Christopher Beha’s 2020 novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (newly released in paperback), follows Sam Waxworth, an ambitious young Midwesterner who comes to New York to write a data-driven blog, Quantified World, for a magazine called the Interviewer. The story takes place over eight months in 2009, in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, and is built around Waxworth’s interactions with Frank Doyle, a seventy-year-old baseball-writer-cum-political-columnist for a New York Times–like paper. When Waxworth undertakes a magazine profile of Doyle, he ends up getting involved in unexpected ways with the Doyle family: Frank’s investment-banker wife, Kit; their daughter, Margo, a grad student and would-be poet; their son, Eddie, a disaffected veteran of the Iraq War; and their close family friend, Justin, a Black hedge-fund manager. The Financial Times praised The Index as “a big, sympathetic book about the follies and failings of elite New Yorkers,” while Buzzfeed lauded its “masterful interplay of big, fraught themes of privilege, race, wealth and ethics.”
Beha is the editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of two previous novels, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (which critic D. G. Myers lauded for “perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair”) and Arts & Entertainments (a media satire featuring a thirtyish former actor who teaches at a tony Catholic prep school). A lifelong New Yorker, Beha lives with his wife and two young children in Brooklyn. He was interviewed by Commonweal contributing editor Rand Richards Cooper as part of an online literary series sponsored by the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rand Richards Cooper: The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a novel about ambition, marriage, money, New York City, baseball, and, I guess, the poetry of life versus the math of life. One of the things I love about the book is that it commands a range of tones, from the mirthful and satirical to the sympathetic and elegiac. But first I want to ask you about writing short versus writing long. Your novel is not only massively enjoyable, it’s also massive. Why did you write such a long novel? Did you supersize The Index from the start, or did it just happen?
Christopher Beha: I love really long books. Many of my favorite novels are ones that create worlds that you spend a lot of time in. I love The Recognitions by William Gaddis—a 900-page book and a great New York novel. I love Proust. I love the long Thomas Mann books, Buddenbrooks and Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. This morning I finished reading the galleys of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which is called Crossroads and is 580 pages. Every single Franzen novel is 580 pages. Not 579, not 581. He spends five or six years or more on a book, and when they come out, they’re all 580-page, multi-character novels, and they’re all very good. But he always works long.
I’m not that kind of writer. My first novel [What Happened to Sophie Wilder] was the kind of idea that made sense as a 250-page book. I didn’t try to turn it into a 400-page book. The same held for my second. But it had been an ambition of mine, at some point, to write a big book. I wanted to see if I could do it. I also wanted to write a book that provided the kinds of satisfactions that big books provide. I wanted to paint a big-canvas portrait of this moment in time within this particular world, the world of New York media and finance. What I didn’t want to write is a book that had a lot of needless stuffing in it, that felt like it was trying to be long for its own sake. One of the things about this book, which is unusual for a novel of its length, is that almost every scene moves the plot forward in some way. If I’d handled it in a loose way, it would have been a baggy 800-page book. Instead, it’s a tight 500 pages. Bagginess can be a very appealing feature in a novel, and I actually wish mine had more of it. But what I wrote is a 500-page novel in which exactly 500 pages worth of stuff happens.
RRC: In a New York Times review, Benjamin Markovits commented that yours is “the kind of long novel that begins to occupy its own time zone in your life.” To me, that’s the characteristic pleasure of reading long novels. But I’m also interested in short, tightly focused novels. I think about Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, the hyper-minimalism of early Nicholson Baker novels, or William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. It seems like a categorically different kind of reading experience from a big novel.
CB: Well, if my book is a 500-page book with 500 pages’ worth of stuff in it, Nicholson Baker—who I love—writes 150-page books with five pages’ worth of stuff! The Mezzanine is a novel about a guy taking his lunch break and moving from the escalator to the mezzanine in the office park where he works to go to the food court. There is an old line about Henry James—that he chews more than he bites off. That is something Baker is quite conscious of doing, I think. By the time you finish one of his novels, you feel like you’ve been in the character’s head for a long time, even though it’s a short book, because you are so deeply in his thoughts for that period. He’s great, but we’re obviously doing very different things.
