Sophie Wilder, revisited

I may have freaked Rohan Maitzen out a bit saying I had tons to say because of her post on Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, but I meant it when I said:

Perhaps the most fascinating—and clarifying—bit of Maitzen’s criticism of Sophie Wilder was focused on the religious element of the novel. Maitzen compares Beha’s treatment of religion and religious conversion unfavorably to George Eliot’s, which “offers…more to think about, more to work with.”

For instance, to me the account of Sophie’s religious experience was a reedy echo (at best) of Maggie Tulliver’s struggles with faith in The Mill on the Floss, where her passionate embrace of asceticism after reading Thomas à Kempis emerges from a rich narrative context including overt philosophical reflection on the needs religion meets for those who are suffering inexplicably. …Paradoxically, Eliot’s religion — that is, the religion of her characters — seems more solid than Beha’s, even though the tendency of her fiction is to replace sacred explanations with secular.

In doing so, she is of course making a decision about the fundamental split Beha’s dual narration leaves unresolved. Do I perhaps prefer Eliot because of that — because that is my own outlook? Was I impatient — bored, even — by Sophie’s religious struggles because they were left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world?

Maitzen wonders if she likes Eliot’s approach better because it conforms to her own preexisting religious opinions:

was my response to What Happened to Sophie Wilder a tacit form of resistance to Beha’s apparent openness not just to religion in general (or some kind of vaguely embraced spirituality) but to Catholicism in particular? I have been trying to think of another contemporary novel with a genuinely religious protagonist that I did like — and Gilead comes to mind, so I don’t think it’s as simple as my unconsciously rejecting faith as a literary premise.

It’s a question I have frequently asked myself: am I hopelessly prejudiced against literature that is open to religion? After all, I am probably the only reader ever to have hated Gilead (yes, really). And perhaps Maitzen has given me the key to answering this question for myself. It may be just that “religious struggles…left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world” are the only ones I enjoy. I’ve not finished The Mill on the Floss, but Maitzen’s description of Maggie Tulliver’s religious experiences suggests I would not enjoy those bits of it. The black box of mysticism forestalls any urge I might have to disagree with or even interrogate Sophie Wilder’s beliefs; they just are. And, being that she converts to Roman Catholicism and takes on the full dogma of that religion, I already know what those beliefs are—and, again, they just are. What she believes may make no sense to me, but her actions do, because they predictably follow from her beliefs—and I never have to walk through any attempts at nonmystical moral logicking with her that might rankle or irritate.

For similar reasons, I am not too bothered by what I agree is an unsatisfying passage covering Sophie’s conversion. Sam Sacks is not wrong that religious conversion is “real,” or in that it is “something that can be expressed in words because it’s real, just as any other experience can be evoked through language.” But expressing the fact of a conversion and expressing the religious experience of the conversion are two different things; I would not want Beha to attempt the latter. It is real only in that it is a real black box. That “George Eliot thinks religious belief needs explanation” may be her paradoxical weakness, for me.

So what was it that I did like so much? Well, “how the division into different narratives reflects different — perhaps incompatible — ideas about authorship and about purpose in narrative” was really the key for me. As George Michael Bluth might say, What Happened to Sophie Wilder is an awesome mind-puzzle. The resolution and tension of the two threads of narration and their conclusion is the whole point of the novel, for me, and the fun is all in slipping back and forth between them, deciding what is real-in-the-fiction (which fiction? see? awesome mind-puzzle!). It’s been too long for me to say there were no passages where the writing seemed “flat” or “forced” to me, but I can say it didn’t bother me at all that the characters were not the most substantial; their most important function for me was as concepts rather than people. And finally:

As for what actually happened to Sophie Wilder, well, my conclusion at the end was “not much,” or at least not much that the book made richly present to me.

I’ve always thought it was notable that the title of What Happened to Sophie Wilder does not include a question mark. The reader is not being asked, but told, and told two conflicting versions of what happened. Are we to decide which is true? Are we to believe both? Those are the questions that fascinate me—not the question of “what actually happened to Sophie?”

What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha

When I last wrote about What Happened to Sophie Wilder, I talked about how, despite some superficial trappings, it wasn’t a very conventional contemporary novel. That is to say, though it seemed like several things about the book should had gotten on my nerves, they didn’t at all.

