Christopher Beha ’02’s new novel, Arts and Entertainments, is a hilarious send-up of our celebrity culture, but his inspiration came not from watching marathons of The Real Housewives, but from reading Edith Wharton.
A Wharton short story — about an impoverished poet who cannot make money from his poems and is offered the chance to sell a piece of gossip to a newspaper — sparked the idea for the novel. It follows a failed actor who, desperate to afford fertility treatments for his wife, sells a sex tape made with a now-famous former girlfriend. When his identity is revealed, he unwittingly is drawn into the world of reality TV, which quickly takes over his life. The novel expertly skewers our obsession with the world of celebrities — a newspaper headline reads “Nation Mourns” when a reality-TV star dies — and the way in which social media has transformed how we think about our lives.
There has been “a real debasing of interior life,” Beha says, with the pervasiveness of the idea “that everybody’s life is meant to be broadcast, and that your life has meaning to the extent that it is known about by as many people as possible.” The book’s reality-TV maestro, a shadowy figure named Brian Moody, spends a year in seminary before realizing his true calling, enabling Beha to explore the way celebrity culture “substitutes in some way for what religion used to provide.”
This is a first effort at comedy for Beha, a deputy editor at Harper’s magazine. He previously wrote the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder, about a woman who disappears; and The Whole Five Feet, a nonfiction book about reading all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library.
To research reality TV, he turned to friends John Carr ’97 and Josh Harnden ’00, both TV producers who have worked on The Hills, and studied gossip magazines. Though he is not one to post selfies on Instagram, he did include in the novel a doppelganger for Twitter that he dubbed Teeser, since he sometimes finds himself unwittingly addicted to tweeting, he says: “I wanted to write about the stuff that I’m implicated in as well.”
What he’s reading: The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante. “I just finished the third novel in this series, called Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, but it’s worth starting at the beginning, with My Brilliant Friend.
“Not much is known about Ferrante, an Italian writer, but her addictive novels about the troubled lifelong friendship of two women from Naples have the air of autobiography, if only because they feel so lived.”