RRC: Reading your book, I thought of George Packer’s early novel Central Square. I also thought, funnily enough, of Jane Austen—those scenes in your novel where Margo and Sam are jousting about ideas, and it’s both argumentative and flirtatious. But most of all I thought about Tom Wolfe. Thirty years ago, in your magazine, Wolfe wrote an essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” an 8,000-word literary manifesto that served as an advance apologia for his big New York City novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe complained that young writers with literary ambitions were no longer interested in what he called “big rich slices of contemporary life.” He viewed modernism as having taken a wrong turn into interiority and psychological states, and he looked back to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century realists—to Sinclair Lewis, and further back to Balzac and Zola—for a picture of individuals in society. Wolfe wanted writers to go out and do reporting, then write realist novels based on their reporting. Can you talk about Tom Wolfe vis-a-vis your own big New York City novel, and also other writers who have influenced you?
CB: To be honest, Wolfe has not influenced me at all, though I know that essay well, and we like some of the same people. I love Balzac. I like Zola a lot less. Wolfe preferred Zola to Balzac. Zola knew everything about the worlds he was writing about; he’s really rich in detail. If you read The Rougon-Macquart books, you feel like you know Second Empire France. He gives you such a full picture! But Balzac does something far greater, I think. His achievement in creating characters is enormous. He’s really one of the towering figures of the novel. Zola, who modeled himself on Balzac, is very much a reporter. Do you just want to know historically what late nineteenth- or early-twentieth century Paris was like—what it was like to work on the railroads or in the meat market, or how class functioned? You get that from Zola, because he really was self-consciously a reporter. He would go out in the way that Wolfe went out, report on some area, and bring it back to you. But he doesn’t write great stories with great characters in them.
RRC: Let’s discuss your two main characters, Waxworth and Doyle. Sam Waxworth started out with a baseball forecasting algorithm, then succeeded in picking every state in the 2008 election correctly. I think of him as a combination of Gradgrind, the pedantic schoolmaster from Dickens’s Hard Times who loves facts, and Nate Silver of the New York Times. Then there’s Frank Doyle. His politics have drifted rightward over the years, and his career is in shambles after he made a maladroit and arguably racist joke about President Obama while drunk in a broadcast booth at a Mets game. With Frank I thought a little bit about George Will. Also Christopher Hitchens, with his outsized personality. And maybe a shot of Mike Barnicle?
CB: Frank is a largely invented character. Personally he’s nothing like George Will, who is bowtied and tweedy, but like Will he’s a political columnist who has this sideline as a baseball writer and manages to find in baseball validation for a lot of his political views. Frank’s downfall is something we’re familiar with now under the rubric of “cancel culture,” but stories like that have played out on the public stage for a long time. The inspiration was actually Don Imus, who made some really nasty comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball players and lost his radio show. Imus had all these Washington connections, and he thought his powerful friends insulated him, but as soon as he crossed a line, everyone cut bait. I wanted to have some sense of that. As for Hitchens, yes, in going neocon on the Iraq War, obviously. And also that bon vivant quality, of basically being a high-functioning alcoholic.
RRC: Both Waxworth and Doyle are baseball fans, and you delve extensively into their disagreement about how to understand baseball. Waxworth is an avatar of the algorithm, with a bloodless decision-making apparatus that he applies methodically to everything, whether searching for an apartment or deciding on marriage. Your novel begins with a comical correction to this approach. Before moving from the Midwest, Sam thinks he has found the best-value apartment anywhere in New York. It turns out to be so cheap because it’s next to a poultry processing plant, and so it stinks. His algorithmic approach to living his life is upended by chickenshit! Frank Doyle, on the other hand, is the avatar of analog. And analog in the novel means, what, poetry? Can you talk about these two characters and what you were after in posing them as both dramatic and philosophical antagonists?
CB: I don’t mean simply to take these two worldviews and put them in competition with each other to see which one wins. One of the preoccupations of the novel, I’d say, is the extent to which we can even live according to a worldview in the first place. Sam has this idea that you can manage the risk of life by using cost-benefit analyses and game theory to work out all life’s choices. Part of the point of the novel is that you can’t actually outsource living your life to some algorithm. The biggest mistakes Sam makes are, in fact, not mistakes like the one about moving in above the chicken plant—you know, where he inserted some bad data into his algorithm, and the result is what programmers call garbage in, garbage out. The bigger mistakes are the times where he acts impulsively, or his body won’t do what his mind thinks it should do. Or where he believes he knows what the rational thing to do is, but for some reason that he himself doesn’t understand, he’s incapable of acting in that way.
