Do Conversions Happen? Reading Christopher Beha

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Sophie_Wilder_Square.jpgI RECENTLY FINISHED Christopher Beha’s debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder. I’ve never felt myself so addressed by the conclusion of a book. Or maybe I should say conclusions, because the book ends on a sort of more-sophisticated version of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. But that doesn’t mean it’s juvenile. Far from it. Rather (and, here be spoilers, though I’ll try to keep it somewhat vague), the jarring irreconcilability of the novel’s two endings leaves the reader to choose: What happened to Sophie Wilder? What actually happened? A few characters in the novel ask this question in a pragmatic sort of way. But by the end, everything hangs on this question; not just in the world of the novel, but in the reader’s whole moral universe. The answer to the question is metaphysical, even supernatural. Because Sophie has a religious conversion (to Catholicism) midway through the book.

The book is narrated from two points of view, the chapters alternating between the two perspectives. One narrative is told in the first person, from Charlie Blakeman’s point of view; the other, Sophie’s point of view, is, tellingly, narrated about her in the third person. Someone is telling her story. Charlie’s point of view, by contrast, is immanentized, self-enclosed. The stories of the two characters intertwine and diverge throughout the course of the novel, and the reader assumes the two narratives will converge in the end . . . until they don’t. Then of course we have to revisit the novel, reorienting ourselves to the fact that the two stories are in fact irreconcilable. It took me awhile, and several implausible theories about how the two stories did reconcile, before I faced the hard truth. The ending of the story depends on whether one believes a genuine religious conversion has any moral bearing on a person’s life. Or whether one believes in the possibility of a genuine religious conversion at all. So the ending of the story does in fact depend on the reader. It’s a novel that manages to be postmodern, didactic, literary, and deeply religious all at the same time—an uncommon (to say the least) amalgamation in the milieu of contemporary literary fiction.

Beha’s book is indeed contemporary literary fiction. Those words, “contemporary literary fiction,” tend to provoke polarized responses (and I know which way readers of this blog probably tend to lean). While I happily inhabit both the world of literary fiction and the Great Books–type sensibility, I was a little wary of the novel for the first sixty or seventy pages because it was a book about writers and writing workshops and their solipsistic writers’ lives. (I was an English major. I can relate.) But the second half of the book blows this self-enclosed sort of writing wide open. Besides the fact that Exciting Things happen, the worldview that writing workshops and literary studies departments tend to generate and engender (“the truth is fiction,” e.g.) is practically machine-gunned down by the events in the later portion of the novel.

So the book is a sort of rebuke, but a subtle one. The ending opens onto the interrogative, but in an instructive way. I do believe that Beha’s novel is intended to be didactic in the best sense of the word. How one views Sophie’s conversion, and the series of decisions it entails, reveals to the reader his or her own moral comportment. Conversion, it turns out, leads to either the hard work of redemption, or despair. Whether a Christian story must end in redemption is beside the point. But could it? That’s the question Beha puts to us.

253 pp. paper $15.95

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 Jeff Reimer is a freelance editor and writer based in Newton, Kansas.

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