We're excited to announce Christopher Beha's The Index of Self-Destructive Acts as BuzzFeed Book Club's October selection. Beha's novel follows Sam Waxworth, a data journalist who gets a cushy job as a columnist after successfully predicting the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. When he's assigned a profile of disgraced opinion columnist Frank Doyle, he's surprised to find he actually likes him, and as he gets to know Frank's family — his wife Kit, whose family-run investment bank is failing; his son, Eddie, who’s just returned from a tour in Iraq; and his daughter, Margo, an academic who’d rather be a poet — his life philosophy that everything can be quantified is challenged. It's a masterful interplay of big, fraught themes of privilege, race, wealth, and ethics. Check out an excerpt below.
What makes a life, Sam Waxworth sometimes wondered — self or circumstance?
On the day that Waxworth arrived in New York to write for the Interviewer, a man named Herman Nash stood on the rim of the fountain in Washington Square and announced that the world was about to end. After close biblical reading and careful calculation, Nash had settled on November 1 at 10:00 PM as the precise moment of the event he called the “Great Unveiling.” (So far as Waxworth knew, no time zone had been specified; perhaps it would be an incremental apocalypse.) A tourist captured the prediction on video, and more than fifty thousand people watched it on TeeseView that week. Nash appeared at the same time the following Saturday and the one after that, by which point his audience had grown so large that it brought out the police. When he called on his listeners to prepare for a coming battle, at least one took the words literally, throwing a bottle of urine at a mounted officer, who lost control of his horse, which ran him out of the park and several blocks up Fifth. All of this was in turn recorded and posted and viewed. Soon it seemed that Armageddon was everywhere.
Waxworth wasn’t one to find intimations of catastrophe in the pages of a three-thousand-year-old assemblage of myth and poetry and legal documents. Waxworth was a philosopher — not by training or occupation but, he believed, by disposition. He tried to attend to the facticity of things. The world, in Waxworth’s view, was a knowable place, once you stripped away the dead tradition and wishful thinking built up over millennia of misunderstanding. For most of human history — and even today, in places — such an effort could condemn you to death. Conditions were better in Waxworth’s particular moment and milieu, but absolute honesty still required a certain amount of courage. In lieu of rack and ropes, the modern skeptic faced social suspicion and familial disappointment. Faced too his own admitted desire that life should carry more meaning than the facts would bear. Which facts were these: we occupied a tiny corner of the universe, minor planet orbiting a minor star, in an even tinier corner of cosmological time. Still we wanted all of it, the sun and the moon and the firmament that held them, to be about us. This want had been bred into humanity, selected by nature, so it must have served some purpose once, but it had long outlived its usefulness, as far as Waxworth was concerned. What was needed now was to know.
Soon it seemed that Armageddon was everywhere.
For all that, he felt an odd admiration for Herman Nash, who’d made a prediction that could be tested against the world and, in so doing, put himself at risk of being wrong. When you stuck to interpreting the past, you could say anything. The sheer amount of available information meant that data could be arranged to support every conceivable idea. The test of knowledge was what it told you about tomorrow. Easy enough to laugh at Herman Nash, but the very things that made his prediction so inviting to mock — its combination of specificity and unlikelihood — were exactly what impressed Waxworth. Nash wasn’t using the usual methods would-be prophets relied on to perpetrate their frauds: piggybacking on a reasonably likely outcome, making open-ended predictions that could be fulfilled at any time, spouting vague language that might allow him to alter his claim when the unveiling failed to occur. There was no mistaking his terms.
“He’s probably a lunatic,” Waxworth admitted to his editor over dinner during his second week in town. “But that’s better than being a con artist.”
“There’s something inspiring about it when you put it that way,” his editor replied.
They were eating at Temps Perdu, a neo-bistro on the Bowery. The host had seated them at a red leather banquette near the back of the room. A large mirror hung over the editor’s head, and Waxworth saw himself in it, framed by distressed brick and pressed tin. In front of Waxworth waited a foie gras terrine with rhubarb compote. French yé-yé pop played softly from speakers above. They were nearly through their first bottle of red, and the editor, whose name was Max Blakeman, was attempting to order a second. It was the spring of 2009. The global economy was in a state of collapse, and Waxworth understood the magazine industry to be more completely collapsed than most, but Mario Adrian — Teeser cofounder, social media billionaire — had lately purchased the Interviewer, rendering the publication more or less immune from cyclical pressure. So Blakeman had explained when convincing Waxworth to move halfway across the country to write for him. This introductory dinner seemed designed to prove the point.
“It really gets to the heart of my philosophy,” Waxworth said.
“You have your own philosophy?” Blakeman gave a not-quite smile. “I’ve always wanted one of those, but they seem like so much work to maintain.”
Max Blakeman was attentive and solicitous but had a way of making this solicitous attention feel like an unearned gratuity. That Waxworth should want to impress his new boss was natural enough, but he also wanted, to a greater degree than professional self-interest could explain, to be liked. He wanted to belong in this place.
“I believe in getting things wrong.”
Blakeman smiled in full, almost indulged a laugh.
“I wish you’d told me that before I hired you. I thought you were the guy who got everything right.”
Waxworth was slightly uncomfortable with his recently minted reputation as a seer. He’d been working as a software engineer in Madison the previous fall, when his political projection system had correctly predicted the exact count of the electoral college vote and the outcome of every Senate, House, and gubernatorial race. Naturally he’d been pleased with the attention that had followed this feat, but there was nothing mystical in what he’d done. Quite the opposite: The numbers had been there all along for anyone who cared to look.
