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Other Than Faith

What Happened to Sophie Wilder

By Christopher R. Beha
Tin House, 2012

How Should a Person Be?

By Sheila Heti
Henry Holt and Co, 2012

A public referendum on religious belief has played out for the past decade, and one element of it that’s rarely discussed is the average age of the most vocal participants debating whether or not God exists. Admitting the presence of a few Youngish Turks, the most passionate spokespeople—eminences like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens—have tended to be well on the other side of fifty. The truth may be that, for all their heat, the so-called God Debates are a generational phenomenon.

My parents’ generation, I should say, and maybe that’s the catch. For those like myself, raised in a secular suburbia where the dismissal of religious faith is so commonplace that it has become rather smugly bourgeois, evangelizing the merits of atheism makes no more sense than touting the superiority of cell phones to landlines. It’s as much a part of the environment as the nitrogen in the air we breathe.

This is a matter of transmission. For many, being liberated of the deadwood of religion is only beneficial: the way forward has fewer obstacles. No more time or effort need be expended in casting aside old superstitious systems. I have always marveled at those people, as I am of the kind for whom any blank space signifies a void. From this perspective, one generation’s renunciation passes down to the next as a kind of negative inheritance, which takes the form of ingrained disillusion; skepticism and mistrust are imbibed simultaneously with knowledge of the things they counteract. So with all sources of resistance or rebellion removed from the outset, the young thinker’s main struggle is against an enveloping absence, like something caught in the sticky lines of a spider web.

Fiction writers may experience this condition most acutely, because the mainstreaming of atheism has coincided with the mainstreaming of postmodernism, or at least elements of it. One of the prerequisites of the solemn work of writing literary fiction now seems to be writing in a way that undermines the authority of literary fiction—either by commenting on the artificiality of the creation or simply by contracting the authorial eye so that its vision doesn’t exceed the author’s own individual experiences. Just as discredited as God is the god-like authorial persona. This can leave writers with a lot to instinctually disbelieve and comparatively little to invest in.

Yet a dispossessed writer is still prone to soul-searching even if the word “soul” has been deprived of its meaning. What form can that search take, and what form can the books take that describe it? For some young fiction writers, who are hoping to retrieve or re-examine the verities that decades of postmodernism have ground to dust, God isn’t a pole from which they (or their characters) are magnetically drawn and repelled. Rather, God—and the concept of revealed faith—exists as a fabled buried treasure lying somewhere under the sediment of disavowal, with only a few unreliable clues to its location. There is something poignant and brave, then—and perhaps even foolhardy—when a writer tries to understand the discarded beliefs of his ancestors. He is searching without a compass.

Christopher R. Beha’s novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ostensibly about a woman who unexpectedly finds faith, only to discover that her belief is a burden rather than a gift. Sophie Wilder is a talented aspiring writer when she meets Charlie Blakeman in the creative writing class of their New England private college. Through shared books and long walks, the two push one another into lives as writers. But their relationship founders when Sophie sleeps with Charlie’s cousin. After they break up, Charlie hears about her doings only through friends and gossip—she publishes a critically successful collection of stories; she marries a seemingly bland college classmate named Tom; and, inexplicably, she converts to Catholicism.

Now, years later, Sophie has reappeared in Charlie’s life, abruptly showing up to a party in his Manhattan apartment. She seems to be separated—though not divorced—from her husband, and she declares that she has quit writing. She is clearly unhappy but she refuses to talk openly about the remainder of her past, and those details—as well as Sophie’s plans for her future—emerge gradually and tentatively over the course of the novel.

What is clear is that the origin of her distress is her Christianity and her feeling—again expressed tentatively—that she is either too sinful or too confused to adhere to her convictions. About her conversion, Beha is unequivocal; it has happened to her and is not reversible. Like many converts, Sophie was initially lured by books—“Tolle lege, a voice urged Augustine. Take up and read.” Her reading shifts something within her, and then one day she is overcome by what is later called “shocked grace”:

It is in the nature of what happened next that it can’t be conveyed in words. The few times Sophie tried to explain it later, even to herself, she fell back on cliché: something came over her; she walked out changed. It got closest to it to say that she was, for a time, occupied. After all her reading in the week leading up to that day, she thought of that occupying force as the Holy Spirit. But mostly she knew that it was something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor. Once it passed on, she knew that her very outline had been reshaped by it, that this reshaping had long been awaited though she hadn’t recognized as much. More than that, she knew that she wanted the feeling back. She would chase it forever if need be.

This is, like so much of the novel, a thoughtful, earnest, and unsatisfying passage. Beha will know as well as anybody that writers have been attempting to convey the event of religious conversion, by way of metaphors and other “conceits,” for thousands of years. It is something that can be expressed in words because it’s real, just as any other experience can be evoked through language. It is hard to grasp, when you read this scene, why Beha would be so quick to concede failure in this respect.

Yet this fundamental failure of imagination turns out to be part of the point of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Though the novel develops the outward reasons for Sophie’s despair—in a misbegotten act of altruism, she tried to care for Tom’s estranged and unsympathetic father as he dies from cancer—it makes almost no further attempts to explore the nature of her faith. Instead, the novel slides its emphasis to Charlie. That brief mention of St. Augustine was apt, because the book is ultimately less about Sophie’s religious experience than Charlie’s Augustinian confession.