Sophie herself is another example of this. In a badly written novel, she would be insufferable. She goes to college as a more fully-formed human being than I am in my late twenties, uncannily certain about who she is. And she is absurdly badass (under, of course, a very specific definition of badass). Clearly and coolly the best writer in their seminar, Sophie unofficially adopts the narrator of half of the novel, Charlie, who ends up with quite the reading list as the two discuss their taste in literature. When asked if she likes Nabokov, specifically Lolita, Sophie replies, “Sure…But I like Pale Fire better. And Ada. Some of the early Russian ones, too, like The Defense.” Men want her, and women want to be her!* (Again, under very specific definitions of “men” and “women.”)

So why is this girl, this child, allowed to be so brilliant without being offensive? Because she really is what she seems to be. She does know herself, is sure of herself—and it is uncanny. It makes her ethereal, not quite of this world. When they meet again later, Charlie recalls “the feeling I used to have watching Sophie from a distance on campus, when it seemed a travesty for her to be out in the world, interacting like a normal human being.” She’s not just a full-of-herself teenager—she is that too, but she’s also a bona fide, pretty low-key genius. (Ah, but why is that the case? That’s a whole other post!)

But if you feel jealous at all of Sophie, so grown-up at eighteen, book of short stories published straight out of college, remember that something happened to her. Before most of the events of the novel, she was orphaned, and just barely at the age of consent has a long-term affair with a much-older woman, who owns a bookstore. In Charlie’s mind, at least, this explains quite a bit about Sophie. But that’s not what I meant about what “happened”; the Sophie that goes off to college and meets Charlie is not the same Sophie who turns up again a decade later. This is the new Sophie, the Catholic Sophie—the Sophie who has “turned.”

One of the more interesting things about this Sophie is that, based on the half of the novel not narrated by Charlie but by a third person focused closely on Sophie, she clearly recognizes that she is in a new and different phase of her life now; she feels herself to be a different person. And she articulates, via the “I do not hope to turn again” T.S. Eliot reference, that this is not necessarily the last time she will change in this way. She doesn’t want to change again, but she knows she might—again, very wise of her—and this wisdom brings fear.

I would like to write more about Sophie’s conversion, though I’m not sure that I will. More likely is that “whole other post” I mentioned above—one that would address a subject very important to the novel that I have hardly mentioned at all, namely, fiction itself. Thanks so much to everyone who commented on the last post insisting it was at least as good as a “real review”; I hope you will continue to enjoy my less structured writing on the novel.

*Full disclosure: I had read all but The Defense when I was her age, too.

This is not a review: on What Happened to Sophie Wilder

You could say many things about Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder
that would make it sound very conventional, just another piece of program fiction, contemporary lit fic about the creative class in their 20s. It is, after all, a novel about a college romance between two aspiring writers, and its aftermath both for their relationship and for their careers.

You could also make it sound a different kind of conventional: a conversion story. Sophie’s and Charlie’s lives diverge because she converts to Catholicism. To paraphrase a quote that D.G. Myers has used in his rave on the novel, Sophie has turned. She has become a different person from the one who used to stay up all night reading and writing and fucking with Charlie.

Maybe the thing that makes Sophie Wilder seem unconventional is how seriously Beha takes these characters. Again, not in a conventional way—he doesn’t focus much on the quality of their art, except to note carefully that both recognize Sophie’s greater talent, and insofar as Charlie’s inadequacy still haunts him. He doesn’t think much of the hipness of the parties thrown by Charlie’s cousin, roommate, and fellow class member Max. What he does take very seriously is Sophie’s conversion, and what it actually means for everything that comes after.

And once more I feel compelled to say, it’s not what you think; it’s not that he’s saying she’s right (or wrong). It’s that her conversion is utterly real; she experiences what she can best describe as an occupation by the Holy Spirit, and nothing in her life is ever the same again. She is constantly aware of God and faith in ways that Charlie can barely fathom—and at the actual time of her conversion, he doesn’t even entertain the possibility that she actually believes.

Her morality is changed. Deep elements of her character are changed. Her values. Her relationships with herself, her friends, her future. If it seems hard to believe that the Sophie Wilder of Charlie’s Bildung is the same woman who will go on to marry an ultrabland lawyer with a past (and a girlfriend on the side; really he could be a bit character on Law and Order), it’s because she’s not the same woman.

Then again, she is the same woman, which is why Charlie still “knows” her years later (though he also doesn’t, and realizes he never has), and why she still gives him that old feeling, one of my favorite lines in the novel, that “If I could be just one thing now, that would be it: someone going somewhere with Sophie Wilder.”

This will not be the only thing I write about Sophie Wilder. I only gave you one measly quote! This one deserves a real review-review.