A realist noted for both the richness of his style and the satiric implications of his fictional portraits of middle-class life and values, John Updike is one of the most prolific and accomplished writers in contemporary America. Novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and poet, he is frequently grouped with John Cheever and J. D. Salinger as a practitioner of “The New Yorker story,” a form known for its stylistic understatement as well as for the sparseness of its plot. Updike’s work is too varied, however, his style too evocative, to be quickly labeled. In his numerous novels, he has experimented with many subjects and created a widely divergent cast of characters. The hero of Bech Is Back, an aging and unproductive Jewish novelist and intellectual, testifies to Updike’s range.
Ironically, Henry Bech, first introduced in Bech: A Book (1970), is the very antithesis of his creator: far from being able to produce a book a year, as Updike has, Bech struggles for more than thirteen years to write a new novel, the immense and sloppy Think Big. In the meantime, he lives off royalties from paperback reprints and honoraria from lectures and college readings. As his creator’s alter ego, Henry Bech is an effective satiric device for viewing contemporary life and culture. He is the modern artist caught in what Updike describes in the novel as “the tenor of meaninglessness in our late-twentieth-century, post-numinous, industrial-consumeristic civilization.”
In Bech’s world, sex, literature, and religion have become decadent and empty—the victims of overexperimentation and liberation, commercial exploitation, and the insatiable craving of almost everyone for easy money. Touring Canada and Australia, Bech encounters attractive young women whose sexual arrangements confuse and bewilder him. Two, Hannah and Moira, share each other as well as a common boyfriend. On the literary scene, publishing firms have been swallowed up by huge oil companies and conglomerates, and the old committed and exciting writers have vanished. “Sexual display” has replaced “the noble tradition of social criticism” in American literature. Bech’s own reputation is kept alive only because each large corporation that buys Vellum Press, his publisher, reprints his early novels in yet another paperback format in order to make a profit. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which Bech unwillingly visits with his enthusiastic wife, is at once an architectural monster—so much so that the priest-guide who accompanies Bech and Bea hides his head in his hands—an object of commercial exploitation, and a bone of contention among various Christian sects. There, a fat Greek priest sips wine in a pew, then later hustles business selling blessed candles. At the Wailing Wall, where the Jewish Bech feels no link with the praying Hasidic Jews, lice infest the stones, while beverage and camera film signs mar the Via Dolorosa where Christ stumbled on his way to Calvary.
Throughout the novel, Bech is the recording consciousness for Updike’s implicit cultural and social satire. Ironically, because Bech is himself driven by a concern for comfort and sex—a post-Modernist writer enamored of the life of the artist but not the hard work—his eye for the “irrelevant” details of corruption is all the more significant. As greedy and egotistical as the next man, Bech is made uncomfortable in the Middle East and the Third World countries he tours: his own consumeristic American identity is mirrored there, and he must repeatedly confront his own dissatisfaction and stagnation. In Kenya on a lecture tour, he agrees with a young African who tells Bech that his novels “are weeping,...
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