Call It His Soul
Arts & Entertainments
By Christopher Beha
The title character of Christopher Beha’s first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, argues that beauty is “a kind of byproduct of the elegance with which an object meets its purpose… Beauty can only be arrived at while meeting some real need.” If Sophie Wilder is correct, then Beha’s second novel, Arts & Entertainments, achieves a sneaky kind of beauty in the way that it fulfills “some real need” I didn’t even realize I had. In his satire of society’s obsession with celebrity culture, Beha accomplishes quite a feat. He makes art of the vapid world of reality television.
Handsome Eddie Hartley, the central character of Arts & Entertainments, is a failed actor-cum-drama teacher at his alma mater, St. Albert’s, an exclusive all-boys school in New York City. He’s so detached from his job that he repeats his high school drama teacher’s opening-day speech verbatim even though he doesn’t believe a word of it. Eddie doesn’t care to motivate, or even teach, his students; his goals are “keeping himself out of trouble by avoiding any student complaints… [and] making sure he didn’t accidentally inspire one of them to a vocation, which could only end badly.”
His low expectations hold true in his personal life, as well. Jilted years ago by the beautiful, and now hugely successful, actress Martha Martin, he has settled for a quiet life with gallery-assistant wife Susan. At least it was quiet, until they decided to have a child. After years of trying, they discover that Eddie isn’t just a failed actor; he’s also a failed procreator, with such a low sperm count that in vitro fertilization is their only option. Susan is so fixated on having children that she can utter words like this with absolute, heartbreaking sincerity: “I just miss my children… it’s like they exist out there somewhere—not just the idea of them—and they’re being kept from us.” These children are kept from them largely due to the expense of IVF.
But Eddie soon discovers that he has a winning lottery ticket tucked deep in his pocket. During his six years with Martha, they kept a video camera trained on them at all times in hopes of improving their acting technique. She dumped him so abruptly, as soon as she got her big break, that Eddie was left with all of the footage. When an offer arrives via a friend-of-a-friend, he goes back through it in search of something juicy enough to cash in on. Confronted by the past, “Eddie felt embarrassed for his younger self, trapped in this bubble of dramatic irony, where not just the audience but the other characters knew the simple truth that hadn’t dawned on him.” For all his good looks, Handsome Eddie can’t act. Before this realization can sink in, he hits the jackpot: a twenty-minute sex scene that can be edited into a steamy viral video without exposing his identity. To Beha’s credit, he doesn’t have Eddie belabor the decision. The promise of a six-figure payday trumps all moral qualms, thus setting in motion a plot that includes two pregnancies, at least as many reality shows, and Eddie’s ensuing ups and downs.
Arts & Entertainments is at its best when focused on our culture’s obsession with celebrity. Faced with Martha’s image everywhere—on television, buses, and defunct phone booths, not to mention in newspapers and magazines—Eddie
learned to do what everyone else apparently did, which was to believe that she wasn’t actually real. In this way, she became for him what she’d already become for the rest of the world—not a human being at all, but a vessel into which could be poured all of his longing and his hope and finally all of his disappointment.
Eddie ends up becoming such a “vessel” when his identity as both costar in and purveyor of the Martha Martin sex tape becomes public. Online polls pop up asking viewers whether or not Susan should take him back, and people accost him on the street. Even his wife, who has previously shown nothing but disdain for the manufactured drama of low-brow entertainment, succumbs to the spotlight’s allure. Contemplating her picture on the front page of the Daily News the morning after she’s thrown him out of their apartment, “he tried to make sense of what had happened. It wasn’t her anger that puzzled him, but the performance of it. She was not the type for dramatic gestures, but a few cameras seemed already to have changed her.”
Performance is at the heart of the novel. When Eddie ends up on a reality show starring his wife, the wonderfully titled Desperately Expecting Susan, his background as an actor gets in the way of relatability, “the gold standard for a character.” While Susan performs like a natural before the camera, he has to be coached to make the transformation from failed actor/ real person to character in a reality show. His early attempts to “act” like himself leave the director no choice but to walk him through what he should be feeling in each scene. Here, Beha does more than expose the manipulation behind so-called reality TV. He shows Eddie’s ineptitude. The man can’t act, can’t teach, can’t even “be” himself on camera. No wonder releasing a sex tape seems like a good idea.
