What Happened to Sophie Wilder
by Christopher R. Beha
Tin House; 255 p.
Walk into most bookstores of distinction and you’ll find a populous Graham Greene section; the reasons for this are obvious. His novels still inspire considerable discussion and devotion, but Greene’s hand in today’s literature is harder to identify. One can easily detect the influence of the likes of O’Connor, Beckett, or Faulkner on contemporary fiction; traces of Greene’s influence are more elusive. Robert Bingham’s Lightning on the Sun blended a moral urgency with a globetrotting plot, and pulled off a distinctly Greene-esque blend of philosophy and action. William Gibson’s Blue Ant novels could be seen as modern-day descendants of Greene’s “entertainments” — smart, wry thrillers with an enduring ambiguity. And it’s hard to read Christopher R. Beha’s novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder without Greene’s The End of the Affair coming to mind. As in Greene’s novel, Beha’s characters wrestle with Catholicism, their own desires, and impossible moral choices. It’s a deeply readable, very contemporary take on an enduring debate.
As the novel opens, Charlie Blakeman, one of its two central figures, is reunited with Sophie Wilder, an old flame. Both are writers: Charlie finds himself running with a relatively pretentious crowd of writers and critics in Greenwich Village, while Sophie has become reclusive following a critically beloved collection. In alternating chapters, what ultimately brought Sophie to that meeting is gradually revealed: the dissolution of her marriage, and her discovery of her husband’s estranged father, now dying of cancer in a Lower East Side walk-up. Charlie, too, looks back over his past and approaches Sophie in fits and starts. As Ben Lerner does in his recent Leaving the Atocha Station, Beha manages to make the life of a self-obsessed writer compelling. And like Martin Amis’s recent The Pregnant Widow, Beha is here looking at the ways in which intellectual pursuits and religious devotion overlap — and sometimes collide.
Much of the tension here comes from Sophie’s staunch Catholicism, which she adopts not long after her college-era relationship with Charlie ends. Given the novel’s largely secular-intellectual milieu, her faith bewilders many of the people she encounters. (Her husband-to-be is left flummoxed in one scene where, after converting, she points out that, for her, premarital sex is no longer permitted.) Though this isn’t the only tension present here: Sophie’s decision to care for her father-in-law, and lie to authorities about the nature of their relationship, leads to a certain subtle suspense that runs throughout most of their scenes together.
There’s a tendency among many in literary and artistic circles to treat faith as something deeply alien; here, Beha pushes those contradictions to the forefront of the novel. It’s an admirable quality; like Adam Levin’s The Instructions, Beha’s novel takes faith seriously, and uses that engagement to pose a series of unanswerable questions. The final scene, offering an image of redemption in the face of contradictory evidence, achieves an impressive between intellectual rigor and unadorned faith.
The climaxes of both of the novel’s parallel narratives hinge on Sophie’s relationship with Catholicism, and how her convictions evolve when tested. It’s difficult to discuss those climaxes without ruining either of them; without revealing too much, I will say that it could be argued that they hinge upon her inability to live according to them, the gulf between faith and action spilling over into tragedy. Alternately, Beha may be using both to suggest that Sophie’s religiosity is, perhaps, the only correct method of interacting with the world — that certain actions prove the concept of humanity as inherently sinful, even when they strive towards acts considered “good.” Is this inconsistency, or do Sophie’s actions ultimately confirm her point of view? This is a book seemingly designed to prompt discussion and debate, both for the actions of his characters and for the philosophies that they espouse.