A master stylist, poet, short-story writer, novelist, and critic, John Updike has come to dominate the American literary scene since his first novelThe Poorhouse Fair (1959). More than two dozen critical books have been written about his works, not to mention the many articles and essays published about him yearly. Specializing in sex, religion, and middle-class American mores, Updike has written nearly a book a year in an easy profligacy reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates. His strong, painterly descriptive ability was developed in part from his artistic training at the Ruskin School of Fine Art at Oxford. A frequent writer forThe New Yorker, Updike has influenced writers such as Ann Beattie, Anne Tyler, and Nicholson Baker, who wrote a booklength discussion of that influence entitled U and I (1991). While his popularity as a writer peaked in the 1980’s, his more recent works such as In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) and Toward the End of Time (1997) have depended more on research for inspiration and have earned more mixed reviews. Because of the sheer volume and range of his oeuvre, however, Updike is one of the few remaining examples of a “man of letters,” adept at all aspects of the literary game. His many collections of critical essays provide a rare overview of world fiction from a nontheoretical bias.
Given his achievement, it makes sense that Updike chose a doppleganger fictional creation, Henry Bech, to convey his views on literary celebrity. First appearing in a loosely arranged collection of short stories entitled Bech: A Book (1970), Bech is in many ways Updike’s alter ego. His writer’s block ironically contrasts with Updike’s extreme profligacy. His Jewish alienation differs from Updike’s Christian leanings, but mostly his wry underdog perspective supplies a perfect vehicle for Updike to express his thoughts on the literary fame game in America. Readers call in the middle of the night to ask Bech about a book written decades before. Publishers ask him to sign copies of his books until he can no longer write his name. When Bech finds himself with writer’s block (which is most of the time), he goes on junkets around the Third World, Europe, or in Communist countries—a traveling theme that all three Bech books share. When Bech stays in America, he reluctantly participates in television interviews, readings on college campuses, and book signings. Throughout the short stories, one rarely glimpses Bech writing. Instead, he drifts on the vagaries of his celebrity, a creature well-suited for our fascination with authors at the expense of their works, and the results are often both funny and poignant.
In an interview, Updike once described how he never wanted “to let a good thing go unflogged,” and so after Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Angstrom appeared repeatedly for a total of four novels until his death inRabbit at Rest (1990). In the same fashion, Bech, who began as a “vehicle” for Updike’s “impressions,” then inspired a second collection of stories Bech Is Back (1975), a book more substantial than its predecessor in its organization, characterization, and plot development. Having invented his “quasi-novel” form in Bech: A Book, Updike bound together the second book with a three- pronged collection of epiphanies or “Illuminations” at the beginning, all having to do with writing, and concluded the volume with a lengthy story concerning Bech’s failing attempts to marry into a family and fit into suburbia. In between these more sustained pieces, Updike included the usual travelogues, this time to Scotland, Israel, Australia, and Canada.
In Bech at Bay (1998), Bech has grown noticeably older (in his sixties and seventies) for most of these stories, and their themes tend to center around questions of potency and the power of language. With his writing largely finished and his love life on the wane, Bech looks around for something to do. In his metafictional way, he feels like a character no longer needed by his author, in danger of being erased. As his physical powers fade, Bech begins to lash out against enemies, real or imagined. He fathers a child in his seventies, begins surreptitiously killing critics who had panned his work, and presides over a literary foundation on the edge of dissolution. Through all this, he keeps coming back to the same questions—where does the writer belong? How much does language matter? The fact that the artist’s foundation gets sold out to pave the way for a Donald Trump-like real-estate development implies an increasingly radical disjuncture between the arts and...
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