So it’s not simply that he’s got the wrong worldview. It’s more that you cannot develop a worldview that will answer all life’s questions for you. There’s a long tradition of these kinds of characters. A lot of the comedy of Saul Bellow’s novels, for example, involves highly intellectual characters who do a lot of really stupid things—characters who can tell you all about what Hegel says about ethics, but can’t keep their marriage straight. I wouldn’t strictly describe my novel as a comic novel. But there is comedy in it. And to me, one of the great drivers of comedy is the gap between a character’s expectations for the world, or a character’s sense of how the world is, and reality. And it’s not just Sam. There is a wide gap between Frank’s view and reality too. There’s a wide gap between the Doyle kids’ views and reality. But it seems particularly acute in Sam’s case because he really feels that as an empiricist he has mastered that problem, or ought to have.
RRC: That gap in Sam’s view of the world leads him into different kinds of problems than the gap in Frank’s view, doesn’t it? You say you weren’t after a win-lose confrontation. But I think about the power of the closing pages of the novel, with their Proustian evocation of memory and time through Frank’s point of view. The deep intuitions of meaning that are at the core of Frank—however badly they fail him—have a power that almost nothing in Sam has. When something like that does exist in Sam, he either doesn’t understand it or he actively tries to extinguish it—like when you have him go back to an early memory of his mother, and of loving baseball as a child, a memory he’s trying to flee. On the other hand, there’s the beautiful passage, which will appeal to the neo-Luddites among us, when Frank recalls the sound of tickets at the baseball game being torn, and thinks how disappointing it is that it’s been replaced by a digital beep. Sam constantly tries to break experience down into the quantifiable, while denying that there’s anything more than that. I felt at the end, Frank’s view—the view of poetry, tragedy, and memory—does win. But maybe that’s just me wanting it to.
CB: I’m probably more sympathetic to that view than Sam’s, ultimately. It’s important you mention memory. One of the huge differences between the two is the use to which they put the past. Sam has a very instrumentalist idea about the past. The past is where you gather the data that will tell you about the future. And you test the truth of your beliefs by making predictions and seeing whether they come true, so in that sense, meaning is embedded in the future. For Frank, meaning is embedded in the past. He’s nostalgic. He’s constantly referring to the past—not for any particular lessons, but as the place where real life was, the real thing, the thing we’ve lost now. The root of things.
Neither of these views, taken to its extreme, is a proper view of the world. There’s another view that would say that meaning is in the present—that it’s what we’re going through in any given moment. In the end, there’s probably some way of balancing all of those. You know, so that you don’t become completely amnesiac about the past or use it merely as raw material for getting you to the future. But you also don’t become so stuck in the past that you can’t live the life that you’re in now.
RRC: You’re the editor of Harper’s, but the picture of journalism in what your novel calls our “digital churn” isn’t exactly pretty. There’s a great passage where Waxworth’s editor cautions him against trying to be a writer. He says, “Three-quarters of our readers can’t tell the difference between good writing and bad writing, and the rest actively prefer bad prose.” What are you saying about the state of journalism? Is this the best of times for journalism, or the worst of times?
CB: There are various things in the book that have real-world analogs. The Interviewer, the magazine where Sam works, is a longstanding legacy publication that has been bought by a social-media billionaire, and that has a lot of similarity to Chris Hughes buying the New Republic. Of course, that eventually blew up in his face, and he sold it. None of the novel is based on Harper’s at all. People who know the magazine will know it is the opposite of being in the daily digital churn. We put out a monthly magazine, and that’s pretty much all we do. Nobody is doing verticals of any kind with Harper’s, and no one is putting out two posts a day and all that.
When I started out in literary journalism, the people I came up with weren’t doing a lot of hard reporting. The ambition was not to be Bob Woodward, but Joan Didion. They wanted to write beautiful stuff that would last, and they wanted to speak big, important truths about the way we live. They weren’t about getting a scoop or uncovering something. That work of hard journalism, reportorial work, is extremely important, and I think we remain in a good place as far as it’s concerned. A lot of that still happens and a lot of it happens online. So in that sense, I don’t know if it’s the best of times, but we’re in a pretty good place.
