Indecent Exposure and Christopher Beha’s ‘Arts & Entertainments’

This story, although not mindless, is kind of a trashy read; rather like the celebrity culture it critiques.

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ll know that certain nude photographs of actress Jennifer Lawrence have surfaced online. Lawrence is not amused, to put it lightly, claiming that if you’ve looked at the photos, you’ve committed a sexual offence. The photos were only meant to be seen by her long-distance boyfriend.

Now, a lot of people have waded into this “controversy”, if you want to call it that, but it dovetails nicely with Christopher Beha’s latest novel Arts & Entertainments, which is a book obsessed with the culture of celebrity. But before I turn to that, a few comments. For one, I really don’t get why celebrities – who really don’t have a private life – take nude photos of themselves and then never expect their smartphones or computers to get lost, stolen or hacked. They should know better.

Having said that, though, I suspect that Lawrence is a decent human being and that, as a woman, she’s right. She’s been violated. I feel sorry for her. But let’s just take another angle, shall we? She’s got a new Hunger Games movie coming out in November but, because of the leaked photographs, people were talking about her again much earlier than the movie’s premiere. In fact, you could say that the photos have bolstered her career. Talk show host Wendy Williams agrees with this, saying, “Besides, Jen, you don’t look bad under your clothes and I think the ‘hackilation’ has actually made your career even hotter. ‘Cause she was red hot before, but now it’s like heat-seeking missile hot. So hold your head up with pride!”

And that’s basically the point, or part of the point, of Arts & Entertainments, a novel that posits that the only bad publicity is no publicity, among other things. The first half of the book centers around a sex tape of a famous actress that makes its way to the public, while the last half is an indictment of reality TV. In fact, the novel explores the notion of quality entertainment (ie. serious theatre or scripted TV shows) versus the cultural junk food that everyone seems so ready to devour (ie. reality TV and celebrity gossip). So there’s quite a bit to mull over, even if it all seems familiar.

The book follows protagonist “Handsome Eddie” Hartley, who was once an actor with lofty ambitions and got bit parts on shows such as Law and Order as well as TV commercials. However, the work dried up, partially as a result of Hartley’s apparent lack of talent and, as the saying goes, those who cannot do, teach. So, when the story begins, he is teaching acting classes at a tony private school, unhappy with his life, in a pile of debt, and in a strained relationship with his wife over the fact that they’re unable to conceive.

However, he gets an opportunity. He’s asked by an old friend-turned-Web-impresario if he has anything hot on his former girlfriend, a famous TV actress named Martha Martin, and it turns out, sure enough, Hartley happens to have made a sex tape of her when they were dating that he hasn’t thrown away. (Hartley initially forgot he made this, which is a wild point of the novel – really, what guy would ever lose track of pornography that he made involving his ex?)

Anyhow, Hartley sells the tape for six figures, thinking that by editing himself out of the “performance”, it won’t get tracked back to him. But it does. And so Hartley finds himself out of a job, and thrown out of his apartment by his wife. That’s when the novel begins in earnest as Hartely’s wife, Susan, suddenly find herself thrust into the spotlight and is offered a reality TV show, which she accepts, while Eddie goes about trying to get any acting job that he can while trying to win back Susan’s heart. This is especially important since Susan has received fertility treatments and is now carrying triplets, and Eddie is the father.

If that sounds like a lot of plot, it is. Arts & Entertainments is two or three novels in one. However, the book has a lot to say about celebrity culture and what we value in our stars. A lot of this is preaching to the converted, though. The novel offers a behind-the-scenes look at how reality TV is made, which, granted, has been done before. (See Hal Niedzviecki’s 2009 non-fiction book, The Peep Diaries, for example.) And Beha, who is a deputy editor at Harper’s magazine, has plenty of grist on about trash tabloid TV and newspapers, which does seem redundant.

Also, Arts & Entertainments posits that reality TV is going to go into 24/7 programs, chronicling lives in real time. However, that thread has been already brought up by The Truman Show. So there’s nothing really new about this book. The one pseudo novel thing that this book uncovers is the use of social media in constructing publicity for celebrities. In any event, no matter how tired the message may be overall, Arts & Entertainments has a deckle edge on its pages, which is the publisher’s way of signifying that this is literature of quality. The thing is, the story, although not mindless, is kind of a trashy read.

Arts & Entertainments is also initially tough to get into. Eddie Hartley’s predicament early on is depressing, and he is, as a result, quite embittered. Reading a novel about someone with a chip on their shoulder can be unpleasant. Granted, the story does take off about 100 pages in, once the sex tape plot really kicks in, and it becomes a roller coaster ride from there.

That said, the characterizations seem one dimensional: Susan, in particular, is annoying as all she cares about is having kids, despite the fact that the couple’s money situation is rather precarious. And it’s hard to believe that she would suddenly want to be part of the entertainment industry by signing on for a reality TV show, even if it does cover the cost of raising three kids.

Beyond that, Arts & Entertainments doesn’t possess a great deal of depth; it just hammers home the same tired points about how the celebrity gossip machine is bad for human beings, and reduces real people (who have feelings) to pieces of meat that can be bought or sold. The book, in its latter half, does get interesting in that it shows how Eddie, too, becomes part of the machine by “dating” a teenaged girl in an effort to get back into the papers and try to get on Susan’s show so he can win her back.

Ultimately, while Arts & Entertainments doesn’t really have much that is new to say, it does speak to the base nature of human existence, and the fact that, in today’s pop culture, the only thing that matters is the audience. What the audience wants, the audience gets. Granted, Arts & Entertainments reminds us all that we’re undoubtedly human, and the stories that affect us could hurt another human being. Even though Jennifer Lawrence is a star, and you can argue that having nude pictures floating around is good for her career, at the end of the day, she can be hurt just like anyone else – and yet we hold people like her to a much different standard than we hold ourselves.

RATING 6 / 10