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Books and Their Ghosts

The most amazing thing happened to me in the past few weeks. It was the kind of thing that I thought might never happen to me in exactly the same way, ever again:

I fell in love with a book.

The book was a novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, by Christopher Beha, originally published in 2020. I’d chosen the book for somewhat random reasons—I’d known and respected Beha from his stint as editor of the redoubtable magazine Harper’s. I’d seen the book referenced on the edges of other reviews I’d seen, and it was also true that the damned title had lodged itself in my head.

And truth be told, I couldn’t get it together to do the reading for a Lord of the Rings book club in my neighborhood. So even though I know I am supposed to order from an independent on, I was already on the Site That Shall Not Be Named, ordering a can of Flex-Seal or some mousetraps, and my finger migrated over to the suggestion that floated at the edge of the screen and hit the One Click Setting. It was on my doorstep almost immediately, as though I had ordered from a dealer on, and my finger slid under the cover.

The next couple of weeks felt like I was carrying a secret, as though I was having an extramarital affair. During the workday, I’d think about how to sneak some time off the clock and go crack it open. At dinner, I’d neglect cleaning up the kitchen so I could repair upstairs, sit back on the bed, and plow through another hundred pages. It was exhilarating.

But while The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is as gripping as an airport read, it is not a superficial one. Set in New York in the aftermath of the 2009 financial crisis, the narrative centers on a statistics wunderkind from the Midwest who correctly predicted the Obama election, and who arrives in the City as the eager new employee of an online news site for which he is expected to contribute prodigious daily coverage. But that’s just the central note of an ensemble of characters—the Scandal of whose Own Particular bears the marks of incredibly careful observation that just rings so true—and whose lives come to intersect with one another:

In addition to the Midwestern wunderkind, there’s the Irish Catholic newspaper columnist who worked for the 1970s mayor John Lindsay (of the “Ford to City: Drop Dead!”) era, whom he has been assigned to profile. There’s the columnist’s son, trying to figure out his life after two tours in Iraq. And his best friend, a black scholarship kid from Brooklyn whose life had been changed by the Bootstrappers (a clear stand-in for Prep for Prep or A Better Chance), who has his own trove of secrets.

And yet none of this prodigious detail comes across as telegraphed. The characters are not mere signifiers of their identity and class, and they are not mere movable plot functions—as so often happens in books that are equally readable and non-ponderous. Perhaps this is because their own inner lives—and their own painful realizations of regret—are fleshed out so vividly.

This book is also clearly an answer and an echo to so many other books. In its ensemble of characters—both elite and disadvantaged—hovering around Gotham wealth and privilege, it reminded me of Claire Messud’s post-9/11 book The Emperor’s Children and Collum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. In its elegiac evocation of midcentury baseball and politics, there’s also a substrate of the less-paranoid chapters in Don Delillo’s Underworld.

Most clearly—and I would bet cash money on this—it echoes Tom Wolfe’s seminal 1989 Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” which argued for the value of social realism in fiction. (This was in the high era of Vintage Contemporaries minimalism.)

Of course, it therefore also echoes Exhibit A in Wolfe’s argument, his own stratospherically successful 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities, with its ill-fated finance-bro, Sherman McCoy, amid the decay of Ed Koch’s New York.

But Index is a far finer book. Bonfire, in the end, is undone by the distracting flourishes of Tom Wolfe’s own maximalist writing, rather than by the humanity of the characters themselves. Their inner lives are always in subjection to the overall rococo narrative design.

Index, by contrast, preserves the high-concept phantasmagoria of the intersecting characters and plots, but their outlines are shaded by their self-knowledge and vulnerability. Though the book has a surface reference to religion—a doomsday street preacher is a linchpin of the action—the meat of this book is the way in which each character is forced toward his or her own kind of repentance. (And I am not speaking, per se, of formal religion—though certainly that element is present, too.)

When Index came out in 2020, it seems to have hit a bit above the midlist level of readership. It has blurbs from both Don DeLillo AND Roxane Gay, which is something of a feat. The reviews are good—at least the ones I have read, now four years after publication.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though: I’m someone who reads multiple newspapers per day; multiple journals of culture. I have too many subscriptions. I get about a zillion invitations to webinars on The Life of the Imagination in a Digital Age.

So why did I only learn about this book years later?

Perhaps it was the pandemic; perhaps it was the way in which that year’s racial reckoning instantly jumbled the kinds of texts that would receive prominence. And yet—the very heart of The Index of Self-Destructive Acts treats the exact issues of racism, class, “cancellation” and so many other subjects that were to dominate the public imagination in that year. In the bare weeks since I finished reading the book, I’ve found myself referencing it mentally as I have read about some or other current controversy in the news, over and over.

It is hard to remember now, in 2024, how much of a public event the publication of Bonfire of the Vanities was, back in 1987, the contribution it was not only to literature, but to social history.

I doubt that any novel now could have that kind of impact. Our literature now is evanescent.

Still, though, there are those of us who are treasuring up the books, reading the one into another, and marveling at the force that flows through them.

Caroline Langston was a regular contributor to Image’s Good Letters blog, and is writing a memoir about the U.S. cultural divide. She has contributed to Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog, and aired several commentaries on NPR’s All Things Considered, in addition to writing book reviews for Image, Books and Culture, and other outlets. She is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, and a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.