What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel
by Christopher R. Beha.
Tin House Books, 2012.
Paperback, 253 pages, $16.
Reviewed by Joshua Hren
In his new novel The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, Harper’s editor Christopher Beha makes grace a noisome concern, not least through the controlling metaphor and self-proclaimed prophet Herman Nash, whose apocalyptic preaching from a New York city fountain alters a veteran’s life: the latter abdicates the stability of his family’s ill-gotten wealth, almsgiving his millions to heed Christ’s call: look at the “fowls of the air,” who “sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.” Nash announces an end that is nigh, assures a definitive date, and ultimately mysteriously disappears. But before he abandons his fountain perch, Nash gathers crowds, numbers that multiply almost miraculously as clips of him preaching are passed around the Internet, some treating “the thing with irony, or as a kind of performance,” while others are won over by the man’s apparently arresting presence.
Unfortunately, this authenticity is hard to believe. Neither Nash nor Eddie are Beha’s best creations. While we receive some telling details that draw us into the preacher’s presence (“with white hair that shot from his head in electrified waves and the wild gray beard of a prophet of old”), most of these moments lack the level of immediacy called for by both the man’s charism and his persistence through the novel. Admirable as Beha’s foregrounding of the “ultimate concern” is, in his new novel Beha is better at humanely portraying the tittering, vain, self-imploding “New York set” than those overcome and altered by the Otherness of God. Even if Index does not render grace with the same immediacy and capacious persuasiveness as What Happened to Sophie Wilder, given the importance of his new novel for both the form itself and for writers of faith, now is a good time to revisit Beha’s first novel.
Beha’s promise comes in part from deep artistic debts. Unlike many writers of contemporary fiction, he is openly apprenticed (and wonderfully indebted) to great novelists such as Henry James. (The characters of Wilder purportedly live in a house once inhabited by James himself, though one doubter proclaims that “probably it’s bullshit.”) Like Flannery O’Connor, who read James “from a sense of High Duty,” Beha is both beholden to the large-canvas achievements of past literary masters and committed to present-tense idioms and present-day conflicts. Arts & Entertainments, for instance, chases our obsession with celebrity culture.
Beha’s corpus also bears the marks of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, whom Henry James called all writers to learn from if the novel is to regain “its wasted heritage.” Beha’s three novels, like the interwoven tales of La Comédie humaine, track recurring characters. How I wish he could, in good old novelistic fashion, receive an inheritance from a deceased foreign aunt, retire from Harper’s and, when not tending to his children, keep writing novels in this manner, letting souls with only minor roles in one story migrate to a new novel and become the (often falling) “stars,” capturing the consequential connectedness of an apparently atomized contemporary existence.
Georges Bernanos said of Balzac that “not a single feature is to be added to any one of those frightful characters, but he has not been down to the secret spring, to the last recess of conscience where evil organizes from within, against God and for the love of death, that part of us the harmony of which has been destroyed by original sin.” Whereas Beha’s Index reverberates with Balzac’s unflinching interrogations into the motives of men, his portraits of evil flower more fully in Wilder, even though Index undertakes the harder project of painting sin’s panoramic effects.
But Beha’s first novel excels at more than mere sin; here we behold his best imitations of the Maker’s many-colored and bolded brushstrokes. The late critic D. G. Meyers describes Wilder as possessing “perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since [Graham Greene’s] The End of the Affair.” Although the novel is interlaced with a postmodern narrative playfulness that at times leads to an unnerving lightness of being, Beha’s conversion scene is not defined by murmurs or faint hints. When Sophie (a real-deal writer among the faux literati) attends Mass, the language does not lash with vicious force: “something came over her … It got closer to say that she was, for a time, occupied.” And yet, recollecting the moment much later she calls it “the shocked grace she’d felt on that day when everything had changed.” Still more, the novel as a whole does not capitulate to the postmodern conceit of sacred “traces” in a deconstructed, deus abscondis world. Rather, its religion’s archaic torso, riddling its shadow over the whole, speaks absolutely like Rilke’s poem: “You must change your life.”
If the aforementioned conversion already seems explicit, the religiosity of Wilder gets even louder. Midway through the novel’s dark forest, we come upon one of the most moving, “Dostoevskian” dialogues on God found in contemporary fiction. Sophie has stubbornly committed to caring for her dying father-in-law Crane, in spite of the fact that her husband has left her for a law office intern—and in the face of her husband’s refusal to countenance the now-dying man. Tom, his son, refuses to speak of him, insinuating some sort of monstrous past. (“You really are a monster,” Sophie later tells Crane, with her typical Wilder call-it-like-it-is, as when, running into her husband and his fling on the streets, she introduces herself like so: “I’m Sophie … I’m your boyfriend’s wife.”)
Beha masterfully bestows on the Crane that “possessed” quality Dostoevsky gives his “demons” without reducing him to a “villainous” caricature. He emanates a fearfully palpable, surefire defiance of God complicated by the possibility that he may be responsible for his pregnant wife’s death. When Sophie strives to save him through Scripture, Crane cuts her short, calls it “brutal” to “read such a passage to a dying man,” and proceeds to reveal that he knows the Bible “a lot better than you do … And he’s a fascist.” Sophie is confused: which fascist—“King James?”
“God. The first totalitarian. Has to control everything. Reads your mail. Bugs your phone. Watches while you take a shit. I don’t see what’s to admire. And death camps. Auschwitz is a beach vacation compared to the circles of hell. You get sent there for the same reason, incidentally: for not being a Christian.”
