In my previous post on Christopher Beha, I was excited to hear that he had a new novel out (Arts & Entertainments) but hadn’t yet read it. Having corrected the omission, I can confirm the novel’s affinity with some of Waugh’s earlier work. A Handful of Dust comes particularly to mind, concerned as both novels are with the pressures that tear down a dream of idyllic family happiness, including marital infidelity (though the infidelity in A&E is mainly fictional for the sake of the camera). Neither novel is entirely satire, since as the New York Times reviewer aptly pointed out, it’s all but impossible to satirize a culture that comes so completely pre-self-satirized as either the Bright Young Things or the Real Housewives. For A Handful of Dust, critic Gene Kellogg* suggests the term “apologue” rather than “satire” — in his use of the term, this is a story in which “the emotions aroused in the reader come not from sympathy for the characters but from assent to the statement made by the action.” This seems a fitting description for A&E as well; we’re meant to view its characters with a certain amount of detachment, not so much to feel deeply for their various absurd plights as to reflect on what the bare possibility of such plights means for our society. Yet sympathy for the characters is far from impossible here, either. Both Beha and Waugh succeed in humanizing a subculture that is often viewed as totally frivolous. The novels’ humor balances their darkness, and their awareness of that darkness keeps any frivolity from spiraling out of control.
More can and must be said, but I’ll leave the big themes to the big guns. The Millions review shouldn’t be missed, nor Beha’s own interview about the novel at Harper’s. Do note Beha’s remarks at the end about religion and realism, which resonate with the recent discussion amongst Elie, Wolfe, and Gioia about faith in fiction.
Attentive readers of the novel will also pick up on Beha’s sly, subtle yet thrilling shout-out to J.F. Powers in Moody’s late monologue, as Moody describes his transition from ex-seminarian to reality TV producer. We’ve already visited that “retreat house in Minnesota run by the Order of St. Clement” where Moody discovered his gift for getting people to reveal their inner lives on film. (The Clementines don’t exist; they were created by Powers for his novel Morte D’Urban, which itself wrestles with questions of appearance vs. reality, the ways in which personal integrity is compromised by striving for image, and to what degree the real self can truly survive its constant friction with the masks we present to others. Major, major intertextuality win here.)
* in his The Vital Tradition, which looks at the rise of the Catholic novel in France, England, and America over a period of roughly 200 years.