But the people who went into the field with ambitions to create lasting, meaningful works that happened to be built out of reported facts—people who wanted to write great New Journalism–type literature—a lot of those people wound up writing for various online-only publications in a way that, I think, was really pretty destructive, both socially and personally. It warped people. So there’s that element too, in my novel and in real life. I wouldn’t say that I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Gawker. But I saw a lot of people who were really talented and ambitious—ambitious in the right way, in terms of caring about quality—who wound up using all their chops and their intelligence and their passion on writing snarky commentary about news stories that would be forgotten in two days. At a certain point, you lose sight of what made you want to do this thing in the first place.
RRC: Your book is haunted by the prospect of writing unfulfillment. Margo wants to be a poet, but she’s not doing it. Frank has this “big book” he keeps not writing. Sam should be writing, but he’s actually just plagiarizing from his own earlier work in order to meet deadlines. Your novel suggests that the ranks of young people who go to New York and try to find their destiny includes a lot of casualties.
CB: Read Balzac—you’ll see that in Lost Illusions. That’s part of why I call the first section of the novel “The Young Man From the Provinces,” in a knowing way. We tend to have a kind of presentism, a sense of exceptionalism about our own moment—the feeling that there’s all these unprecedented things happening. But even the stuff I just talked about, the stuff I’m saying that the internet did to a lot of my peers, that has always happened to smart, ambitious young people. This is why it’s good to be a little more like Frank, to study history and read literature that’s more than six weeks old.
RRC: Baseball plays an important role in your novel, as part of that philosophical tug of war between Frank and Sam, and there’s a lot of wonky analytics stuff at the core of your story. But there’s also this sense of baseball as the game of life. What fascinates you about baseball?
CB: There’s obviously something about baseball that is ripe for the kind of mythologizing that Frank does. It has gotten more of that than any other sport. One huge thing is the role luck plays. You can hit the ball square on, as hard as you can, and happen to hit it right at someone—or you can have a broken-bat blooper that barely clears the infield but wins the game. There are 162 games over a season—ten times as many as football—and over that long season, the Sam Waxworths of the world say, all that luck will average out, and you’ll have an enormous amount of data at the end that allows you to judge the underlying quality of players in some objective way that isn’t context specific. That’s why it’s so good for the analytics crowd. At the same time, on the individual level, for a single at-bat in a single game, the role of luck is enormous. That tension is really interesting to me.
RRC: I think about how almost all of baseball, in terms of batting anyway, exists in that little gap between not getting a hit eight times out of ten, which makes you a poor hitter, and not getting a hit seven times out of ten—which makes you a great hitter! Baseball is this mythic American game, and yet the amount of failure that you are required to embrace as a player is a great antidote to the American ideology of success. I think your novel addresses this paradox brilliantly.
CB: William Gaddis—I keep coming back to him—wrote an essay, “The Rush for Second Place,” which incidentally also appeared in Harper’s. Dale Carnegie shows up in a lot of Gaddis’s novels, and this American obsession with success was very, very interesting to him. Gaddis himself spent the first chunk of his writing life on The Recognitions; it was his first novel, and he was already about thirty-five when it came out. The book sank without a trace, and Gaddis basically understood himself as a failure for the rest of his life. His next book, JR—which took him twenty years to write, because he had to spend that time making a living—is a wonderful study of the theme of failure in a culture like America’s that’s so obsessed with success.
RRC: Last question. As a baseball fan, are you a stat head or a poet?
CB: I’m kind of both. Growing up, my twin brother and I—the book is dedicated to him—were obsessed with the Yankees teams from the 1950s. That was because we grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the Yankees had one of their few periods of truly sustained mediocrity. They were really bad teams. But they had so much history. So, we loved the history of the game in a way that is very much in that Frank mode. We romanticized it—it was this lost thing, that we had not seen Mickey and Yogi and Whitey. But at the same time, we were really interested in the stats side. And our favorite book was the Baseball Encyclopedia, which is pure statistics. We would look players up and learn important things, like how many doubles Ducky Medwick hit in 1934. Or whatever.