The modern expert need not necessarily put into practice what he or she understands intellectually. A lobbyist for low-income housing might live in a gentrified neighborhood; a Silicon Valley executive might send his children to tech-free schools; an academic theologian might not practice any religion at all. That these are realistic examples and not the punchlines of absurdist jokes demonstrates technocracy’s collective fire-walling of our private and professional selves.
The performative nature of social media has no doubt accelerated this bifurcation of our lives. Especially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we sense powerful cultural forces at work, a Hegelian pendulum swinging in a certain direction. What are we, as individuals, called to do? Make statements, show our support for a certain cause, intellectually align ourselves with the proper forces. But we are rarely asked to adjust our lives in ways that demand personal, even invisible, sacrifice.
Rationalism, especially in the form of technocracy, dominates not just our discourse but our very habits of being, so that even its critics cannot escape its clutches. Our intellectual demonstrations—especially our opinions— have come to define us, rather than our personal integrity or generosity. Considering the latter means contending with the irrationality of the self, and with one’s own subjectivity. It means inhabiting the uncertainties of narrative, rather than the clarity of data.
What does any of this have to do with the 2009 New York Mets and the Great Recession? Christopher Beha’s most recent novel attempts to show us.
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts begins with data analyst Sam Waxworth’s hiring at a prominent New York culture magazine. The Midwestern Waxworth is a kind of everyman whiz-kid; like Nate Silver, he got his start in baseball analytics, but then made it big when he successfully predicted the outcome of the 2008 election. His new job is to maintain a daily blog that combines cultural commentary with statistical analysis, and to write a lengthy profile for the print issue of the magazine.
The subject of the profile is New York journalist Frank Doyle, an aging Lear whose decline, sparked by his very racist and very public remarks about then-President Barack Obama at a Mets’ game the previous year, drives the plot of Beha’s novel. The other members of the Doyle family possess a similar trajectory: Frank’s wife Kit is a prominent New York investment banker whose firm did not survive the recession; his adult children, Eddie, just returned from two tours in Iraq, and Margo, on leave from her literature Ph.D. program, both struggle to find purpose. The Doyle family—and their demise—occupies the center of the novel, while orbiting characters, including Sam, his wife Lucy, and family friend Justin Price, also struggle—and stumble—throughout.
Frank, an old-guard liberal turned conservative after 9/11, grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and though his allegiance shifted to the Mets after the Dodgers left, his love of the game did not abate. Sam grew up reading Frank’s “gauzy” elegies for the sport, but before long his analytical mind latched onto Bill James’ Sabermetrics instead. Beha makes it clear that Waxworth and Doyle both love the game, but in diametrically opposed ways—the former with the eagerness of the analyst to quantify what happens on the diamond, the latter with a poetic devotion to the intangibles of the sport. Appropriately, Sam interviews Frank for the profile at the home opener for the Mets the spring following Frank’s debacle.
The novel impresses in its ability to convey the interior lives of the seven main characters. Each takes four turns as narrator, which threatens to cause confusion, as the flow of events often turns back on itself, but Beha’s lucid prose succeeds in establishing clarity. His decision to use seven narrators imbues the cast with a deep humanity. The events always arrive through the lens of a particular human subject, and so we are constantly cognizant of the relationship between the objective and subjective, of the play of the inner life upon observable action. Beha introduces this dynamic to us in a moment at the Mets’ game, when Frank notices a fan looking at himself on the jumbotron:
This incited a strange dilemma: if you looked into the lens and properly played the part of screaming celebrant, the camera would linger on the performance, but you would never see it; alternatively, if you looked up at the screen to witness your public moment, you saw only a face looking distractedly up at the screen until the camera hurried on to someone who would better inhabit that role. Most fans attempted to split the difference, shifting back and forth between the two, working themselves into a kind of frenzy. . .
Haven’t we all experienced this? We want to see ourselves as others see us—but also remain ourselves at the same time. Yet when the two spheres threaten to overlap we are threatened by a kind of vertigo, hence the unease when we watch ourselves talk on a Zoom meeting. We are unused to experiencing ourselves as subjects and objects simultaneously.
