What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a novel by Christopher R. Beha (Tin House Books)

The witty Martial is known for saying, “No one is more confidant than a bad poet.” But a young writer virtually has no choice but to take her talent seriously even before she knows if she has one. Her faith requires brashness – even while she is probably not as emotionally flexible as she thinks she is.

BehaCover.jpgHow may the first-time novelist go about addressing this situation as material without condescending to it? What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Chris Beha’s first novel, is narrated by Charlie Blakeman, a first-time novelist in his late 20’s whose published book “sank quietly from view.” The symmetry of Beha and Blakeman registers as an audacious challenge: the novelist wants to write a meritorious book, and the character wants to tell a story that improves on his mediocre rookie effort. Both of them succeed.

While in college, Charlie met and became the lover of Sophie Wilder, a willful, outspoken and apparently hugely talented writer and classmate whose tastes became his compass. Beha’s novel begins when Sophie turns up at a party in Manhattan after a five-year separation from Charlie. “What happened” to Sophie in the interim is one element of the story – but Charlie is speaking from a present moment that looks back on her return. There is foreboding from the outset that subtly suggests a maturing knowledge on Charlie’s part.

In a Book Forum interview last year, Stanley Cavell remarked, “The general idea about America, the colloquial, is that life is a set of problems, and you solve them. This represents a certain superficiality.” The attitude he describes puts me in mind of the droning competence and obligatory resolutions of American fiction. Paul Valéry said, “A distress that writes well is not as complete as one that keeps something of its ruin,” to which Maurice Blanchot appended, “But a distress that is poorly written merits the same reproach.” Chris Beha has retained something of Charlie’s ruin, with an emphasis on the something of. What happened to Sophie clearly has shaken him, but the impact is not made explicit for the reader’s relief. The impact is embedded in the cautiously restrained tone of his language. Charlie is young after all. His ruins have potential.

BehaBoyGirl.jpegAs workshop colleagues and bed-mates, Charlie and Sophie exchanged intimacies. Her parents had been killed in a car crash, and his father had died. But five years later, Sophie is reserved and circumspect. Some part of Charlie seems stranded in those earlier days when Sophie “became a touchstone against which I measured the passing time, my relationships, my writing, and found it all wanting. This wasn’t just nostalgia – though I might have idealized what we’d had, I didn’t want to recover the past. It was the incompleteness of it that haunted me. The story wasn’t finished.” But Sophie won’t or can’t complete the circle for him. When he says to her, “I wish things could be different,” she replies, “Then write it different.” And so, he does.

Reflecting on his first novel, Charlie says, “I’d written exactly the kind of book that Sophie hated so much: real-life experience thrown down on the page without any transformation.” But what does this “transformation” consist of? (Sophie has also published her short stories.) He also says, “What really happened does matter, even if we can only ever know it once it’s too late to do anything about it.” The narrative solution emerges from the juxtaposition of apparent incompatibilities: the memory of experience and the envisioning of possibility.

In this way, Charlie’s narrative has dual facets. The first recalls the distant and recent pasts, the second assembles an imagined life for Sophie. Recognizing that “I’d made a great mistake in thinking that I had special access to the part of Sophie that remained hidden from everyone else,” Charlie both more humbly accepts his limited knowledge and brazenly devises episodes to fill it in imaginatively.

Beha.jpgOnce this perspective and formal solution are set in place, Beha’s plotting takes over, though complexity of event isn’t one of this novel’s necessities, nor is depth of psychology. I hesitate to say very much about “what happens” to Sophie – yet even if I did, this would leave the reader to experience how Beha allows the inexplicable to inhabit Charlie’s rendition. It’s not easy to pull off, this balance between the engine of events and the inertia of unknowingness. This is the feel of reality in What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

In the novel’s sections that follow Sophie’s presumed life – her marriage to Tom O’Brien, the care of an ailing father-in-law, her growing affiliation as a Catholic – Charlie refers to himself in the third person (that is, if you accept that he is the narrator of those chapters). Here is a very brief excerpt:

“At school, her friends had taken Tom O’Brien for another diversion. Perhaps he had taken himself for as much when he sat down with her in the empty dining hall. Only Sophie had known that her break with Charlie was different this time. She had tested the limit, had always been testing, leaving and returning. Finally she’d broken through, and the limit was marked. But the act was irrevocable. She couldn’t remember after the fact why it had needed doing, but she had been sure when she’d done it. It was like a secret told in a dream that one struggles upon waking to recover.”

Some part of my reaction to the novel regards Charlie’s story as a sort of revenge, a manipulation of Sophie-as-material, a testing of another limit: the profane motivations of fiction, a world enthroned next to the one we think we live in. Sophie suffers from “the distance between herself and her own life.” Charlie’s tale may just be his tactic to close the frightening gap in order to save himself. After all, he had always believed – and perhaps still does -- that Sophie had invented him.

With plaintive tenderness, Chris Beha portrays young writers at "the age where it no longer made sense to talk about 'promise.'" His Charlie Blakeman is a well-written distress who may also have a hunch that he has scored this time around.

[Published June 12, 2012. 256 pages, $15.95 paperback original]

Cover more fiction please

I think this is the smartest piece around on Chris Beha's novel. Why magazine or newspaper book section editors accept and publish reviews that merely divulge plot is annoying to me. Review more fiction please. We can all use your kind of perspective. As an aside, I will just add that the Beha is a better written and more insightful novel about young writers than Lan Samantha Chan's recent novel about Iowa-type poets. Since you reviewed both of them, I wonder if you would comment?

Two novels about writers

There are agents who won't even consider representing a novel about writers, just as there are editors who find such novels specialized or insular. So when a strong one does get published, it's usually the case that the novel also works well for a mainstream reader. Both the Beha and the Chang novels function competently as generic fictions as well as portraits of writers' psyches. Chang's is more focused on the writerly life and perhaps somewhat more concrete in that way. The Beha has a rueful tone with a still relatively youthful outlook. The Chang hovers just a little above its characters and has some aspects of the romance novel. Beha's narrator may be making up half the story for much more obscured ends.

Re Apparent Incompatibilities

"Some part of my reaction to the novel regards Charlie’s story as a sort of revenge, a manipulation of Sophie-as-material, a testing of another limit: the profane motivations of fiction, a world enthroned next to the one we think we live in. Sophie suffers from 'the distance between herself and her own life.' ”

I like your hunches too. This novel sounds like a cracker. Thank you.

As it happens, on the other side of the planet, my lectures this last fortnight have touched on that "world" and that "distance" - and while the stakes might be a bit different here, their anxiety (the lessons of history) is that fiction has the power to supplant the world; I dial it back and remind them that these other motivations apply chiefly to the distance created between the self and the world...and in testing the dimensions of that, they may yet find that some limits are fictitious.

I think it's interesting

I think it's interesting that Wm Grimaldi blurbed the Beha novel. If the Ohlin novel he disparaged represents the blandness of fiction, then I suppose Beha's must be an example of higher achievement? I like SOPHIE WILDER a lot but as I think you suggest it is conventional in it's basic shape and voice. Definitely several steps up from Ohlin though.