What does the classical epic of Roman grandeur and imperial design have to say to Americans in 2021? On the subject of...
Baffled by Success
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts
By Christopher Beha
(Tin House, 2020)
Decadence, as Ross Douthat has written, is more than a set of measurable social conditions. It’s also the more subjective experience of periods in history “when the characters—that is, us—have reached a moment of success that is also a moment of bafflement, a long-sought arrival that also feels like a dead end.”
This could be a description of any of Christopher Beha’s novels. His first, the masterful What Happened to Sophie Wilder, is a tale of religious and literary crisis and conversion. Arts & Entertainments, published in 2014, follows artists incapable of creating anything original, reduced to the eternal return of reality TV, internet gossip, and political pop art.
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, published in the chaos of 2020, looks back to the previous decade’s moment of societal upheaval: the 2008 financial crisis and the onset of the Great Recession. In doing so, Index takes a wider view than its tightly wound predecessors. It’s a thick work of realism that sprawls across a full baseball season and the minds of seven protagonists, many of them (as in other works by this author) in the orbit of the fictional St. Albert’s School, an elite Manhattan academy.
The decadence of a great nation is ripe material for a novelist. Yet the American literary scene is filled with authors of “autofiction” that focuses on highly personal circumstances, while more compelling writers like Marilynne Robinson rely on historical settings. Those who are hailed as novelists of twenty-first-century ennui—Michel Houellebecq and Sally Rooney chief among them—share something important: they’re not Americans and, in their accounts of sexual, social, and professional malaise, they don’t write about the United States.
Beha, then, may be the most astute American chronicler of millennial decadence. Characters in The Index of Self-Destructive Acts are haunted by the sense that they might have come onstage at the end of something. “The only certainty,” one of them thinks early on, “seemed to be that things could not go on as they did before. Yet that was exactly what they did.” Another character has worked for two decades on a book questioning whether the post–Cold War liberal order has any great purpose left to offer.
The novel opens in March 2009 as any story about New York–fed ambitions should: with the arrival of “a young man from the provinces.” Sam Waxworth is a Nate Silver–like statistical wunderkind who has already designed prediction models for baseball and elections. Now he has an opportunity to write for the New York Interviewer, offering rational, data-driven explanations for political, sports, and cultural events on its new blog, Quantified World.
But Waxworth—for reasons he can’t quantify or rationally explain—also insists on writing long-form articles for the print edition. His first piece, a profile of prominent journalist Frank Doyle, pulls him into the columnist’s orbit. Doyle’s family includes Kit, the matriarch and retired heiress to a banking fortune; their children, Eddie and Margo, who have just returned home from, respectively, Iraq and a PhD program in English literature; and Justin Price, Eddie’s childhood best friend and Kit’s one-time protégé. In a few months’ time, Waxworth is also joined by his wife, Lucy, a special-ed teacher who arrives from Wisconsin only after the school year ends.
The world of Beha’s novel echoes our own. A single conglomerate, Teeser, seems to produce and own everything on the internet. The Interviewer—like the Washington Post or New Republic—is a bankrupt but venerable organ just purchased by a tech billionaire. Frank Doyle’s status as an erudite, baseball-obsessed political columnist with a soft spot for star-crossed Senior Circuit teams bears more than a passing resemblance to a Brooklyn-born George Will.
A Search for Meaning
As with any big realist novel, plot and motivations are complex and weave through serious talk about serious topics. Characters discuss Obama-era race and class politics, the Great Recession, American interventions abroad, religious belief, ethics, literary ambition, the dynamics of marriage, gentrification, epistemology. But The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a novel of ideas only to the extent that baseball is a game of ideas. Which is to say, it is, even as it isn’t.
“Things have stopped meaning,” a character thinks toward the novel’s end. That’s not to say events are inexplicable. Reasons abound. Frank Doyle loses his reputation and newspaper column because he cracks a drunken, racist joke during a Mets broadcast. Kit Doyle’s investments evaporate because of the financial crash. With perhaps one exception, every misfortune they and those around them encounter has a cause.
Yet reasons—and reason—can supply only explanations. The world makes sense insofar as one event leads to another. But what does that mean? “The answer,” Waxworth tells Margo, “is nothing.” “Baseball is a wonderful game,” he confesses. “It’s endlessly interesting.” But the sport, like life itself, is just “a game, a fun way to pass the time.”
The problem is that Waxworth himself doesn’t really believe this. True, great ballplayers aren’t motivated by ideas but by the quest to excel at a game. But meaning finds a way of attaching itself anyway. For someone like Doyle, baseball is American civic religion, the nature of liberalism, pastoral poetry enacted. Waxworth may be less heavy-handed, but for him, too, the game is a way to propose ideas and understand the world. For him, baseball means data-driven rationalism, a way to show that the future is best described through probabilities, that in the end everything and everyone regresses to the mean.
