Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

Why Humans Self-Destruct

(Candice Estep/Getty Images)
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, by Christopher Beha (Tin House, 528 pp., $27.95)

Take a look at the novels on your shelves, with particular attention to their titles. Are some titles clearly better than others? (If so, why?) Do they sort into various “genres”? Can titles of books from the 1960s, say, be distinguished in the aggregate from titles of books published in the last ten years, topical allusions aside? And why has so little attention been paid to the art, the business, the psychology of titling? We do have, thankfully, Gary Dexter’s Why Not Catch-21? (very funny, with an emphasis on how the sausage is made). But there is so much more to investigate.

It was in the first decade of the 21st century that I became aware of what seemed to me to be a new fashion in titling novels, though it may have started earlier. (If given a MacArthur Fellowship, I could find out precisely when this trend started.) The trick was to attach to a novel a title that didn’t sound novelistic: “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” for instance, or “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” My immediate reaction to such titles is negative; they seem dreadfully twee. If the author was one I had read with pleasure in the past, I would provisionally override that judgment; otherwise I’d conclude, “This isn’t for me.”

I’ve been waiting roughly six years for Christopher Beha’s third novel, so I wasn’t unduly dismayed when it appeared under the title “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.” And when I went to the novel’s two epigraphs, I saw that — despite the title’s superficial resemblance to those mentioned above — Beha was doing something different. The first epigraph, taken from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, gives us the source of the title: “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hit batsmen, wild pitches, balks, and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.” The second epigraph is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground: “I agree that two times two is four is an excellent thing; but if we’re going to start praising everything, then two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing.”

With his title, Beha is doing two things at once. First, he is telling us bluntly what the novel is about, as Balzac did with Lost Illusions (one of the books that fed into Beha’s novel). I’m not giving anything away when I quote from page 497, on which one of the protagonists muses:

But why? . . . That is, why do we have to keep getting things wrong? If we really learned from our mistakes, shouldn’t we make fewer all the time? We weren’t just occasionally irrational. Something in us wanted to be irrational. Something wanted, perhaps, to be wrong.

The course of the entire novel, in which all seven of the principal characters self-destruct to a greater or lesser degree, is apparent from the beginning. And yet at the same time, oddly enough, Beha’s title (given context by the first epigraph) is very funny, as is the story that unfolds from it. That phrase, “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts,” is at once comical and uncannily diagnostic of our condition, inviting us to think of balks and wild pitches alongside what used to be called “original sin.” As Saint Paul wrote, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

Like Lost Illusions, Beha’s novel features a “young man from the provinces,” Sam Waxworth, who made a name for himself when “his political projection system had correctly predicted the exact count of the [2008] electoral college vote and the outcome of every Senate, House, and gubernatorial race.” In the spring of 2009, Sam is offered a job at The Interviewer, a hip magazine in New York. He moves from Madison, Wis., to the city; his wife, Lucy, will join him in the summer.

Sam is an attractive character despite his manifest flaws. “He tried to attend to the facticity of things. The world, in Waxworth’s view, was a knowable place, once you stripped away the dead tradition and wishful thinking built up over millennia of misunderstanding.” If there’s monumental arrogance in his outlook, as there surely is, there’s also a genuine desire to know, to understand.

His foil in the novel is Frank Doyle, a longtime columnist at the New York Herald (an obvious stand-in for the Times). Like Sam, he is at once appealing (immensely so, in his case) and deeply flawed. He is also, among other things, a passionate baseball fan whose early books on that subject Sam loved as a boy, before discovering the satisfactions of a data-driven understanding of the game (anathema to Frank, of course). A stalwart liberal who shifted right and fiercely supported the war in Iraq, Frank lost his job at the Herald during the previous baseball season, when — invited up to the broadcasting booth at a Mets game, where he was a familiar figure — he made several racist jokes on-air.

If Sam and Frank are the most emblematic of the principal characters, the others are all rendered with care: Lucy, who seems the least culpable of the lot; Frank’s wife, Kit, the daughter of a financial baron and herself a formidable figure on Wall Street; the Doyles’ son, Eddie, who is back from service in Iraq; their daughter, Margo, who in her early twenties has taken leave from a grad program in literature; and Justin Price, who came into the Doyles’ orbit as an African-American scholarship student at St. Albert’s, the private school Eddie attended, and who spent much of his growing-up time at their house before entering the world of high-stakes investment himself and achieving, in his early thirties, such wealth that he is now primarily occupied with philanthropy.

We might add one more to this list: an enigmatic street preacher, Herman Nash, who, on the very day Sam arrived in New York, “stood on the rim of the fountain at Washington Square and announced that the world was about to end” (on November 1, 2009, to be precise, at 10 p.m.). He certainly figures in the unfolding of the story, but we are not privy to his thoughts as we are with the other principal characters.

Even from a bare-bones summary, it must be clear how ambitious this novel is; no wonder it took a long time to write. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of its depiction of high finance (of which I’m utterly ignorant), but on subjects I do know something about (baseball, for instance, and literature), I can say that Beha writes with persuasive authority, all the more impressive because he seems to do it without the slightest strain. As someone who (since I was old enough to talk) has relished a good argument, I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in which there are so many delicious bits of exhilarating dialogue devoted to the sharp exchange of ideas — passages that lose none of their power even as we reflect on the terrible choices these very characters are making, right and left.

As the editor of Harper’s, Beha is particularly knowledgeable about what Balzac called “the arcana of journalism,” and the account — in this novel — of high-volume online journalism and the embattled realm of “print” is as depressing as it is accurate. (On page 115, I have a Post-it Note on which I wrote one ruefully admiring word: “Wow.”) But for all that, this novel isn’t remotely defeatist; on the contrary, its very existence testifies to a deep faith in the power of the word.

Beha’s first two novels, What Happened to Sophie Wilder and Arts & Entertainment, are set in the same world as The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. (St. Albert’s is mentioned in all three books, and characters that appeared in one book may figure briefly in another.) The three novels taken together do not constitute a “trilogy”; rather they are distinct episodes in Beha’s Comédie humaine. I hope that more will follow.

This article appears as “Lost Illusions” in the June 22, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.

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