Christopher Beha's third book, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, is the kind of big, sweeping novel that I fell in love with when I really fell in love with reading. The title comes from a baseball term coined by Bill James. The so-called "self-destructive acts" designate the number of wild pitches, balks, hit batsmen, and errors committed by a pitcher. In other words, and to mix my sports terminology, it's the amount of unforced errors that a pitcher is prone to make. Beha's novel starts with baseball and very quickly, very dramatically widens the scope of his story to include finance, religion, ambition, the allure of New York, magazine publishing, marriage, race, and a few more grand themes.
Colum McCann had this to say about the book, and I agree: “A significant novel, beautifully crafted and deeply felt. Beha creates a high bonfire of our era's vanities. His work reminds me of the great Robert Stone and Theodore Dreiser. This is a novel to savor.”
I recently caught up with Christopher Beha on the phone to talk about The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.
Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review: So, how do you describe the book to people?
Christopher Beha: Well, the first thing is I think it's a family drama. The book is a lot of different things. But first and foremost, as I think about it, it's a story about a group of characters who collide during the spring/summer/fall of 2009, right after the financial collapse and during the first year of the Obama Administration. It’s about a family in New York—the Doyle family—and a couple of characters who are orbiting that family, during the family's decline and fall.
It gets described as a baseball book, but it's not really a baseball book. I mean there are elements.
I happened to be talking recently with Emily Nemens, the Paris Review editor, who also has a book out now called The Cactus League, which is set during spring training, and hers is a baseball book. It follows a baseball team. All of the characters are related to this baseball team. My book is baseball adjacent.
But you are a huge baseball fan.
I am. I am a big baseball fan, and I grew up very into the mythology of baseball. One of the main characters in the book is a Mets fan—because it just made sense for him for various reasons—but I grew up as a Yankees fan. And without getting too deeply into the weeds about this, I grew up during one of the rare periods when the Yankees were quite bad. This is during the mid to late 80s and the early 90s, which is one of the rare sustained periods of ineptitude for the Yankees. For that reason, as a young boy who's following this team—the Yankees obviously have this rich history anyway—but if I'd been growing up during the Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera era, I might have just embraced the team as it was. But I was growing up during the sort of Andy Hawkins era, if that means anything to people, and so instead I was really obsessed with 1950s baseball. I was obsessed with the history of the game. A lot of the mythology of the game meant a lot to me. And then, as I got older, it happened to be the time of the rise of Sabermetrics—Moneyball—people trying to think with a lot of statistical precision about baseball, which I also became very interested in.
So I got kind of interested in having a character who was a baseball statistician, which is one of the main characters, Sam Waxworth. And then I have another character whose name is Frank Doyle, who's a longtime political columnist but also a writer of baseball books that are very much of the more mythological, romantic vain. And one of the things that the book is about is the way that their worldviews come into contact with each other. But it's not to say that it's a schematic argument where one side is supposed to win. Because what was interesting to me about it was that this was a conflict within myself.
I think we're making it sound like a baseball book right now, but it really isn't. It really opens up into this full family drama. So do you have a favorite character in the book?
The character that in a lot of ways is closest to me is Margo Doyle—Frank Doyle's daughter, who is a graduate student in comparative literature. I did an MFA. I never even started on a literature PhD, but I often thought about it. And she is a would-be writer, a poet, which is what I wanted to do before I failed into novel writing instead. And she's in a lot of ways the character who's kind of caught between these two worldviews, or trying to figure out if there's some way that they can be synthesized, and so she's the one who, you know, if there is a kind of authorial stand-in, she's probably the closest one.
You don't see that coming initially. But by the time I had finished the book, I kind of felt like the book revolved around her.
Yeah, one of the things that I wanted to do—and it created some structural challenges for me as I went—the book has seven main characters. Seven characters, who, at different points, the story is told from their point of view. And each one has exactly the same number of chapters. The chapters are about the same length. So they each get almost exactly the same amount of time with the story being told from their perspective. And this is what I love so much about the great, wide-canvas 19th century novels by people like George Eliot and Tolstoy. Each character is given their turn of the book being about them, and there isn’t a sense that one of the characters’ plots just exists to serve the others as a kind of convenience.
So my hope is, while you're with any one character, you don't feel like, okay, we've got to get through this because this is necessary for what happens to this other character—but during that period it feels like this is their book. This is a book about Frank Doyle. This is a book about Margo Doyle. This is a book about Sam Waxworth, etc.
This is a big book, with a capital B.
I've written two previous novels that I think, combined, are shorter than this book; so it's not that every time I sit down I'm trying to pile up the pages. But I love long books. I love books that you can really get lost in, and you know this recent New York Times review said something about it being the kind of long book that takes over your life, and I was so moved by that because that's exactly what I love about long books and what I was hoping this would be.
But it’s also a thematically big book. It's not just a family drama. You basically tackle all the big themes in this book.