Charlie is our narrator. When we meet him, he is stuck in a spiral of disaffection and self-defeating cynicism. He is sick of the “parties that occupied so much of my life,” which feature “impromptu readings of modern poetry that were at the same time ironic mockeries of the sort of party where such impromptu readings might genuinely occur.”

He was happiest during college on his walks with Sophie, when the promise of writing was all before them and they shared, he says, striking the bittersweet Augustinian note, “the belief that our desires could never disappoint us so long as we remained true to them.” Life itself could be found in the glory of capturing it on the page. (The irony is that Beha’s best writing comes when he describes the hopes that Charlie later loses faith in, just as St. Augustine is at his most ruggedly rhapsodic about the sinful pleasures he intends to denounce.) But after his falling out with Sophie he feels infected by emptiness. The person he was writing for, he realizes, is absent.

The novel Charlie finally published now fills him with shame and self-loathing. In one scene, Sophie looks around a party and mercilessly identifies the people Charlie used for his book. He reflects,

I’d written exactly the kind of book that Sophie hated so much: real-life experience thrown down on the page without any transformation. I’d started it after giving up on the enormous, unwieldy thing I’d been working on since meeting her, the novel that had grown out of our hours of writing and talking together. By the time I abandoned that other work and started over, I was tired of invention. I’d exhausted my imagination.

This is an awfully strong dose of meta-commentary, since Charlie’s initials, we are pointedly shown, are the same as Beha’s, and both are writers trying to understand Sophie Wilder. In essence, Beha is explaining the intrinsic weakness of the very book that he’s writing. The pledge that accompanies his confession is that, aware of the insecure navel-gazing that is central to so much autobiographical fiction, he will transcend such traps by casting deep into Sophie’s story, which contains richer material than the minor arc of Charlie’s solipsistic rise and fall.

Yet a deep-seated distrust of solid truth—both in the theological and literary sense—impinges on these leaps into Sophie’s consciousness. She’s not the only one who can’t convey her religious experience in words; Charlie, and by extension Beha, seem equally at a loss. Late in the novel Charlie happens on The Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. There he watches a choir of nuns singing Gregorian chants:

I remembered a time in college when Gregorian chant had been common background music for dorm room study. It was soothing, even inspiring, but it was also popular as an ironic statement on our artificial surroundings. We sat in medieval turrets, in monastic solitude, reading some gloss on Derrida. What I witnessed at the abbey that morning was entirely different. It was happening right in front of me, emanating not from weak computer speakers but from the other side of that metal divide. There wasn’t a hint of irony to it, no sense of an outdated habit being cultivated or an endangered art being preserved. They sang as if it was simply the best way they knew of being in the world.

This is the extent of the description of this moment, and it epitomizes the novel, with its sense of forlorn yearning and almost stupefied speechlessness in the face of the unfamiliar. Charlie literally does not know how to evoke the scene before him except to say that it is not ironic. His route to affirmation is by negating a negation, like someone who can only go to the right through a compulsive series of left turns.

It’s a testament to Beha’s talents as a dramatist that What Happened to Sophie Wilder remains an intriguing and emotionally stirring book despite its palpable omissions. The characters are sympathetically drawn and enough secrets about them are withheld that by its closing chapters the novel has built up an impressive amount of suspense.

But in the end, the book is very gray. At no point does Sophie’s faith bring her joy or comfort or strength or direction. Beha imagines it purely as a source of pain—as something that briefly came upon her but has since existed only as an unyielding absence. For all the novel’s honest struggles, and its almost spiritual longing for something real to hold on to, it keeps being drawn back to emptiness.

Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an even more direct work of confession; though, like Beha’s book, it is issued by a writer who does not claim the vantage-point of absolution or salvation. Heti herself, or some lightly fictionalized double, is the book’s narrator and main character. She is a thirty-something playwright who is tormented by her inability to figure out the right way to live, or even the right way to think about living.

Early on, Sheila says to herself, “It’s time to stop asking questions of other people. It is time to just go in a cocoon and spin your soul.” But like Augustine obdurately saying “tomorrow, tomorrow” to his own deliverance, she is too disgusted by what she finds within herself to show it to the world: “There was something wrong inside me, something ugly, which I didn’t want anyone to see, which would contaminate everything I would ever do.”

Instead she decides to abandon herself to the hissing cauldron of lust that is Carthage (or, in Sheila’s case, Toronto). She claims that her goal is to be a celebrity, so that she will be liked by people for what she appears to be rather than for who she is (later, without any clearer agenda, she determines that the way to justify her ugliness is to become “Important”). She notes that being skillful at giving oral sex is one of the talents most valued in her time, so she takes up with a repugnant, controlling boyfriend and plies her craft. Most of all, she decides that she will take her identity and opinions from the people around her, so she begins to tape-record her conversations with friends.

