Arts & Entertainments: A Novel
288 pp., 19.05
Hold the Dark: A Novel
208 pp., 24.95
D. G. Myers
Redefining Religious Fiction
Two years later Beha (pronounced bay-uh), now 34, has written a sequel in which the Catholic religion is an undertone, but like a ringing in the ears. Set in the Manhattan of the present day, Arts and Entertainments is a 21st-century Faust written in the style of Muriel Spark. It tells the story of Eddie Hartley, a washed-out television actor who teaches drama at St. Albert's, a prep school on the Upper East Side for Catholics who had "finally arrived in the higher reaches of society and wanted their own version of the private schools where rich Protestants sent their sons." Ten years after he himself graduated from St. Albert's, "Handsome Eddie" is married but childless, although he and his wife, Susan—an Ohio girl who works in an art gallery—have "actually been trying for a while." In desperation they have resorted to artificial reproduction, so far unsuccessfully, but since it is not covered by their medical insurance, the young couple are "out of pocket more than ten grand in the past six months," and are now broke.
Eddie's friend Max Blakeman offers to help. A "lit scenester" who performed a similar Pandarus-like role in What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Blakeman sets Eddie up with Morgan Bench, a self-described "meme evangelist" and internet entrepreneur. Bench has heard that Eddie has some old videos of his ex-girlfriend Martha Martin, the star of a five-years-running television show about a miracle-working doctor. A "real beauty, a rarity," Martha is also a celebrity whose image is everywhere—on the 24-hour entertainment channels, in newspapers and online, on the sides of buses. It doesn't take long for Eddie to overcome his initial reluctance and peddle a sex tape for one hundred thousand dollars. He uses the windfall to pay for his wife's in-vitro fertilization. Within a few weeks, Susan is pregnant with triplets.
Although Eddie has carefully removed any evidence of himself from the tape, it is quickly traced back to him when it goes viral. St. Albert's fires him. Camera crews stake out his apartment building. Susan kicks him out, flinging his belongings from an upstairs window as the news photographers click away. The scene is on the front page of the Daily News the next morning. Suddenly, Eddie finds himself in demand as he never was as an actor. Celebrity magazines and talk shows offer him five figures for his side of the story. "You've got a shot at fame here," his agent tells him—on reality tv. But only in a show featuring both him and Susan.
When Eddie balks ("I want to be on television," he says, "just not like that"), Susan does the show by herself. Desperately Expecting Susan it is called. She becomes a "darling" of the "celebrity world." And before he knows it, Eddie is cast as the unwilling antagonist of Susan's wildly popular story. He is discussed and derided on chat boards, his comings and goings reported on gossip sites, his future with Susan voted on in online polls. Magazine "spies" lie in wait to snap his picture in embarrassing get-ups and poses. He cannot venture outside his hotel room without becoming the object of public fascination. Eddie begins to feel "like a man awaiting trial in a police state."
So he decides to fight back. Enlisting a 19-year-old girl to pretend to be his new girl-friend, Eddie works his way back into the story. He is recast as the "boy toy" of a "teen tart." And sure enough, the producers of Desperately Expecting Susan react by wanting him on the show—not to reunite with his wife, which is Eddie's plan, but as a "separate storyline," the "cad and the nymphet." "It's going to be great for the ratings," Eddie is reassured. A television crew is assigned to film his every move. Eddie realizes he will now "have to stay forever in character." Although he tries to keep his "inner self" private ("they couldn't film his mind," he tells himself), Eddie soon discovers that he is "walking through a world that had been meticulously constructed only so that he could walk through it." Even when he performs the turn from cad to saint, even when he finally gets his wife back, Eddie knows he will never get his life back. Reality tv has bought it, and it belongs to reality tv. The novel ends with the reminder that Eddie and Susan will always be watched.