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Cracks of faith in the secular self

Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is an ambitious, important book: proof that the novel can yet mediate our deepest concerns, calling us to meditate on the truths that fiction tells us so thickly.

(Image: Valeria Capettini/Unsplash.com)

Harper’s editor Christopher Beha’s new novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, pushes against not a few cracks in the ceiling of our age—our love-hatred of celebrities, the fabrications of our failed financial industry, our overreliance on data, our deep disillusionments—shattering shallower, secularized selves and inviting interruptions of faith.

Beha’s portrayals of faith in fiction position his novels in a body of literature which John McClure gives the ugly if useful name “postsecular.” In Partial Faiths, McClure probes a range of postsecular stories that “trace the turn of secular-minded characters back toward the religious”; the metaphysical signature of these narratives “is a religiously inflected disruption of secular constructions of the real.” As Beha suggested in an interview with Catholic Arts Today, “great novels are a response to the problem posed by secularism.” He has been tracking such disruptions since his first novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which, according to the late literary critic D.G. Meyers, “includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair.” Raised by indifferentist parents, (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is wholly unprepared for the fullness that happens one day at Mass. She is “occupied . . . by something outside of herself, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor.” Beha captures God’s simultaneous otherness and immanence. Only such a God could save us from the neutralizing categories of “circumstance” and “self.”

Sam Waxworth, the data journalist who begins The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, is the epitome of secularity: armed with an algorithm that needs no augury, he foretold the outcome of every 2008 election. “The greatest impediment to predicting the future correctly,” he says, is the belief that “the world held meaning, the belief—as his mother put it–that everything happened for a reason.” But for Sam “seeing things as they are” means demystification, disenchantment: a domed stadium.

With Waxworth as its opening pitcher, The Index throws five hundred and seventeen pages of artfully unified self-destructions. On the literal level, the index of self-destructive acts measures “the total number of hit batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.” But in Beha’s novel, this statistic becomes a guiding metaphor for a vast catalogue of characters who commit sins, decided aberrations that sink their self-interests. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”

Sam’s first assignment with the New York-based Interviewer brings him to a baseball game with Frank Doyle, a long-time liberal whose reel to the right wing was blanched of panache when, half-drunk, he made a racist joke during the last game played at the old Met’s stadium. The clip was clicked virally and Doyle—always saving his drinking with style—finally went down, his former record, his friendship with Jackie Robinson notwithstanding.

When Waxworth joins Doyle on the new, corporatized field, they negotiate their contentions through baseball. Countenancing Sam’s capacity to “quantify how many runs [a given player] saves over replacement in a season,” Doyle insists that he is “taking all the beauty of the game,” that the kid is engaged in an “effort to neutralize reality, sand away all the glorious particularities of life.” Like Dostoevsky, Beha gives his questionable characters some of the best lines. For Doyle, Sam is a stand in for the “numerarchy” which “ruled everything now. It had long ago taken over his wife’s world, the world of finance, convincing everyone that computer modeling could eliminate risk,” even as this same idea had generated some of history’s most irrational antics, including those which debased the economy, baseball, politics, and journalism. “Life can only be understood backwards,” Doyle says, channeling Kierkegaard to the future-bound, addictively-predicting Sam. Read backwards, Frank’s lines assume a prophetic aura, as so much of the novel is an apocalypse (unveiling) of the rationalist Sam’s intransient irrationality.

Doyle, one of the Beha’s most movingly-painted portraits, epitomizes the novel’s necessary thickness: though condemnable on not a few counts, the character bleeds and gasps, laughs and trips beyond the caricatures our ideological idols impose upon us. Waxworth starts with an a priori excommunication of the Doyle dynasty, but he ends in unshakable fascination.

One unassuming inhabitant of this dynasty is Eddie (“Edward”) Doyle, a rattled Iraq War veteran who is spellbound by the street preacher Herman Nash. From a fountain in Washington Square, Nash proclaims a November 1st Apocalypse. His “end is nigh” doggedness that becomes one of the novel’s framing symbols. He gathers crowds, numbers which 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, like Eddie, becoming disciples, won over by the man’s apparent authenticity. 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 Nash scenes (“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.