The novel takes its name from Bill James’s Sabermetrics category, explained in an epigraph to the book: “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hit batsmen, wild pitches, balks, and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.” James here attempts to categorize the decisions made by a pitcher without the involvement of the batter—that is, outside the normal spectrum of material causality in baseball—that affect the outcome of the game. In doing so, the Index of Self-Destructive Acts tries to quantify irrational behavior—for it does not seem rational to act in ways that harm ourselves. In its title, we also hear an echo of the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books (Beha is himself Catholic, as is the Doyle family), which, for several hundred years—ending with the Second Vatican Council—attempted to circumscribe those titles deemed destructive to the spiritual well-being of believers. Likewise, Bill James’ index is a kind of forbidden list of behaviors in the high church of Sabermetrics.
Not coincidentally, the main characters self-destruct to varying degrees over the course of the story, all in entirely irrational ways. Frank’s racist remarks were only the beginning of his troubles—his drinking also causes problems, and he is long overdue with a draft of his book. Kit’s mismanagement of the family finances threatens to bankrupt the entire Doyle clan, or worse. Eddie, searching for purpose post-discharge, falls in with a street-corner apocalyptic preacher. Sam, though a married man, grows intimate with Doyle’s daughter Margo. Later in the novel, reflecting on several catastrophic errors of judgment he made, Sam is at a loss to explain his behavior:
It was an important part of his ethos to admit mistakes and analyze them. Getting things wrong had always been central to his method. . . . [But] 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.
Sam’s openness to self-critique allows him a window to escape the confines of rationalism. What if he has erred not just in discrete, observable actions, but more broadly, in his assumptions about the perfectibility of those actions? What if we are all accustomed to thinking so rationally that we are at a loss to account for our weaknesses?
Over dinner with Sam and Lucy, Frank cites Kierkegaard to counter what he regards as Sam’s unhealthy preoccupation with probability. “As Kierkegaard tells us, life can only be lived forwards and understood backwards. A million different things might happen, but in the end only one of them will. You’ve just got to live with that.” This is Kierkegaard’s famous “either/or”—that it is our lot to bear the burden of choice, which necessarily binds us to a specific reality. As popular philosopher William Barrett put it in Irrational Man, one who chooses in the Kierkegaardian sense “is no longer a spectator of himself as a mere possibility; he is that self in its reality.” Barrett’s use of the word “spectator” here is fitting, as Beha’s baseball fan on the jumbotron is caught precisely between Kierkegaard’s two poles. The Danish philosopher’s affirmation of subjectivity sets him against Hegel, whose sweeping dialectic effectually renders personal choice insignificant.
The same month that his novel was published, Beha penned a lengthy essay-review on Kierkegaard in Harper’s, which he edits. The article makes the case that our contemporary society, paralyzed with choice and overwhelmed by forces beyond individual control, is starved for the kind of inwardness to which Kierkegaard’s life and work call us. Beha ends with these pressing lines:
We are all Hegelians now, sure that the problems we face are not just unprecedented but systemic, too large for any individual to address. A sense of great urgency combines with a sense of acute hopelessness. We feel at once that the world desperately needs changing and that we are unequipped to change it. Kierkegaard tells us to begin by changing our own hearts.
Here, and in his novel, Beha presents Kierkegaard as posing a challenge to our entire technocracy, and especially to the divorce of the personal from the professional that we have come to accept. Ultimately, Beha suggests, this leads to frustration, as the problems of the world are too much for any one person to control, but we haven’t been trained in how to do anything else. Yet out of this impasse comes a unique opportunity to turn our gazes inward.
