Arts & Entertainments
By Christopher Beha
(Ecco, 288 pages, $14.99)
Eddie Hartley is a failure. His acting career barely extends beyond a handful of bit parts in Law & Order. He’s a high school drama teacher, but the best he can muster toward his students is apathy. He and his wife Susan have been trying (unsuccessfully) to have children, and expensive fertility treatments have left them deep in debt. Meanwhile, Eddie’s talented and beautiful ex-girlfriend Martha, who dumped him when her own acting career took off, has enjoyed nothing but success. She’s got everything and he’s got nothing.
Well, he has one thing: a sex tape they made together. It’s worth, he discovers, a hundred thousand dollars. A hundred thousand dollars could end his debt, finance another round of fertility treatments, and even leave Eddie with a little pile of money that’s just his own. He could edit out his own face and preserve his privacy. And as for his ex-girlfriend’s privacy—well—doesn’t she sort of deserve this?
So begins Christopher Beha’s accomplished—but also, very frustrating—novel, Arts & Entertainments. The book is being billed as a satire of celebrity culture, but while people who follow gossip rags will find much to smile over, the book is not at its most interesting or even compelling on that level. When all of Beha’s America watches the slow decline of a reality TV star until her inevitable death, it’s easy to fill in the names: Amy Winehouse. Whitney Houston. And so on. They may not be reality TV stars, but they might as well be.
But that’s all right. The other story at play here isn’t one about celebrity or fame, but despair and recognition. It’s a story about Eddie Hartley, a man so sunken in his own misery that he can see neither beyond nor within himself. A bit character within his own life (and, indeed, a bit character from Beha’s previous novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder), he views the people around him as the unimportant props of his unimportant story. Nothing in his world is real. Early in the book, before he’s decided to sell the tape, Eddie considers how he’s slowly divested his ex-girlfriend of her reality:
Even if he avoided NBC…she was liable to turn up on another network, plugging a late-night spot. The new twenty-four-hour celebrity news channel, Entertainment Daily, seemed to devote more than half its coverage to Martha…. Eventually he 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.
What Eddie does not realize is that he hasn’t done this just to Martha, but to everyone else in his life, particularly his wife (when he tries to remember their first meeting, he can’t “really picture a person at all so much as a hazy, warmth-conferring glow”). And he still doesn’t realize when he does sell the tape and his attempts at privacy prove futile, even as the entertainment industry does the same thing to him. He neither perceives the justice at work after he sells the tape, nor the way in which all his evil is being turned to good.
For everything that happens in the book contains a kind of gleeful justice: the tape benefits its victims, both intentional (Martha) and unintentional (Susan). After he sells the tape and collects the money, Eddie even briefly considers leaving his wife. Instead, once she’s found out what he’s done, she throws him out of their home. She ends up with her own reality TV show, and her own career benefits enormously. Meanwhile, Martha only gets more successful and famous. As for Eddie, all he can do is sit in his hotel room and watch these people on TV.
When Susan appears on TV, Eddie finds himself attracted to her once more. Now driven to return to his marriage, he doesn’t pause to consider that he did not want his wife until he was told to want her by his television, or that all he has learned from her TV self is that he doesn’t really know her. Susan has entered a state where she’s neither real nor fictional, she’s both herself and not herself. Instead, she’s a kind of dream Susan, one where she is everything she wants to be and everything Eddie desires that she be.
But as Susan becomes America’s sweetheart, Eddie becomes America’s most loathed. He protests that these people don’t know him, that they’ve misjudged him, and that he’s a better guy than they think. Indeed, at first he draws a sense of moral superiority from his refusal to participate in the entertainment circuit. Eventually, he enters the reality TV game himself in order to try and control his public persona, but only comes off as worse. And despite his claims that the anonymous audience judging him just doesn’t know him, it’s not so clear these audiences don’t.
The novel’s frustrations also come from Eddie. Arts & Entertainments is so steeped in Eddie’s thinking that one longs for something to cut through his myopia, but it never comes. Even a woman who attacks him in public at one point in the book (it makes sense in context) turns out to be a part of the elaborate story mechanism around him. There is no escape from this dream world, at least not for Eddie. And though he doesn’t need to escape for the book to be worth reading, there’s a claustrophobic feeling that sets in as the story rolls on. Every once in a while, one must put it down to get some air.
Near the end of the book, Eddie encounters the reality TV producer behind almost everything that has happened to him in the book. The producer offers Eddie a place in the story, but only as the villain. Taking on the persona of a villain will be self-sacrificial, elevating his wife’s good over his own. Eddie can’t do it, because the story he’s being offered—the kind of villain he is being asked to become—isn’t true.
But though he’s not the kind of bad guy he needs to be, he’s not the kind of good guy he thinks he is. He can’t lie, but he won’t tell the truth either. He won’t become the villain, but he won’t confess his sins. In his final push to be reunited with his wife, he suffers greatly, but his conversation with the producer has ushered him into a world where that suffering is as staged as everything else. He wonders whether what’s happening is real; the producer’s response is that it doesn’t matter.
In the end, Eddie agrees. “Is it real?” isn’t a question he can ask any more, because he’s in a world where that question doesn’t mean anything, and hasn’t for a long time. In the dream world he’s entered, Eddie achieves a dream resolution to his problem. It might be a real one, too. The pity is, he’ll never know. And neither will we.