When Eddie explains his fascination with Nash it comes off as foreign to the character as we know him: “He wanted the feeling of having all of his minutes and hours bound together into something larger than himself,” he says. He hates how, at home, “every action was isolated from every other.” The idea itself is fascinating, and Beha more fittingly explores it in an interview with Catholic Arts Today: “In the saeculum, things happen to us and, even as they are happening, they are already gone. Each instant is effaced before it has even made its impression on us. Secularism tells us that this disappearance is absolute. The trouble with secular time is what Milan Kundera calls its ‘lightness’ which is certainly unnerving, if not actually unbearable.”

As Eddie’s stay with Nash lengthens, their relationship—their characters—gain thickness, even as Beha is best at incarnating the “New York set.” Eddie abdicates his trust fund inheritance in order to inhabit the purported prophet’s apartment, and Beha bids us wrestle well with the indefiniteness of Eddie’s “conversion”: is Nash (to use his mother’s appellation) “a con man” who got her son “involved in some kind of cult,” or is he a NYC John the Baptist? When Eddie “forces” his millions on Nash, who “didn’t even want it,” does this lead the preacher into perdition? Does it purify Eddie’s battered heart? Beha keeps his answers in the bullpen.

The apocalyptic frame gains momentum. Comically, this happens through the very logic of repetition and recognition tied to the advertisements that Eddie buys the prophet. What would you change if you knew it was all going to end? The billboard, complete with a blown-up Nash’s face, shouts the question to the paradigmatic City of Man. Even though the prophet disappears with Eddie’s inherited, misbegotten money, each of the novel’s threads terminates on November 1st—fulfilling Nash’s predictions. On that day and no other, for instance, the dementia-driven Frank falls in front of moving traffic. Incredibly—and this scene does strain credulity—Eddie, now an EMT, is the one on call. “What would you change?” his dad asks, gasping for the oxygen mask, “If you knew it was all going to”—but he swallows forever the final word.

In his Problem of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin contends that through Dostoevsky’s dialogic imagination, what unfolds in his novels is not a single-voiced tract but “a world of consciousnesses mutually illuminating one another.” And yet, from out of this polyphony:

Dostoevsky seeks the highest and most authoritative orientation, and . . . the image of Christ represents for him the resolution of ideological quests. This image or this highest voice must crown the world of voices, must organize and subdue it.

In the poetics of The Index, no one voice emerges from the polyphony to point the way out of our problems. This should not come as a surprise in a novel whose title announces destruction and not creation as its anthem. The pervasive pessimism of Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Henry James’ morality of infinite multifariousness are echoed throughout the book: every prospectively good deed is prospectively—but not necessarily—underwritten by gullibility, dubious self-interest, and blatant crime.

Take Justin, the young black hedge funder whose educational and professional successes were “bootstrapped” by the Doyles, givers of private school scholarships to kids relegated to rougher neighborhoods. Close to Mrs. Doyle, and lit by a complicated, lifelong attraction to her son Eddie, when Justin sees the Doyle empire eking out he gives her insider trading advice. She acts on it in an entitled effort to ensure no end to the familial “lifestyle.” Their exchange will lead to both of their imprisonments. Justin is no stranger to insider trading; he pursued it during his earlier years in finance in part as a means to philanthropize his old neighborhood and in part because “it was difficult to stop once he’d started.” In one of the novel’s few balks, he walks out the moral too obviously: “I’ve been trying to do some good with that money . . . But no amount of good will change where it came from.”

Even when he admits his double-dealings, Justin doesn’t conceive of his dishonesty as an actual wrong. As he says, on the eve of imprisonment, to the pastor of his childhood church: “I can’t pretend to believe in something I don’t believe, not if being on the right path means living honestly.” In a novel of deceits his earnestness is refreshing, but raw mere sincerity in a poor guiding star. As Jacques Maritain argues in The Dream of Descartes, “many diverse states of mind, and of a greater or less degree of integrity, can find themselves compatible with sincerity.” The coldest criminal can be utterly earnest.

