Christopher Beha’s second novel, Arts + Entertainments, tells the story of the fascinating rise and fall of “Handsome” Eddie Hartley, a never-quite-launched-actor turned high school drama teacher turned improbable reality television star. When we encounter Eddie—who, along with a few other characters, was first introduced in Beha’s acclaimed debut What Happened to Sophie Wilder—he is professionally disappointed and financially struggling; he and his wife, Susan, unhappily childless, are facing the prospect of expensive fertility treatments. Desperate, Eddie agrees to sell a sex tape he’d made years before with a now-very-famous ex-girlfriend—a decision that opens up a Pandora’s Box of dubious instant-celebrity, among other things. After throwing Eddie out, Susan—now pregnant with triplets—is offered her own reality television show. Hoping to win her back, Eddie accepts a role on the show—and with it the terms of a thoroughly modern Faustian bargain.
A smart, biting exploration of the tensions between reality and performance, pretending and believing, audience and self, Arts + Entertainments is also a thoughtful meditation on the fundamental human need to believe that somebody out there is watching. Beha notes that the book’s themes emerged from its plot and character, rather than the other way around. “I started just wanting to tell a story,” he says. “Everything thematic came after.” Instead, Arts + Entertainments’ intellectual considerations arose from what Beha calls his “natural preoccupations”—“questions about what’s enduring, questions about tradition vs. novelty”—and though Arts + Entertainments is fast-paced and supremely readable, there’s no missing the complexity and heft of those preoccupations. Through the prism of reality television, Beha explores a series of questions that are as urgent for readers as they are for Eddie: What makes an authentic self? What comprises a meaningful life? And how should narrative—whether literary or televisual—position itself in regard to reality?
It’s rare to read a novel rooted in questions that feel both so contemporary and so timeless—though it’s also rare to read a novel about a sex tape that draws substantial inspiration from Catholic ethics and the fiction of Edith Wharton. It was Wharton’s short story “That Good May Come”—about a struggling poet who, failing to sell any poetry, sells a piece of gossip instead—that served as the initial idea for Arts + Entertainments. “I was struck by…the idea of this gossip culture existing 100 years ago,” says Beha. “A lot of the things we think are unique about our present moment have always been that way.” In contemplating the story as potential source material, he says, “it became very clear to me if you were going to update that story for contemporary times it would be an actor, not a writer, and it would be a sex tape.”After agreeing to appear on the show, Eddie soon finds himself playing a leading role in the TV version of his own life. It’s a performance in which he is increasingly cast as the antagonist—and a job that turns out to be terrifyingly hard to quit. Early on, Eddie realizes that the camera’s distorting influence doesn’t only make a performance of reality, but a reality of performance. The logic of fame upends the motivations of everyone around him: Melissa, the media-savvy aspiring actress who casts herself as Eddie’s new love interest; Susan, whose life Eddie can only watch on TV; and Eddie himself, who finds himself increasingly doubtful of the reality of anything at all. We watch with growing horror as Eddie struggles first to map his experiences onto, then fit them into, the show’s provided template.
It was in the course of researching that template that Beha discovered that reality television, like literature, has its own set of narrative tropes—“in-the-moments,” for example, “where [characters] speak in the present tense about the things [they] did yesterday.” Beha realized reality shows have conventions “like [writers] have literary conventions—a way to try to approximate reality.” Beha deftly deploys those conventions to convey the surreal quality of Eddie’s ensnarement. Trapped in a maze of stage-managed interactions, deceptively-edited conversations, and ever-present cameras, Eddie begins to suffer from the kind of crisis of authenticity that many people of the internet age—even those who never sell a sex tape—may experience in microcosm. Though Eddie’s situation is extreme, his chronic, ambivalent need to reify his experience by means of an audience is deeply familiar. In our current social media culture, says Beha, “nothing seems real to people until it’s been publicized…It’s once the conversation about the thing happens that the initial encounter becomes real.”
For Beha, this modern distrust of—or lack of interest in—the private, unobserved encounter ties into a broader cultural shift. “I see it as bound up with the fact that a very limited and pretty crude form of scientific materialism has become the overriding metaphysic of our whole culture,” he says. “Nothing is real unless it can become quantified and verified by a third-party source.” Our corresponding need to compulsively share and record experience, he says, has deep—and worrisome— implications. “The thing that seems to be in peril is the idea of the inner life, which for me has a religious element.” Though Beha notes that religious themes are “muted” in Arts + Entertainments, the novel is distinctive for its willingness to engage with religious themes—and depict religious characters—at all. “Very few people are writing contemporary books in which the characters are religious and that isn’t treated as some sort of defect,” Beha says. His decision to write about what he calls “religious moderates”—the character Susan, like Beha himself, is a practicing Catholic—is to some extent “sociological.” “They exist,” he says. “And they don’t exist in cultural representations.” On a deeper level, religious faith informs Beha’s writing by informing his worldview—manifesting itself most obviously, perhaps, in Eddie’s trajectory of redemption, as his increasing alienation with the pseudo-reality around him prompts a growing recognition of his own inner life.
The power of this transformation hinges on persuasively depicting that pseudo-reality in the first place. This is an interesting challenge for a realist writer, and one that resonates with Beha’s broader interest in the distinction between—and debate over—realism vs. meta-fiction. Ultimately, Arts + Entertainments, like reality television itself, winds up inhabiting both realms simultaneously—and to Beha, this aesthetic hybridization reflects a commitment to the project of realism, rather than a departure from it. “If you think about realism as a desire to capture reality,” Beha says. “It is a truth about reality that an awful lot of people walking around understand themselves as characters.”
Jennifer duBois’ novel Cartwheel was published by Random House in 2013. She is the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award.