A Review: What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha
In an early episode of the HBO show Girls, one character encourages another to have sex with her touchy-feely, 60-something-year-old boss. Because it would “make a good story.”
Sensationalist (I almost wrote sensualist) Internet writer Marie Calloway wrote a now-infamous story for Muumuu House about arranging an affair with a writer she admired. What matters, less than the story, is the brouhaha that ensued. Is this feminism? Is it just bad writing? Did she overshare? How do we judge this new age of Internet Confession? The Nation’s Miriam Markowitz tweeted, “Note to younger women: Fuck whomever you want, perhaps even in private. Write something smart. Then maybe I’ll care.” To which Emily Gould responded, “making art (even bad art) out of your experience actually *is* a daring feminist act, regardless of intent.”
In 2008, Christopher Hitchens was voluntarily waterboarded so he could write about this form of torture for a Vanity Fair story. So he could know some form of the truth.
How far should a writer go for a story?
In his debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Christopher Beha (an associate editor at Harper’s) throws together two writers and painstakingly decides what might happen when one, Sophie Wilder herself, craves little more than a story and the other, Charlie Blakeman, our narrator, wants nothing more than Sophie. Sophie, the writer who tells Charlie that “the semi-famous visiting novelist who’d taught [their] workshop in the fall had kissed her during office hours” and “wanted her to visit him in New York.” Sophie, who, like the Girls character, thinks that this visit “‘would make a great story.’” We soon learn that she never visited. He never kissed her. The story is a story is a story is a story.
The novel divides its chapters in two, a balance between past and present, so the relationship between the two main characters unravels in a narrative outside of time—a subtle taunting from Beha: nanny nanny boo-boo, look what writing can do. Present-day Charlie remembers meeting college-age Sophie. The two in the present-day reminisce about their pasts, about the way they wrote, about “the particular brand of unhappiness” they felt in those days. The past reveals reasons for present-day distance. The author takes full advantage of his form and elides time into time; by the end of the novel, we are unsure what was present and what past, what has happened and what was the characters’ fictions. Charlie’s cousin insists, “I was always famous … even when no one had heard of me.” An old joke that touches on the nature of storytelling, which is, in turn, this novel’s story: if I repeat a fiction over and over again, does it eventually become true?
I could par down Beha’s novel and suggest it is, primarily, writing about writing, about the lines writers draw—or do not draw—between their real lives and their paper lives. But, in the novel, the lines and the distinctions and the delicacy of these extend far beyond the idea of writing (or even the act of it). They extend to all the lines of our lives: how to use religion, where does love come from, when does friendship end, is happiness the absence of unhappiness, can death be overcome. Every belief, every decision, is a line drawn, and, in a quick 256 pages, we watch the characters grow up, learn to draw. As Charlie says, “This is how my writing went … beginning with great excitement and hopefulness that survived for a page or two despite growing disorientation. By page six I would open my eyes in the fear that I had become completely lost.”
The novel begins clearly enough and, yes, excited and, yes, hopeful. By the end, I wasn’t sure if my eyes or open or closed. By the end, I wasn’t sure what was Beha’s story, what was Sophie’s story, what was Charlie’s story. It takes a brave writer to let his characters run away with the narrative, but Beha has somehow managed to write the freest characters I have encountered in a long time. Free as though they may write their way off the page—and do seem to consider it. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a conscious novel: conscious of its moments, conscious of its form, conscious of its words. At times, this may come across as predictable. A reader may say, “Sure, it’s good. For a ‘first novel.’” But keep going. The tensions, subtle, exist less between Sophie and Charlie, less between the characters and the words, but are actually, most potently, within the characters themselves. Watch Sophie’s struggle with reclaiming Christianity. Watch how she changes.
This passage may seem obvious enough, at first: two writers, dreaming they can change reality with words—
“Do you really have to leave?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I wish things could be different.”
She leaned over the bed to kiss me.
“Then write it different.”
But here’s the thing: Beha took the stereotypical first novel, filled with autobiography, self-referentiality, hyper-consciousness, and he wrote it different.
* * *
What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha
Tin House Books, June 2012
ISBN 9781935639312. 256 pp.