I studied as an undergrad with Joyce Carol Oates, which I was very lucky to do, and one thing she said to me—which was an appropriate boxing metaphor for Joyce—was never pull your punches. And I decided with this that I was just going to go for it. So anytime I was thinking, Should I take this thing on? I just said, Yes, I'm going to try. So, yeah, it gets into a lot of different themes, a lot of different material. I tried to create a plot that could hold all of that stuff, so it doesn't just feel like I'm randomly bringing in different ideas. But there was a sense that I wasn't ever going to worry about being too ambitious, or I wasn't going to say, Oh well, that doesn't fit in with this. But I would just go for it.
Riffing off the New York Times review, I would say that this is a book that I enjoyed the more I read it. It just drew me in in a way that maybe only a big book can do—all the characters seem very real to me, every single one of them.
That's another thing about the great 19th century realist novels that I love so much. What I really wanted, and what the best realist novelists do, is make you feel like these are real people, like it's lived experience. And that was, to be honest, the hardest thing about writing the book—which, you know, it took me six years to write this book. It's intricately plotted. There's a lot of stuff going on. As you say, there's a lot of thematic stuff going on—but really the reason it took so long is the work you need to do to make each of these characters feel like fully realized human beings.
I hate spoilers, but there's a quote—and I'm not really going to frame it—but it says, "What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?" Where did that come from? When did that come into the novel? Is that something that you started with?
[The quote] brings in this character who's actually not one of the point of view characters but is very important to the book. This character is a kind of street corner preacher who gives these sermons in Washington Square Park and Lower Manhattan and is predicting the end of the world. He played a very, very small role in the early drafts of the book, and his role gradually got larger, and eventually it became a kind of framework for the whole book. In the first pages of the book you learn that he's made this prediction about when the world is going to come to an end, and then the book—I think I can say without spoiling—the book ends just when we arrive at the moment of when his prediction was.
And what I also… to quote myself in the book—they're very skeptical obviously about someone predicting the apocalypse—but one of the characters says the mistake was not to think that the world could end but not to understand that it was always ending.
That was a great… that's a very powerful part. I highlighted that.
Thank you. And I do think there's something to that. Listen, we're living through a time that feels like end times to a great many people. But the truth is that the novel has to deal, even when it tries to do a large-scale social picture, it deals with the individual. And the thing about the individual is that for every individual their own end is the end of the world. And so when we’re living in these sort of collective periods of feeling like things are ending, it can be good to remember that, many times before, people have felt this way. People constantly feel like the world is coming to an end. And in a way it is. The question is how you create something new out of that, if you want to be kind of hopeful about it.
And then the other thing—to get back to the theme of statistical analysis versus storytelling—is that statistical analyses deals with the mass. They deal with the aggregate. So each individual case is only significant to the extent that it registers something when it gets put into the pile of all of the cases. But stories deal with one of one. And no matter how much of an outlier a particular individual story is to that individual, that is the story. It can't simply be wished away by saying, Well on average that doesn't happen.
You said at the beginning that the book is about a decline and fall of a family. So is the novel ultimately optimistic? Pessimistic? What do you think?
There’s the famous quote from Kafka to Max Brod. Max Brod says, So you do think there's hope? And Kafka says, Yes, there's endless hope, just not for us.
And I think that's what I would hope—is that, even if some of the characters in the book don't get their happy endings, for the reader the fact that there is some meaning that comes out of the experience they've gone through can be a hopeful experience.
I closed the book feeling hopeful, but I think just going back to the title, the characters in the novel are a bit self-destructive—and I guess we all are.
For sure. One of the things that, you know, just to return to the statistical analysis stuff, is there have long been various efforts to try and get human beings to make all their decisions on a rational basis. And we see it still now: this idea of nudging people and things like that, and if we could order society in such a way that people behave in their own rational self-interest that that would solve all sorts of problems. But part of the point of the book is that there is this self-destructive impulse in all people, that we just don't always behave in our own rational self-interest and no amount of social planning can do away with that. You know when I started writing the book, which was well before the 2016 election and obviously a great deal before what we're dealing with now, it seemed to some degree like an abstract point. But it has certainly come to seem more and more relevant—the fact that individual humans, and human society collectively, is not always going to behave in a way that is in our own best interest.
You are also the editor at Harper's.
Yes, and that's a big job. I have been the editor of Harper's Magazine for about eight months. Although I've worked there for about 12 years. It's a great job. I love it, but it is a challenge to do remotely. It's a job that, for a writer, is very stimulating because you spend a lot of time talking with great writers, which is just great—talking about language and talking about the granular decisions that a writer makes. I edit the fiction in the magazine, and just in the last few issues we've had a story by Stephen King; we had a story by Susan Choi, who just won the National Book Award; we had a story by Lisa Taddeo, who wrote Three Women. So I work on the fiction of some really remarkable heavyweight writers, which is a lot of fun and also very stimulating for a fiction writer.
Well, add you to the list because the book is great.
Thank you so much.
We talk to Christopher Beha about his masterful new novel "The Index of Self-Destructive Acts".