When are we in charge of the story, and when does the story take charge of us? These are the age-old questions that drive Christopher Beha’s new novel, Arts & Entertainments, a morality tale tartly updated for the reality-television age.
The simultaneous gesture toward past and present is typical of Beha. He’s an unusually engaged young author who wrote a thoughtful 2009 memoir, The Whole Five Feet, about reading through all fifty volumes of the Harvard Classics “great books” canon yet is equally comfortable launching into brisk up-to-the-minute debates about genre, gender, and atheism on literary blogs and social media.
In his fiction, Beha sticks with the milieu he knows best: educated young Manhattanites with artistic yearnings. Arts & Entertainments plucks one of the more minor of these characters from the background of Beha’s 2012 debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, and gives him a starring role. Eddie Hartley is a good-looking but hapless guy in his early thirties who had once hoped to become a successful actor. He’s now given up the occasional Law & Order audition and is working, without much enthusiasm, as a drama teacher at the Upper East Side Catholic high school that graduated him fifteen years ago. His wife, Susan, an art gallery assistant, is desperate to start a family. But from their combined salaries the Hartleys can scarcely hope to scrounge up enough money for their next round of IVF treatments, much less pay for the care and feeding of any potential offspring.
Enter the modern-day Faustian bargain: a former school chum of Eddie’s, currently an aspiring Internet entrepreneur, offers to arrange the sale of a sex tape Eddie had made years ago with an ex-girlfriend, Martha Martin, who has since become a wildly famous TV star. Eddie convinces himself that selling the tape to solve his financial woes is at best a brilliant plan, at worst a victimless misdemeanor. He’ll lie to his wife that the money is a windfall from a small role he played in a forgotten horror movie that has somehow become a cult hit overseas. He figures that Martha’s celebrity is so ubiquitous in the tabloids and on the Internet that her reputation can’t possibly be tarnished by this random little display of naughty bits. (“There’s no shame in porn these days,” his Web-savvy pal informs him. “Might as well be Universal Studios.”) And Eddie swears he’ll take every precaution to make sure that the tape, once unleashed, can’t be traced back to him.
We all know where this is going. Man plans, Twitter laughs. As soon as the tape goes viral, Eddie is instantly identified as its source and vilified in every corner of the media. His school’s headmaster sacks him without a moment’s hesitation, warning him never to return. Susan, who’s discovered that she’s pregnant with triplets, throws him out of the apartment and dumps his keepsakes out the window onto the street. Their breakup is captured on camera by a swarm of photographers. As the media buzz of judgment against Eddie grows louder and angrier (“Three Tykes — And You’re Out!” shouts the Daily News), it isn’t long before the rivetingly aggrieved Mrs. Hartley is offered a starring role in her own reality show, Desperately Expecting Susan. Eddie is relegated to a tawdry subplot on the series that unfolds separately in a nearby hotel.
The question of who controls the narrative is always a compelling one, in art and in life. Certainly it enhanced the action in Beha’s previous novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, in which a successful young fiction writer surrendered her literary ambitions to follow a fervent Catholic vocation. In Beha’s new book, too, there are hints of the solace that Sophie found in trusting that a higher power is ultimately in charge of one’s story. When Eddie goes with his wife to Mass, he doesn’t buy everything the Church is promoting, “but he liked about it the same thing he’d liked about acting: the understanding that someone was watching, that every action had a purpose and a meaning.”
This time, though, God’s supervisory role is assumed instead by the all-seeing, all-judging media, with ever more malicious consequences. The novel relies on Eddie’s increasingly frantic attempts to reclaim his life from the maw of the celebrity-industrial complex, which forces him into the role of an actor against his will — and the villain, no less — in a life that’s been chosen for him. As satire, this doesn’t work as well as one might hope. Beha’s inventions of competing reality shows (Date Rape Drive-In, Puppy Mill Tycoon) are hardly more outrageous than the real shows on cable nowadays, and his stolid prose style can’t quite keep up with the antic plot. His message — as flies to wanton boys are we to the entertainment gods, who kill us for their sport — tends to overpower and undermine his medium.
But if this cautionary tale suffers from the earnestness of being important, it compensates with a reassuring sense of timelessness. Human folly did not begin with the premiere of Jon & Kate Plus Eight, and is likely to continue long after we’ve moved on to newer arts and entertainments. Satirical flashes of brilliance, more often than not, are evanescent as fireflies, while Beha’s steady gaze over the long haul is likely to last.