A man desperate for cash makes a deal with the reality TV devil in this thoughtful, occasionally lecturing second novel from Harper’s deputy editor Beha (What Happened to Sophie Wilder, 2012, etc.).
Eddie is an erstwhile actor who’s given up on the occasional Law & Order gig to teach at the tony New York City Catholic boys school he attended. The job doesn’t pay enough to cover the in vitro fertilization treatments he and his wife, Susan, have signed on for, but a friend of a friend suggests a way to make some quick money: Sell the footage he recorded of himself with his ex-girlfriend Martha, now a red-hot actress. The sex tape boosts his bank account but botches everything else: Susan kicks him out of their apartment, he’s fired from the school, and the tabloids turn “Handsome Eddie” into an object of ridicule. Eddie is desperate to right himself morally and reconnect with Susan, especially since the IVF treatment worked, but he’s no longer in charge of his own story: A reality TV producer has made Susan the star of a show about her pregnancy, and Eddie can only enter the picture when the narrative is appropriate for his redemption. This is the stuff of comedy, but Beha gives it a sober-sided treatment; he’s concerned with the ways mass media hijack our sense of free will to the point where we only play-act at emotions and live vicariously through celebrities. That theme is old news, and Beha’s scenes about viral popularity and entertainment-TV news cycles are familiar and didactic. But the storytelling is ingenious. As Eddie becomes increasingly stage-managed to appear more “authentic,” Beha infuses the story with rich, potent irony, suggesting how susceptible we are to others’ plotting.
Beha gets to have it both ways: His novel is at once brisk and episodic while critiquing the limits of brisk, episodic narrative.