“Of course I don’t want to be wrong all the time, but it’s bound to happen eventually. In the long run everyone regresses to the mean.”
“There’s a philosophy,” Blakeman said. “In the long run everyone regresses to the mean.”
“The point is, beliefs should be tested against the world. That’s the scientific method. You don’t just try to convince people with arguments. You don’t put reality to a vote. You set up an experiment, and you predict how it will come out. If you’re wrong, you modify your theory, and you start over. Little by little, you arrive at the truth.”
“So this guy should be embraced for giving his ravings some rigor?”
“If anything, more people should do it.”
Blakeman leaned back in appreciation.
“Why All Religious People Should Be Like Herman Nash.” He looked up as though the headline floated in the air between them. “It sounds very shareable.” After a pause, he clarified, “That’s a good thing. Mario is big on shareability.”
He said the word with cheerful disgust before raising his hand, waving away further thought of the man who was paying for their meal before gesturing again to the waiter for the next bottle.
“Speaking of shareability,” Blakeman continued as their glasses were refilled, “what do you think of Frank Doyle?”
“In what sense?”
“Did you ever read those old baseball books of his? The Smell of the Grass. The Crack of the Bat.”
“Sure I did.”
In fact, the books had been a major feature of Waxworth’s childhood, the reason he’d wanted to write in the first place, but he was embarrassed to mention this, given the current state of Doyle’s reputation.
“How’d you like to do something on him?”
“What is there to say, at this point? That whole story is months old.”
“Fair enough,” Blakeman said. “We’ll start with the end of the world, and see where things go from there.”
Three hours later, Waxworth got off the F train at Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street. A bus that stopped nearby would get him the rest of the way home, but he wasn’t sure it ran at this hour. Anyway, the spring night was cool and clear, and he was in no rush to get back to an empty apartment. While he walked, he called Lucy, who answered after four rings. He could hear the sleep in her voice, though Madison was an hour behind New York. He hadn’t realized how late it was.
“Sorry to wake you,” he said. “I got stuck on the train.”
“That’s all right,” she answered. “I’m glad you called.”
He wanted to tell her about everything — the restaurant, the meal, the wine, the conversation — without sounding like he’d enjoyed himself too much. Lucy still didn’t understand why he’d had to move right away, instead of waiting for her school year to end. She didn’t really understand why they had to move at all.
“We’ve already planned my first post. Just talked it out across the table. It never would have happened over email.” Now he sounded defensive, relitigating a case that had already been settled in his favor. “How’s everything there?”
“Jeremy bit me on the hand today.” She laughed. “Nearly broke the skin.”
Waxworth couldn’t tell whether he was meant to laugh along or offer sincere sympathy. Lucy liked to joke about her job — she taught special ed — but it was a kind of gallows humor, and he didn’t always feel entitled to share in it. He let out an ambiguous sigh.
“I miss you.”
“You too,” she responded. “I want to hear all about your dinner — in the morning.”
After the election, Waxworth had received some offers that would have allowed them to stay in Madison. Most of the major national publications that had linked to his website throughout the campaign had tried to hire him, but they only wanted to buy his projection system and host his blog. He’d made that mistake before. He’d still been in school when he’d sold his baseball forecasting algorithm, YOUNT, to a website called the Pop-Up. They’d given him a lump sum for the code and paid him fifty dollars a week to update its results. The money had seemed like a lot at the time — enough to clear his student loans and buy an engagement ring — but when he saw what the site charged for subscriptions, he realized that he’d settled for far less than his work was worth. When he finally demanded a raise — he’d wanted enough to live on, so he could leave his job at the university, but he would have settled for a few thousand a year — the Pop-Up found someone else to do the updates. He no longer owned YOUNT, and he’d signed a noncompete that kept him from designing another sports-projection system for at least five years.
He’d been lucky to stumble from there into politics, and he meant to make the most of it. Not learning from mistakes was the one truly unforgivable sin in Waxworth’s view. Max Blakeman had offered more money than anyone else, but this was only part of his appeal. While other editors talked about what readerships they could bring Waxworth, Blakeman had talked about what Waxworth would bring to his readership. The kind of people who read the Interviewer needed to learn how to think numerically. That was the age we were living in.
The contract paid one hundred and twenty thousand dollars for five posts a week and four long print articles to be completed over the course of the year. That last item Waxworth had insisted upon himself. Though it wasn’t entirely rational—the website had a much larger audience than the weekly magazine — he wanted the validation of print, and he sensed that these longer pieces would help him get the book deal that was his ultimate goal.
For the first few months Waxworth would be the sole writer for the magazine’s new data-driven blog, Quantified World, but after he’d established the brand he could make his own hires. What excited Waxworth most about the job was the chance to work on a team. Getting out of your own point of view was essential to good forecasting. Aggregation — the foundation of statistical thinking — had long been known simply as “the combination of observations,” and that’s what collaboration gave you. If Lucy didn’t like New York, they could go back to Madison when his contract was up, by which point his career would be launched.
So ran the justification he’d given to her, which was accurate in its particulars but incomplete. In fact the move had been the great draw of Blakeman’s offer, and Waxworth had no intention of returning to Wisconsin. He had an opportunity at greatness, and he belonged in a place worthy of his ambitions. He needed to test his ideas against the world. ●
Excerpted from The Index of Self-Destructive Acts copyright © 2020 by Christopher Beha. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Tin House Press. All rights reserved.
Christopher Beha is the editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of three novels, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Arts & Entertainments, and The Index of Self-Destructive Acts; and a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. His writing has appeared in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.