The breathless promotional material that accompanied How Should a Person Be? announces that the transcribed conversations in the book are actual conversations, published verbatim, between Heti and her friends, who are each represented by mirrors of themselves in the novel. (In What Happened to Sophie Wilder, some scenes in the novel that Charlie wrote and came to detest “were nearly word-by-word transcriptions of stoned conversations” from his apartment parties.) Many of the conversations are with Sheila’s best friend Margaux, a gifted painter who is the deeper yin to Sheila’s shallow yang. While Sheila procrastinates over a play she’s been commissioned to write and vaguely aspires to grandiose planes of fame and importance, Margaux works steadily and cheerfully with little care what people think of her painting, and is duly rewarded with modest art-world recognition and international showings.

But Sheila’s insistence on tape-recording Margaux makes her friend feel used, and the crisis of the novel is the falling out between them. Berating herself after the split, Sheila says,

I had come too close and hurt her—killed whatever in Margaux made art, whatever allowed her to tell herself that it was all right to be a painter in the face of all doubts. I knew why and how it had happened. Instead of sitting down and writing my play with my words—using my imagination, pulling up the words from the solitude and privacy of my soul—I had used her words, stolen what was hers. I had plagiarized her being and mixed it up with the ugliness that was mine! Then she had looked into it and, like looking in a funhouse mirror, believed the decadent, narcissistic person she saw was her—when really it was me. Unwilling to be naked, I had made her naked instead. I had not worked hard or at all.

“I had cheated,” Sheila concludes. Once again, as though it were part of the author’s personal confession, we have a novel that makes a point of diagnosing its own faults. It’s not only that Heti has herself “cheated” by purloining her friends’ conversations; it’s that for most of the book, the very premise is a lie. Sheila says that she is going to try to learn how a person should be—and then she does not try. The only honest thing about her evasions—her vamping about hoping to become a celebrity or a virtuoso at giving blow-jobs—is how transparently dishonest she is about them. Hundreds of pages of How Should a Person Be? seem to be about watching Sheila not work hard or at all.

It’s therefore difficult to find even the truthful searching quality that dignifies a flawed book like Beha’s. It is not just that the flesh is weak, but that the spirit is unwilling. Among the two, the question mark is on the wrong novel: Beha cares about what happened to Sophie Wilder, but does not seem to know; Heti is only pretending to inquire into how a person should be, and, in the idealized character of Margaux, seems to have had her answer from the beginning.

Most frustrating about the novel is the comparative energy and imagination Heti puts into making broad pronouncements about the lostness of her generation. She makes the point explicitly that her conceptions of religious faith were drilled out of her in childhood:

People say there is no direction to evolution—upward to any height; that the proper metaphor is the outward webbing of a bush, not the striving of a tree toward the heavens. When we were children, we would lift our arms to the sky as high as we could—as tall as we could make ourselves—stretch, stretch, stretch! When I look back on those gym classes and how we all stretched ourselves to be as tall as the tallest tree, I can’t help but think, Those were the most religious moments of my life.

She writes that she has the strange habit of writing the word “soul” as “sould,” and the typo is a reminder that at some point in time she must have sold her soul, but she doesn’t know when, or why, or to whom. Elsewhere, ironically, she turns to the Bible itself to find her metaphor for dispossession, comparing her generation to the ancient Jews who were doomed to wander the desert, worship false idols, and then continue their wandering in punishment. “There is no way we can be forgiven,” Sheila says, and then gives the reason she expects to be forgiven,

except to say: we did not even know how to talk to our own mothers. We were left with our friends, as lost as we were. We were left with ourselves, as lost as our friends—sheep with no shepherd, sheared of whatever once kept us warm. We couldn’t even really believe that the sheep that came before us were warmed by their own wool. It all seemed so improbable and far away.

The passages come to seem like so much excuse-making. One of the oddest features of self-absorption is the refusal to accept self-absorption’s logical conclusion—that we are alone with ourselves and therefore responsible for our own lives. Instead, an unshakeable paradox clings to fiction from the age of second-hand atheism—its feeling of bereftness. To be bereft, to be helpless, means to have been abandoned, and so the young intellectual is so often stuck blaming his plight on the abandonment of something he has never once believed in.

This feeling informs both Beha’s and Heti’s novels, which cannot stop referring back to themselves in an ongoing loop—to their own weaknesses, and their efforts to surpass them, and the reasons those weaknesses persist. Because it is something that I recognize intimately, even the books’ flaws fascinated and provoked me. But I fear the novels depend a great deal on the sympathy of identification. Both fairly plead for the reader’s understanding and forgiveness.

At the end of How Should a Person Be? Sheila and Margaux reconcile and Sheila drops some of her pretensions to earthly transcendence. If she is ugly, if she is doomed, that is okay because her friends love her. “Who cares?” she asks, and feels liberated. The novel concludes with a scene in which Margaux and another artist friend play squash. As Sheila watches them, she realizes that neither of her friends know the rules to the game—they are just running around and slamming the ball, giving it everything they have even from their handicapped position of ignorance. The scene is very touching and plaintive, in itself and in the recognition of what Heti is doing. For she has provided not only a diagnosis of her novel’s failings but, in the end, a rationale for why they were inescapable.

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Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and is an editor at Open Letters Monthly