This kind of turning of the self lies at the heart of religious conversion (vers means “to turn”). Outside of a few scenes where Kit prays—once with her Hispanic maid, and once at a Catholic Mass—the book does not contain much specifically religious content. Still, one might call it religious, though in an existential way, in that it concerns the characters’ leaps into varying levels of uncertainty. Eddie, the Iraq veteran, has the most enduring conversion of any character. Though he has access to a large inheritance, he doesn’t use it for himself, and instead takes a job as an EMT. He befriends Herman Nash, the apocalyptic preacher, receives baptism from him, and moves in with him in a low-rent walkup. Eddie’s strange behavior baffles his family, but his goodness illuminates the entire story. His acts of faith (with a small “f”) necessarily appear foolish, even irrational, in the eyes of the upwardly mobile society in which the story takes place.
The rationality of Sam Waxworth, on the other hand, hinders his ability to live for anything but his own interest, though one would be hard-pressed to call him consciously selfish. He and Lucy married each other because it seemed the sensible thing to do. Most of their communication, however, amounts to texts and missed calls; tellingly, they don’t have any children. When Sam starts spending time with Margo, and Lucy contracts a strange illness, their marriage unravels quickly. Several lapses of judgment derail his career at the magazine, and he turns to writing a memoir. Beha leaves much hanging in his story, but Sam begins to turn inwards towards the novel’s end, and Beha hints that his memoir, undertaken for mercenary reasons, will evolve into a more reflective project. Its working title? The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.
The novel begins with Sam wondering: “What makes a life . . . self or circumstance?” Throughout his story, Beha suggests that the answer lies not in one or the other but in the medium of narrative itself. Only a story, like the one Sam hopes to write, can attempt to link inner and outer worlds, subjective and objective, and, in doing so, reveal something approaching the truth of our humanity. Frank Doyle is a case study in this. Once a premier opinion writer at a New York Times-like paper, poor choices—outspoken support of the Iraq War, heavy drinking, racist comments on live television (influenced by his heavy drinking)—have all but killed his cultural cachet. Yet even Sam and Lucy, who despise his actions, can’t help but enjoy his company—the man is gregarious and charming. We learn that while a boy watching games at Ebbets Field, he so admired the “ferocious grace” of Jackie Robinson that he tried to emulate him in all he did—including, later in life, his own writing.
Whose side is Frank Doyle on? With which Hegelian cultural force should we align him—progress or regress? Such questions are inimical to fiction (at least to good fiction), which always situates the self in paradox. Because stories resist quantification, the more data-driven our age grows, the more narrative—and all art—seems revolutionary, even transgressive.
The late British critic Frank Kermode, writing in A Sense of an Ending, claims that “it is not that we are connoisseurs of chaos, but that we are surrounded by it, and equipped for co-existence with it only by our fictive powers.” These powers are necessarily retrospective—though we live life forward, as Kierkegaard pointed out, we can only understand it backwards, through storytelling, which always defines the beginning in terms of its end. Appropriately, then, Beha’s story takes place over a decade ago, in 2009, in a past recent enough to be fresh in our minds, but distant enough for us to have gained some perspective. And the story itself seems to be gazing backwards—9/11 and the Iraq War factor as prominently, if not more, than the ongoing recession.
The novel concludes with a moving interior monologue from Frank. Distinct memories from his life flash before him, and he wishes they were all written down, to give them fullness of meaning:
One wanted to be a man of action and a man of contemplation both, to live the story and to tell it at once, to look up at the jumbotron and see one’s own face staring back. If only you could know it was all being written in the book . . . if only there was a recording angel.
In the book’s last lines, Frank realizes that the angel he seeks is actually a human being—and what’s more, a member of his own family. Here, and throughout, Beha suggests that the religious impulse is inextricable from our communal one. What good is it to speak of angels without first recognizing those imperfect ones around us? What good is it to speak of leaps of religious faith without first speaking of leaps into more immediate paradoxes, into the uncertainties of story and human subjectivity?
In The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, Beha has written a mature and engrossing novel of ideas that succeeds in its wedding of our inner lives with our outer ones. In doing so, the story offers to our reflexively analytical age both a mirror in which to examine our boils and a balm to alleviate them. We are, at heart, irrational—and that’s what makes us worth writing about. Let’s hope the Sam Waxworths of the world are reading.