Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ellipses of Wonderment: Reflections on Christopher Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder

A friend in my writing group recently mentioned that at the end of each year she makes a list of all the books she read, and then she stars the ones that she really enjoyed—a simple discipline, but one that got me thinking about the many books I read in 2013 that I never
blogged about.

One in particular came to mind: What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. I read it a full year ago now, but sometimes what we remember about a book is almost more valuable than anything we might say of it at the time.

I was eager to read What Happened to Sophie Wilder because I knew it had a Christian angle to it, and as a writer and Christian myself, I have long been interested in portrayals of faith in literature. Around the same time that I started reading Sophie Wilder, Paul Elie’s article “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” appeared in the New York Times, describing Christian belief in contemporary fiction “as something between a dead language and a hangover.” Clearly I’m not the only one who thinks good Christian literary fiction is a bit of a rarity these days, so I had high hopes for Sophie Wilder.

I found a lot to be admired. Beha structures the novel deliberately—alternating chapters contain alternating points of view—and with suspense, building from the start a sense of mystery around the titular character. It’s a book I found hard to put down, perhaps in part because the characters were familiar to me: Charlie, the first-person narrator, is an aspiring writer who falls in love with Sophie, also an aspiring writer but of the kind who has innate talent and who has a major publication early in her career. But then Sophie flounders, unable to dig into her next big writing project until a phone call from her husband’s father, whom she’d been told was dead. Despite her husband’s wishes, Sophie becomes involved in her father-in-law’s final days as he dies of cancer. I won’t say too much more because part of the fun of the book is the mystery it sets up and the unfolding of that mystery.

The novel is clean and economical in its presentation; it offers a scene of Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism at the very time of Paul Elie’s decrying the lack of the believer’s experience in fiction (in fact, a whole year later without the book in front of me I can remember that Sophie, in her moment of conversion, feels “occupied”); and it made me want to keep reading. So why, when I finished, did the novel bother me? Why have I not, in the intervening year, found myself recommending it at every turn?

Flannery O’Connor provides the best way I’ve found of articulating a quality of many contemporary works that provoke a negative reaction in me.  She writes in her 1963 essay “Novelist and Believer,” “At best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”  Of course I realize she was writing a half century ago, but when I pick up many New Yorker fiction selections, for example, I see the mood of “domesticated despair” dominating. A prime example is Donald Antrim’s short story “He Knew,” which follows an out-of-work actor who lives with a “normal daily load of terror” and his much younger, recently suicidal wife. They regulate themselves with medications, go shopping in New York, and delicately avoid things that upset them.  Their one dream is a road trip through the mountains to North Carolina, where both grew up but where neither have any family left; they are essentially rootless. 

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that literature shouldn’t reflect harsh realities.  The problem comes when such vacuous living is portrayed as something we’ve “learned to live with,” that this daily terror is “normal,” and there is no narrator or consciousness whose subtle shaping satirizes human folly (as we find in Evelyn Waugh or William Thackeray) or exposes the capacity for beauty and grace to arise from the grotesque and tragic (as in O’Connor).

Despite the Christian themes presented, What Happened to Sophie Wilder reads like a book that has domesticated despair. Both Charlie and Sophie are supposedly disenchanted with the artistic affectedness of their friend Max, but to me, they seemed equally affected, mooning around in disheveled apartments, drinking, dissatisfied, and in many ways, the agents of their own dissatisfaction.  I appreciated the reflections on prayer at Sophie’s father-in-law’s bedside; I appreciated the representation of suffering and the treatment of a character who takes damnation as a real possibility.  But I saw no sense of surprising grace or distant hope for redemption that even the most brutal O’Connor stories contain. Instead, the book seems to suggest that such redemption is possible only in our own fictitious refashioning of cruel realities (at least, that’s how I read the final sequence where Sophie’s ending gets re-written).  Faith, in this treatment, becomes merely a plot device that provides Sophie’s conflict.

And perhaps that’s all the more Beha meant to do with it. Still, I found a similar sense of disappointment circulating in the Christianity & Literature listserv. One of the contributors, a literature professor, agreed with my reading but suggested another possibility: it’s very difficult to write convincingly of faith and conversion if it’s not an integral part of who you are. An interview on Beha’s website reveals that Beha once took his Catholic faith seriously, but “lost the ability to sustain that belief.”

I’ll take it one farther—it’s very difficult to write convincingly of faith and conversion period, even if you are a practicing Christian. And so, a year out from reading the book, I wonder if my expectations for Beha were too high, if, in the dearth of books that are brave enough to explicitly address conversion, prayer, suffering, and life after death, we become so desperate for someone—anyone—to portray those very elements with the living fire we believers know they contain, that we foist the same expectation on anyone willing to attempt using that material at all.

Suffice it to say, Sophie Wilder gets more than a star on my list of books read in 2013. It gets a star, a question mark, and maybe a few ellipses of wonderment.