In other words, baseball’s meaning lies in what it can tell us about individual agency. Sabermetrics, the statistics-driven thinking about baseball that Waxworth helped develop, holds that it’s profoundly limited. Much of the work of Waxworth’s YOUNT system (or its real-life equivalent, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA) lies in stripping away team effort, isolating that contribution that is clearly one player’s alone. Baseball’s protagonist is the pitcher. To evaluate his performance, someone like Waxworth might make reference to Fielding Independent Pitching rather than the more conventional Earned Run Average. Where ERA ignores unearned runs—those blamed on a fielder’s error—FIP goes further and declines to give the pitcher credit for a fielder’s success.
The system of assessment that Waxworth calls the “Index of Self-Destructive Acts” is an even more merciless application of the same principle. It excludes outcomes until only that for which a pitcher can truly be held responsible remains: his mistakes, the rate of hit batters, wild pitches, balks, and errors per nine innings. On this view, agency and therefore meaning inhere in such acts of self-sabotage. In the same motion, mistakes are purely the responsibility of an individual and the catalysts of uncertainty.
And mistakes abound. Waxworth, overwhelmed and pressed for time, plagiarizes his old personal blog and Interviewer news articles for Quantified World posts. He finds rational explanations as he and Margo drift toward adultery. Margo’s exile from graduate school flows from accidentally CCing the entire department in an email. Justin Price accepts insider trading as a necessary reality. Kit accepts it as a way out of financial ruin.
But this rational analysis of mistakes is at odds with the one truly inexplicable element of the novel’s plot. On the first page, readers meet the doomsday preacher Herman Nash, who predicts that at precisely ten o’clock on the evening of November 4, the world will come to an end.
Sabermetricians have terms for this element: chance or luck. For Ken Pomeroy, whose website did for college basketball what Baseball Prospectus did for the MLB, luck is “the deviation in winning percentage between a team’s actual record and their expected record.” Luck explains the gap between predictions and real outcomes. But as far as the data are concerned, that explanation is meaningless.
In his study of decadence, The Decadent Society, Douthat also ventures an account of the inexplicable. Decadence is the crisis that comes when humanity reaches the limits of the material world. If decadence ends not in something comprehensible but in the opening up of something totally new—divine revelation, maybe, or the discovery of intelligent life beyond Earth—that’s Providence. It’s an intervention that can’t be predicted or even explained by the systems built to comprehend what’s already present.
Nash’s prediction appeals to Waxworth. Despite his rationalism and materialism, Waxworth is surprisingly impressed by Nash, perhaps even a little jealous. His prediction, though outlandish, meets a key test of rigor: it can be tested against the world. “That’s the scientific method,” Waxworth explains. “You set up an experiment, and you predict how it will turn out.” Nash’s claims are clear. “He’s probably a lunatic,” the writer concedes. “But that’s better than being a con artist.”
Even as he admires Nash, though, Waxworth tries to place him in a model he doesn’t fit. To Waxworth’s eye, the two of them are in the same business: predictions and explanations. Nash, though honest, makes the common mistake of dealing in binary rather than probabilistic outcomes, in certainties rather than likelihoods.
Yet Nash doesn’t speak in certainties or ask questions of cause and effect. Nash speaks in parables, sometimes just quoting a line from the New Testament. That’s the case with a sentence around which much of the novel’s plot revolves, Luke 12:20: “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall these things be, which thou has provided?”
Nash cares more about the question than the answer, and next to nothing about cause and effect. He never, after all, seeks to explain the end of the world. It’s not on account of sin or the prayerfulness of a pure heart. When the end of the world is a given, asking why is pointless. The real question is pragmatic: What do we do with this knowledge? Or, as Nash demands, “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?”
Questions like these establish Beha as a novelist of decadence and set him apart from its other chroniclers. His characters aren’t—or at least shouldn’t be—unhappy. At the beginning of The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, Sam Waxworth has been granted exactly what he wants—a career as a writer in New York—by Max Blakeman, the Interviewer’s editor who also facilitates his profile of Doyle. Blakeman’s Mephistopheles-like appearances are the shared foundation of Beha’s otherwise structurally distinct novels. In What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Blakeman enables his cousin Charlie to reconnect with the title character and answer the question that’s bothered him since college. In Arts & Entertainments, he’s the middleman who can help a character secure money for IVF treatments—if that deeply indebted friend will sell a sex tape with a now-famous ex-girlfriend.
In each case, Blakeman sets the novels in motion by offering something that will not merely make the other characters happy but that will also give their lives purpose and meaning. Beha’s interest as a novelist isn’t so much in the ways people achieve what they desire as in what they do with it once they have it. The answer, it turns out, looks like Douthat’s decadence on an individual scale: moments of success that are moments of bafflement, accomplishments that feel like dead ends.
Novelists and journalists deal in different kinds of data. Douthat turns to measurable sociological trends. Fiction, on the other hand, deals in hypotheticals and allows for more controlled experiments in human nature. What looks distinctive on a societal scale—sclerosis, stagnation, repetition, a nagging worry that this might be all there really is—appears, at least in Beha’s novels, as a regular component of human character. Ambition, as it turns out, is a drive that’s only very rarely satisfied.
J.L. Wall’s poetry and essays have appeared in First Things, Atlanta Review, University Bookman, Breaking Ground, and Kenyon Review Online.
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