Is this a new kind of ‘religious novel’?

Christopher Beha’s novel Arts & Entertainments can be read in a single evening; Rebecca Mead says so in her cover blurb, and I can attest to it. Not that that should be among the criteria for a recommendation, but it does say something about the style of prose and pace of the plotting—“breezy and breakneck,” maybe, if more cover-ready copy is ever needed. But is it also a religious book? The blurbs offer no clues to that.

Little surprise, given the likely intended audience, whose ranks would probably include the kind of people who inhabit its pages: thirtyish New Yorkers in and at the fringes of the creative class. Like the novel’s art gallery employee with a secret fondness for the religious works of the Renaissance says: “I can’t even tell people I believe in God. They find it ridiculous.” Arts & Entertainments may not be about belief: Beha’s main subjects are celebrity obsession and the insidiousness of reality television, the narrative kicked into action by the sale of a sex tape. But belief is in its pages, even if sometimes tough to square with the occasionally unlikely turns of the plot.

Which is, in summary: former smalltime actor “Handsome” Eddie Hartley, now teaching drama at the tony Upper East Side Catholic school he attended as part of a scholarship program for less privileged students, is mired in debt from unsuccessful fertility treatments for his child-yearning wife (the aforementioned art gallery employee). With good intentions and terrible judgment, he takes up an offer to sell intimate footage from years before of himself and his former girlfriend, a talented and beautiful actress since gone on to television fame. Though he edits himself out of the video, he’s quickly and inevitably identified as the villainous purveyor—a development that casts his wife into the spotlight as the woman-been-wronged heroine of a reality TV show called “Desperately Expecting Susan,” which will track the successful impregnation (triplets!) made possible by new fertility treatments paid for with the money Eddie got for the video. It soon becomes Eddie’s quest to win Susan back, a desire that plays out publicly as Eddie himself is incorporated into the show as the obligatory bad boy—his dream of acting ironically fulfilled as he’s trailed everywhere by camera and crew.

If you’ve watched even a single episode of any reality show, you’ll recognize the traits and tropes Beha is out to satirize in making his larger point about the distortion of “reality” in an age of unapologetic exhibitionism and voyeurism. You might ask: What’s there even to satirize? And that’s a bit of a problem with Arts & Entertainments: For all of its lightness of touch, it displays periodic heavy-handedness; for all of its momentum, it can feel a step or two behind (a reality show actually called “Dating Naked” is debuting tonight). The ironies come pre-cooked, and a sly last line doesn’t feel fully deserved. Still, it’s compelling in the way that Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City—a book it recalls somewhat—was on first read thirty years ago.

How much those religious strains have to do with it is another issue. They appear at odd times and can seem randomly deposited, as when a little light talk about Mass and hymns reads as obligatory fleshing out of character. But then there’s the part where Eddie recalls feeling something like transcendence as a ten-year-old altar boy, when his “whole body buzzed with the presence of something other than himself”—a moment he has never told anyone about, but a sensation he thinks later “had sometimes visited him while he was onstage.” There’s also the elusive creator of the reality series, a former seminarian who learned his current trade by assisting with a fundraising video for a cash-strapped retreat house. He tells Eddie:

The things that were really going on there couldn’t be captured on film, because they were meant for God, not the audience. They happened inside people. [So] I started to intervene in little ways. When I saw someone praying, I suggested that he look up a bit more, or put his hands in a reverential pose. … 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. … The audience gives us free will, but it expects us to use that freedom in a way that pleases it.

And when he finally reveals what Eddie must do for the sake of the show, he characterizes it as “taking on the sins of the world.” What does it add up to? I’m hesitant to superimpose unwarranted meaning. Still, considering Beha’s debut novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder, along with his own public comments on his Catholicism, there would seem to be purpose. D. G. Myers, writing in Books & Culture, sees that purpose, and talks about it in connection with the larger discussion on faith in fiction that Paul Elie initiated in 2012 in the New York Times Book Review:

Elie commits the error that so many commit in talking about religion: he reduces it to the confession of belief, which must be uttered in a voice loud enough to be heard over the fashionable din. … It doesn't follow that provocative and satisfying religious fiction is not still being written. … [In Arts & Entertainments] the Catholic religion is an undertone, but like a ringing in the ears. …

So is it the kind of religious novel for this kind of time? Myers continues:

Beha serves up reality TV as a parody, or travesty, of divine providence. Eddie Hartley may exercise freedom of will, but only within the narrow limits of what reality TV will permit. … Eddie tries to find substitutes for transcendence in acting, and it remains without religious significance for him: "If asked, he would have said he was Catholic, just as he would have said he was Irish—it was a matter of birth, not of action or belief." Everything that happens to him after peddling the sex tape happens because of his failure to make "that feeling" the basis of action or belief. Like so many of his contemporaries, he prefers fame and the buzz to God.

A preference so strong that maybe any mention of religion in publicity for the book could be seen as the kiss of death for sales…. But then, maybe no such blurb is needed: the undertones will reach those who’ll hear them, and persist beyond the evening spent reading Arts & Entertainments—itself a far better use of time than watching a reality show in the first place.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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