She tries to do detail work on his large and startling figure of God. “You’re oversimplifying,” she contends, sensing her rejoinder’s insufficiency even as she says it: “He isn’t spying in some prurient way. He’s not trying to catch anyone at anything. And he doesn’t control everything. He could, but he gives us free will.”
He “almost roar[s],” slumping back to the couch, unwilling to take her “free will” ticket. Sure, he says, “You’re free to do what you choose, and if you don’t choose to worship me, I’ll send you to the flames.” Crane would grant God more homage had he “just made us do whatever He wanted, instead of leaving us to guess and burning us for guessing wrong.”
None of these arguments are new to Sophie. She’d “even made them occasionally to herself,” to the point of admitting Crane’s “case for a malevolent God was more compelling, if anything, than the case for no God at all.” Beha’s sensitivity to artful counterpoint is evident throughout, and yet—commodious fictionist that he is—even in this twenty-first century of Our Lord he makes real doubt and real faith doubly persuasive, growing as they do from the characters’ hearts; the exchange is wholly believable, seems almost inevitable—in spite of their free will.
Beha gives full range to Wilder’s own freedom. Long after her conversion to the Catholic faith she sleeps with Charlie Blakeman, the novel’s sometimes-narrator and devotee of Sophie. Charlie long keeps her religion intentionally in the dark, asking no questions, “since her answers would only mark out the distance between us.” In spite of Blakeman’s initial reticence and Sophie’s self-destructive acts, her conversion will eventually convince him that faith can be vital, giving the lie to the halfway house of half-assed religion—all that he’d known until Sophie’s strange turning. (Utterly frank about its own peculiarity, the novel at one point asks us: “I mean, who converts anymore, unless they’re converting away?”).
When his father died, for instance, Charlie could not stomach a Catholic Father’s homiletics of comfort: “the priest said that my father had been baptized into Christ and now he had died into eternal life.” Sure, Blakeman grants, the first part is “strictly true,” but “he wasn’t a particularly religious man.” Memorialization such as this convinces him of the Church’s institutional inauthenticity. Or rather, initially Charlie was relatively indifferent, seeing the funeral through for the sake of his pious grandmother. But now he thinks differently, knowing “there were still people like Sophie, who took the words of faith as more than words. In light of that fact, it seemed wrong that all these others spoke for appearance’s sake.” This is one of the novel’s great truths: there are still people like Sophie, thoughtful souls for whom what faith reveals is the first and final page.
And yet Sophie’s story turns wilder as she suffers under Crane’s last days. Frighteningly honest, she parses her motives as she watches what appears to be a soulless husk. Keeping vigil in his lonesome apartment, she is saintly in her sacrifice but poisoned by pride, which has her send “away the rest of the world”—the hospice help and all other comers, while she tries to redeem the great sinner all alone. Why, the awful question surfaces—“Was it for his sake or her own that she wanted to save his soul?” Despairing over self-accusations, the hero who “knelt at his side, leaning against the bed frame as against a Communion rail,” “[gives] up on prayer,” and Sophie feeds Crane the pills she’d previously withheld, hastening his death and her damnation, halting her zealous redemption vigil. Later she tells it as only Wilder can: “she felt herself outside of God’s attention. She had trespassed in His domain—the place where life was extended or withheld.”
Gregory Wolfe’s whispering will surely reach some wayfarers, lost Waste Land souls who yet have ears to hear. And yet, driven by the sensus Catholicus, we should avoid the false binary of either “shout” or “whisper.” We should opt instead for an aesthetics more voluminous, searching out both traces and freely voiced questers whose lives are remade as they court the Catholic faith or turn against its radical demands and still more radical mercies. Beha’s novel models the latter, returning to the literati what we thought was lost: “what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God.”
Freedom, wrote Flannery O’Connor, “cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel … can only be asked to deepen.” Sophie Wilder’s deepening construction consciously departs from happy endings. The last lines resist resolution: “she couldn’t know until the very last page if she had been redeemed.” The final section takes us back in time—places Sophie at the threshold of a nunnery, anticipating remission of her sins. The novel’s defiance of chronology defers forever our arrival at this knowledge, this “very last page,” and so seems to leave unanswered the question of Wilder’s salvation. But perhaps Beha is anticipating and denying our penchant for perpetual second chances. In “resurrecting” a Sophie prior to her suicide, he is shouting out the limits of fictional representation: unhinged from time, it can assert possibilities where none remain, sobering us to the irreversibility of our misdeeds and, via negativa, reminding us of the vastness of misericordia.
Bent on saving others, sure that her sins surpass forgiveness, Sophie is both too fixed and too broken to be saved. Dead in spite of the book’s resistant ending, Sophie’s fatal flaws sink her walk on water. Her drowning-by-doubt burdens us so badly because we saw God start to save her—we saw the goodness of grace unburden her being and charge it with beauty. We saw her resist the godlike control that tempts all artists, all co-creators. Weighed by Beha’s Jamesian “central intelligence,” her fall away from faith and self-authored damnation obtain the keenly felt minor key of tragedy; the capitulated sacred lives still loudly, long after her suicide, long after you shut the door, solemnly, on this novel’s haunted house of fiction, shocked with the sense that “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). If faith is to be forged in contemporary letters, let it be with Beha’s capax Dei.
Joshua Hren is founder and editor of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey. He has published numerous essays and poems in such journals as First Things, Dappled Things, Evangelization & Culture, America, and LOGOS. Joshua’s books include the story collections This Our Exile (Angelico 2018) and In the Wine Press (Angelico 2020), as well as How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic (forthcoming, TAN 2021).
The University Bookman has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.