Arts & Entertainments
by christopher beha
ecco, 288 pages, $14.99
In Christopher Beha’s excellent debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder?, writer Charlie Blakeman nearly laughs when Sophie, his ex-girlfriend and a Catholic convert, says she plans to save the soul of her dying father-in-law, an atheist: “I don’t think I knew a single person who would have spoken in that way about saving someone’s soul,” Charlie observes. “The religious people I knew talked about their faith apologetically. It was an embarrassment to their own reason and intelligence, but somehow a necessary one.”
The idea of religious faith as necessary appears in Beha’s satire Arts & Entertainments, too, but here what interests the author is the absence of faith and the direct and indirect cultural implications of that absence.
Eddie Hartley is thirty-three and teaches drama at his alma mater, St. Albert’s, a prestigious Catholic secondary school in Manhattan. Eddie pursued an acting career in his twenties but has since stopped “aspiring” to create art and, in the process, has become “less interesting” to himself. His wife, Susan, desperately wants children but can’t get pregnant. The couple seek help at Hope Springs Fertility Center, where they discover that Eddie’s semen is “substandard.” The physician recommends IVF, but the $10,000 price tag is too much. A former St. Albert’s classmate introduces Eddie to a screenwriter and website operator who asks Eddie whether he owns any pornographic home videos of his old girlfriend Martha Martin, who since her breakup with Eddie has skyrocketed to fame as the star of the cheesy NBC medical drama Dr. Drake.
Eddie doesn’t remember filming a sex video. On an old disc of line readings for a performance he once auditioned for, however, he discovers that one session became intimate while the camera rolled. Eddie edits himself out of the video and reluctantly makes the decision to sell it for $100,000. He tells Susan that the money is from South Korean royalties for a film he acted in years ago. They turn to IVF, and in short order Susan becomes pregnant with triplets. Soon after, tabloids name Eddie as the source of the video and Susan dumps him in full view of the paparazzi, earning her an invitation to This Morning Live and leading ultimately to her own reality show, Desperately Expecting Susan. Eddie, too, gets a “part” on the show, and Beha skillfully and humorously teases out the absurd implications of staging and scripting a person’s life, filming it, and then pretending it’s reality.
The novel includes a deliciously Faustian character, Brian Moody, who is the genius producer of Desperately Expecting Susan and countless other hit reality shows. He is a former seminarian who spent one summer at a retreat house run by the Order of St. Clement. He finds his true vocation when a documentary film crew arrives at the retreat house to film the order’s activities for fundraising purposes:
These priests, they wanted the video to lead the audience to God. But I realized they had it all wrong. They needed the audience because there is no God. The more I considered it, the more I saw in the audience everything I’d been taught to see in him. Never visible, but always present. Many and one at the same time. We exist for the audienceon a basic level, it created us.
There is little need for another novel satirizing the narcissism and superficiality of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but what distinguishes Beha’s book is the insight that modern people, now deprived of being the apple of God’s eye, must create elaborate and dramatic false idols to satisfy the human need to know that someone, anyone, is taking stock of their lives, however contrived and superficial they may be.
Robert Fay writes from California.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of First Things.