Long live long: longreads, longtakes, longforms. The age of short attention spans has paradoxically, though perhaps predictably, fetishized all things long. The longer the piece, the better for the writer who writes all those words, and the best for the reader who reads them. The length of the work, like the height of a person, can be mistaken for worth: as if there could be no tall fools or short prophets.
And yet, one of the longest of genres, the novel, betrays this folly. I was reminded of this last month while reading Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments. I read it the way one remembers reading as a child: in almost one sitting, barely distracted by drinks and nibbles, almost immune to the stream of information online and on television, even though that stream is the body of material into which the novel casts its net.
Of all things, the least of which we have is time, and short novels seem to tip their hats courteously to that fact.
Published in July, Arts & Entertainments is a perfect specimen of what can be called the short novel. Variously dismissed as confused, connected short story collections or the diminutive novella, these short novels are instead ambitious little beasts that respect both form and function.
Of all things, the least of which we have is time, and short novels tip their hats courteously to that fact. Beha’s novel is only 272 pages. It has 24 chapters and is divided into four parts. Arts & Entertainments is perfectly plotted, and, like the reality television shows it takes for its subjects, it seems to understand how episodes and seasons can convey the patterns of daily life.
The novel’s protagonist, Eddie Hartley, is a failed actor and floundering high school drama teacher who desperately needs thousands of dollars for his wife’s fertility treatments. His Faustian bargain is not exchanging his soul for knowledge, but rather $100,000 for a sex tape that he made with an ex-girlfriend who is now a famous actress.
Relentlessly contemporary, the novel is filled with gossip rags and paparazzi websites, reality television producers and meme evangelists. Scandal spreads on the social media platform Teeser, and magazines like CelebNation print all the news that’s fit to pulp.
Arts & Entertainments, though, is about the reality obfuscated by those realities. When Eddie is drafted into a reality television series, the sex tape having made him the kind of famous that is too tawdry for anything but cable, his life is suddenly all scripted, or at least staged. The self-consciousness of his public persona is strained when almost every private minute is recorded and then edited into screen-able footage; his paranoia grows as he realizes nearly every interaction has been engineered by the producers.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, BEHA IS an acolyte of Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh, whose own masterful novels were sharp and short. Just as their satires skewered their times, Beha’s comic novel cast a critical eye on ours.
The difficulty, though, is that the satire of Arts & Entertainments reads occasionally as documentary, since not even the wildest of fictions outdoes the tamest of realities on television, and, like Spark and Waugh, Beha is sometimes unsure about what to do about the religiosity that so clearly fuels his narrative engine.
The novel, as was said of Spark, is best when it is theological, not religious. A few things—like Eddie teaching at a Catholic school, his wife going to Mass although she seems unconcerned with the Church’s teachings on in vitro fertilization, and even a strange dialogue between Eddie and a former seminarian turned television mogul for whom predestination is not a philosophical problem but a production choice solved by contract—feel almost gaudy in a novel whose very structure is a graceful conversation about omniscience and free will, the hagiography of celebrity, and the morality of everyday decisions.
The economy of that provocative, sophisticated conversation about the very meaning of life is the novel’s true delight. Arts & Entertainments is efficient: it delights without digression; entertains with excursus. If only there were a hashtag for such lean, but learned reads.