If it leaves us undeceived as to the various vanities by which we wage our ambitions, the novel offers little re-enchantment for the weary. Still, although our secular age is often characterized as disenchanted, it is precisely this disenchantment that incites intensive attempts—some of them misguided, some perilous—to re-enter a world charged with grandeur. In this sense Sam’s wife Lucy’s reliance on a self-styled psychic rings true. Leveled by symptoms of which she later learns to be Lyme disease, finding no answers from doctor after doctor, Lucy succumbs to the do-it-yourself religion of Clara Lune (is she affiliated with the moon, or is she a sophistic lunatic?), a “Doctor of all doctors” who can fix “marriage problems” and strange sickness, who can “bring the SPIRIT OF RELEASE and CONTROL your every affair and dealings.” The woman satisfies spiritually in that she “didn’t force [Lucy] to view her problems as originating from within.” Superstitious mystification serves as a surrogate for that wholly Other disruption that alone can slake the jonesing once-secularist, who soon starts smoking dope daily as a supplement to her psychic sessions.

When spirituality and religiosity are Indexed, people tend to do a lot of feeling. In his Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff wrote that “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.” The Index documents well the replacement of religion with a sort of spirituality-therapy, even as religion’s therapeutic turn leaves the novel with an unnerving lightness of being.

Asked about the purported “secularity” of the novel as a genre, Beha said that yes, insofar as secular means “mundane,” the novel’s main concern has always been “the representation of the mundane world in which individuals live, love, suffer and die. And yet the novelist is a person “for whom secularism” as an all-encompassing ideology “presents a problem.” As Eddie intuits, Christ delivers the believer from a compartmentalized existence by binding our mundane hours to what St. Paul calls “the fullness of time”—when “God sent his son” (Galatians 4:4). This meditation on time ticks again at the novel’s end, when we are immersed into the consciousness of Frank Doyle, the pigheaded partial-allegory of a passing age whose final hours are maybe the most moving in the novel.

On his deathbed, regretting his former stupidities, Frank pines for “a recording angel” who will stenograph his great, unwritten book, “but there was not. Nothing would be returned to us in the fullness of time, because time had no fullness,” he muses, demystified. Then he hears his daughter Margo’s voice at his bedside. I’m here, she says, though he knows not who she is. He sees her poetry notebook on her lap, sees her pen, “poised to write. She was the great recording angel,” he concludes, reversing his recent disillusionment. As the Book of Malachi reveals, the recording angel presents God “a book of remembrance . . . written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name” (3:16). Beha’s rendering mingles Frank’s habitual worldliness with language that chases after the unseen. His belief in the existence of a recording angel seems, on the novel’s last page, more important than the reader’s ironical understanding that he is “really” seeing Margot.

But if this belief delivers him from secular time, leading him into a sequence wherein “Nothing would ever be lost,” wherein “each moment would last forever, even this one,” we are left uncertain as to the significance of this saved time. Who is this angel and what is he saving Frank into? Is this Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, who “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet” where “we perceive a chain of events”? Is this the novel’s veiled affiliation with St. John Henry Newman’s sense that literature is largely a “record of man in rebellion”—that the novelist can record but not redeem, can witness but cannot intervene in our accumulated cruelties? Maybe this is why Frank’s ruthless efforts to save himself come up short, for the novel ends mid-sentence, before he can complete the wishful thought that his life would be redeemed by being recorded.

When Waxworth destroys the self-made image which won him fifteen minutes of fame, his boss Blakeman dispenses cynical advice: “Everyone loves a redemption story.” Skeptical of the strictures of secularity, Beha nonetheless refuses to grant us the certainty of salvation. He does, however, gives plenty of play to all souls’ groaning to be saved, albeit without the transcendent immediacy of his first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder?, which numbered Beha among that remnant of living novelists who can render the numinous with novelistic fullness. Index, which made the National Book Award longlist, is an ambitious, important book: proof that the novel can yet mediate our deepest concerns, calling us to meditate on the truths that fiction tells us so thickly. Here’s three cheers for Beha’s next novel, in good faith that he’ll pitch with such grace that our mouths with fall agape again at his characters’ capax Dei.


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About Joshua Hren 1 Article
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, America, and LOGOS. Joshua's books include Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy (Cascade 2018), 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).

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