there isn’t a right answer. . . .The most interesting questions are the ones for which there is no right answer. Which isn’t to say that the most important questions are the ones that have no right answer — I’m not a relativist; I do think that most questions have a right or wrong answer and that we ought to settle those things. But once those things are settled we’re left with the questions that are intractable. Those are things that fiction is particularly good at working through.
That idea — the idea of the “holy mystery,” for instance — is also what a Catholic or an Anglo-Catholic service is structured around.
Yeah. And to the extent that there is an autobiographical element in the book, I would say that Charlie represents one side of me, with respect to this stuff, and Sophie represents another side of me, with respect to this stuff. There’s the side of me that finds this kind of worldview incredibly appealing and comforting and wants to find rest in it and then there’s the part of me that is incapable of doing that.
To speak rather broadly here, the appeal of a lot of evangelical denominations is the idea that faith is actually certainty — that you can stop your striving and your doubting if you accept Jesus Christ into your heart. Sophie, on the other hand, like many Catholics, sees faith as a series of challenges.
For example, it’s possible to talk about a Catholic atheist in the same way that it’s possible to talk about a Jewish atheist. An evangelical atheist does not make sense, because what it means to be a member of that faith is to believe: you become a member by believing. Certainly with Judaism there’s a sense that you are a member by obeying the rules of Mosaic law; with Catholicism, you get baptized into the Church and you participate in the rituals. But you can continue as a Catholic to have doubts. People looked at Mother Theresa’s journals and she wrote all the time about doubt. This is the idea of the dark night of the soul. There’s a whole literature of Catholic saints struggling with your doubts.
A big part of Paul’s letters, for instance, is trying to get believers or prospective believers to understand how little they know about the governance, the structure of both God and the world — we “see through a glass darkly” and it isn’t until we come to Christ that we can even begin to make sense of things.
That’s a big part of Catholic doctrine: the limit to what humans can know about God’s universe. At the same time, part of the way that God created us in his image was creating us with the ability that other animals do not have to comprehend his creation and understand some of the meaning in it.
To go back to the earlier point about doubt, if you look at evangelicals, very often the equivalent is the temptation of the devil. The struggle is not the struggle to sustain belief, it’s the struggle not to sin. Because if you believe in the devil you sort of, by default, believe in God and probably believe that God is the one you want to be with, the one you want to place your bet with. But you get tempted away. There’s the temptation to sin, which is like a failure of will, but that’s different than doubt or the temptation of doubt.
I can’t remember if it’s in the movie, but there’s a terrific part in The Last Temptation of Christ in which a resurrected Lazarus is bemoaning his fate: his flesh is half-rotted and he’s a kind of zombie and all he wants is to die and stay dead. I thought about that idea — that resurrection fucking sucks — in the Bill Crane parts of Sophie Wilder: Sophie so desperately wants to save Bill, but he’s ready to move on.
You want rest. You don’t want to be brought back into life. There’s this idea that once you’ve been created you can never go back into oblivion.
Crane was a really interesting character to write in a lot of ways. When you talk to religious people about the presence of suffering in the world and the presence of evil in the world — why bad things happen to good people — they often tell you to read Job. That’s really strange to me, because it’s completely unsatisfactory: bad things happen to good people because God makes a bet with the devil to punish the nicest people, the best people. Why are you telling me to read this? What’s supposed to be heartening and satisfactory about this?
Job’s wife tells Job, “Curse God and die.” Under the circumstances, that seems like really good advice! That’s the route that Crane wants to take. There’s this tradition of God hatred that doesn’t really exist anymore.
Now it’s Richard Dawkins.
Yeah, [that’s different] because Richard Dawkins is an atheist. He doesn’t hate God, because hating God is like hating pink elephants. Hitchens made a point that if God did exist, he would be a monster, an omnipotent Kim Jong Il. But he doesn’t hate God because God doesn’t exist. In a world where belief in God is optional, basically, then if you cannot believe that God is benevolent you just stop believing in God.
Sophie asks Crane if he believes and his answer is “I’d have to believe in God to hate him as much as I do.” What you do with the belief in God once you recognize that there’s nothing about the way that the world is organized that suggests a benevolent and omnipotent god? A lot of what the Gnostic tradition does is suggest a kind of imperfect God: he’s trying the best that he can, just like the rest of us.
When you make a novel, there are faults in the novel: how much harder must it be to make a world? You don’t get why there are faults in the world? But of course most people who believe in God won’t believe that about God.
I spend a lot of time in church contemplating the point and pointlessness of me being there, seeing as I don’t believe in intercession.
I think what it does is, first of all, offer a way to resist materialism and scientific determinism and second, it gives you a way to keep in touch with the fundamental mystery of the world. . .
I just wrote a piece for Harpers about some of the New Atheist writing. I wish that some of these guys would show a little bit of epistemic humility. But they can’t because their fear is that the moment they do, someone is going to stick God in the space that creates. But don’t worry about that for a second: just admit that there’s shit that you don’t have figured out, and that we’re not going to figure out.
I don’t pretend to have mastery over this stuff, but most people working in evolutionary biology now don’t take Dawkins’s evolutionary biological claims of the ’70s and ’80s seriously anymore. He appears to have been, within a generation — I don’t know if proven wrong, but definitely taken less seriously than he was.
The logic I can’t seem to follow in a lot of the New Athiests’ thinking is that by understanding the material world, the immaterial stuff will somehow come more into focus. That by comprehending and studying base reality, spiritual or metaphysical questions will be clarified as well.
We think of these writers as rhetoricians. . . . What all of these writers seem to want is to end argument, to end persuasion. They want the unified theory of everything and they want to be able to say “These are all of the pieces and this is the only way that they fit together and that’s it. End of conversation.”
To circle back around, that’s what’s great about writing fiction: you’re offering a picture, but you can offer another picture at another time. You are making certain claims to truth about reality, but they don’t have to be definitive claims, they can be provisional claims. The other thing I think fiction does is that it’s deeply concerned with human experience. Rosenberg in particular — but the New Atheists, especially the high end philosophical and scientific ones, have a real problem with human experience because human experience tells us things are true that science tells us are not true. It tells us we have free will. Human experience tells us that we have a consciousness over which we have some kind of control. Science would appear to tell us otherwise. And yet, human experience is the only way we have for comprehending the world, so you get in this kind of wormhole.
I really try to ground my writing in experience. When I say experience, I should clarify: I don’t just mean empirical datum about the world as it actually is, as opposed to how it could be. I mean describing events from the inside out: experiential, I should say — what it feels like. In talking about Sophie’s conversion, I’m less interested in saying things about the history of conversion or saying some of the things that we’ve been saying in this interview about why someone might, at a certain point in history or in their lives, turn towards one particular religion or another. What I wanted to write about was the fact of religious experience in that Jamesian sense. I wanted to write about what it would be like for someone like Sophie to go through the experience of conversion and be left struggling with that experience after the fact.
During the conversion process, you’re sometimes left feeling or hoping that you’re going to be presented with a kind of roadmap with the soul. For me, the most difficult part is realizing that so many of your decisions and actions — to say nothing about the world at large — remain fundamentally mysterious or even cut off to you. That’s definitely the part of Sophie’s experience that I related to, for whatever that’s worth.
Most of the time I don’t believe in God, but I always believe in the soul. When I say that I want to write about the experience of being human, I want to write about what it’s like to have a soul.