Ironically, the better he becomes at these performances, “the more persistently he felt the presence of an unseen self… It must have been that he’d had an inner self all along, but he’d never experienced it in this way. It had only developed in resistance to something” (207-8). His wife, a practicing Catholic, would have called it his soul. Eddie guards this “inner self” carefully, hiding it from the camera even during the “in-the-moment” interviews designed to expose such depth. The person who is most comfortable playing a role—whether as an actor or a teacher—finds himself chaffing at the gap between perception and reality. The director and editor aren’t the only ones who shape events to create a fictional reality. Eddie begins playing for the camera, and developing a persona, so that he can protect that “unseen self” from his audience’s insatiable appetite for access to his life, at the same time becoming a more compelling, and fictionalized, version of himself.
That Eddie comes to realize the presence of a soul only when faced with the degrading experience of seeing his every move manipulated for the viewer’s pleasure suggests a perversion of Socrates’ belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living”; based on the desperate attempts so many characters make to grab screen time, in Eddie’s world, and possibly ours, life off camera is not worth living. Everyone in this book wants in on the action. Often, as is the case with Susan, those who rail against the formulaic, lowest-common-denominator format of reality TV are the ones who work the hardest to curry its favor when the opportunity arises. The lure of life in the public eye is best explained by the book’s Svengali, Brian Moody, a former divinity student turned reality television entrepreneur. “We exist for the audience—” he explains to Eddie in his moment of doubt, “on a basic level, it created us. The audience gives us free will, but it expects us to use that freedom in a way that pleases it.” Moody, the lapsed Catholic who got his start coaching his fellow monastics in how to behave before the camera, has substituted the television-viewing audience for God:
“In the world I used to live in, good is whatever God wants… In the world I live in now, it’s the same thing. There’s only one criterion. What does the audience want?”
One of the novel’s simpler delights comes on seeing the lengths Moody is willing to go to in order to satisfy these viewers. By the end of the novel, almost everyone Eddie has come into contact with seems to be under Moody’s thumb.
The challenge in writing a satire about reality television is the danger that one’s book will sink to the level of its subject matter. Beha avoids this pitfall by focusing on what Eddie learns about himself, and this new world he is a part of. After reading a newspaper profile of the woman with whom he shared his first kiss, he “realize[s] something he’d been too busy to understand sooner: he was a regular on a television show. He’d gotten what he’d always wanted.” Later, once he’s grown more savvy in this role, he discovers that Melissa, the young actress he’s hired to play his mistress, “wasn’t his guide; she was his competitor.” Eddie doesn’t just grow more adept at manipulating reality television; he becomes a deeper, more introspective person.
The novel’s strengths aren’t limited to plotting and character development. While not a flashy stylist, the rhythm of Beha’s sentences matches Eddie’s thought patterns perfectly. When considering Susan’s frustration at being relegated to a gallery assistant, he realizes:
It had never occurred to [him] that this might be another part of Susan’s disappointment. And now it seemed there might be a remedy to it. She didn’t have to play the part of long-suffering assistant. She didn’t have to play the part of childless wife. She could play whatever part she wanted.
The string of parallel declarative sentences mirrors his slowly-dawning realization. As the novel moves forward, he becomes more perceptive. These perceptions are presented more succinctly, as in the earlier quotation regarding his competition with his girlfriend-for-hire. That realization comes across in two clauses, linked by a semi-colon, not three distinct sentences.
Beha’s greatest triumph comes in the way Moody subverts Eddie’s final stand at asserting his independence from the script prepared for him. Only when Eddie seemingly breaks free from the constraints of reality television is he confronted with just how much of himself he has sacrificed for his newfound fame. Though he has transformed himself from the villain who sold a sex tape into the hero who wins back his wife at the last moment, he is still trapped within a world of Moody’s creating. Tellingly, Moody refers to his own role as an “authorial intrusion.” For all of his posturing about the primacy of the audience, Moody reveals himself to be the god of this storyline.
Near the end of Arts & Entertainments, Eddie and Susan finally return to a place where they can share a moment that “wasn’t something that could be captured or reproduced.” While this would come as a triumph to most people, Beha leaves his protagonist in doubt: “Eddie was almost certain it was real.” Unlike Eddie, who has tossed and turned in the maelstrom of the reality-TV world for too long, readers are left in no doubt as to Beha’s talents. What Happened to Sophie Wilder introduced a promising new voice in American fiction. With Arts & Entertainments, Beha builds on his first novel’s strengths, showing that he has the depth and range necessary for a long, exciting career as a novelist.
Matthew Duffus is a fiction writer and book reviewer who lives in North Carolina.