Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1899
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 the corporate wheeling and dealing that surrounds it. Bech seems to preside over a dying culture, and yet Updike refuses to let the darker implications of his vision get in the way of these determinedly upbeat stories. The reader has to look in the margins to get beyond Updike’s instinct to please.Bech at Bay incongruously blends apocalyptic forebodings with a stubbornly cheerful aesthetic.
To gauge this change in Bech’s position, one can compare the first story of the collection “Bech Czechs It” (1986) with the rest of the collection, mostly set in the late 1990’s. In this story, upon arriving in Prague for one of his usual junkets, Bech visits Franz Kafka’s grave. This occasion prompts much meditation on the layers of bureaucracy still oppressing whatever attempts the Czechoslovakians make to express themselves. At one point, a gypsy woman hands him asamizdat, an illegally typed and bound book, and Bech wonders over its “unexpected” beauty. Within the context of Russian spies, bugs, and constant surveillance, the printed word attains a grace reminiscent of the first books printed by ancient monks. While Czech authors go to jail for writing poetry, Bech finds that there is “nothing that he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant.” Because of this tension between Czech heroism and American rights that Bech takes for granted, this story has a complexity and moral weight missing from the later, more parodic works in the collection.
Later stories tend to cast around for narrative drive. In “Bech Pleads Guilty,” a story set back in the 1970’s, high-level Hollywood agent Orlando Cohen sues Bech for libelously calling him an “arch-gouger” of his clients, thus obliging Bech to travel to Los Angeles for a protracted court appearance. Updike uses the occasion to reflect on Los Angeles, the differences between the East and West coasts, and O. J. Simpson-style courtroom dynamics. Faced with the very litigious Cohen in person, Bech begins to feel a perverse guilt, even though he eventually wins the case. Again, Updike explores the value and power of words, how they can set in motion an entire if somewhat futile legal proceeding. Rich as it is in description, the story has precious little human drama, all of it flattened by Los Angeles’s blank freeway-ridden cityscape. Bech thinks of Cohen’s resemblance to his father, of the Promised Land, of his ability to lie under oath, but not much happens. It reads like a promising idea that lost its narrative drive in midstream.
Ever the aesthete, Bech’s itch for pleasure takes odder forms as he ages. His romantic dalliances strain credulity as he enters his seventies (or perhaps his romances seem more perfunctory with repetition). In his seventy-fourth year, Bech finds a twenty- six-year-old girlfriend named Robin. She becomes his sidekick for his Batmanlike capers in Gotham, and she wants to bear his child, serenely oblivious to the fifty-year-gap between them. Bech begins humorously enough by shoving into a crowd in a subway station to kill off a book critic, but then he begins sending out poisoned letters until another dies, then works in cahoots with his computer-savvy girlfriend to send subliminal e-mail messages to another critic until he jumps off his penthouse apartment balcony. By the time he dons a cape and slippered shoes to begin breaking into the apartment of another critic, one wonders at the weightlessness of these bloodless and largely characterless killings. Who is the bad guy here? Critics? As much as Updike inoculates his prose with critical barbs that anticipate and parody the critical treatment of this book, one cannot help wondering what is grounding this fantasy. Are readers meant to abhor Bech’s new impotent lashings out, his attempts to prop up his vanity by striking back against all the negative reviews he has ever received, or are they supposed to laugh at the postmodern mockery of film noir conventions? After each slaying, Bech and Robin enjoy reading the obituary section of The New York Times over breakfast. If Updike means all this as a joke, it wears thin pretty quickly, in part because the villains are so thinly sketched. These remain victimless crimes. The fantastic noirish city backdrop and Bech and Robin’s gumshoe talk might have had some resonance with a real opponent, but since Bech has never seriously been harmed by criticism, much like his maker has not, his killings seem like action for the sake of action, an irrelevant and idle writer’s fantasy ballooned up to a unwieldy story.
In the end, Bech wins the Nobel Prize much as he won a place in a pantheon of noted authors at the end of Bech: A Book. Across the country, critics are outraged that this “passe exponent of fancy penmanship” would win the award, and Bech finds himself at a loss deciding on how to justify his work during his acceptance speech. He travels to Stockholm with his girlfriend and eight-month-old baby, Golda, and agonizes about what to say. He wonders about the obscenity of “aesthetic bliss” in a “world of suffering.” He even considers recounting the sufferings of the Jews in Europe and America, but Updike is never as successful depicting Bech’s Jewish identity as he is in depicting his authorial consciousness. Ultimately, his aesthetic resists any grand political summation. Asserting the primacy of the quotidian detail, he decides not to “generalize away the miracle, the quizzical quiddity, of the specific.” So, instead of really giving the speech, he allows his baby daughter to say “Hi!” to the august audience, in the end asserting rebirth over bitter old age.
Probably the last installment in a three-part series, Bech at Bay records John Updike’s impressions of the writer’s place in fin de siècle America. In a cultural milieu dominated by machines, computers, television, movies, and sampled popular music, Bech finds himself besieged by corporate takeovers, lawsuits, talk-show hosts, critics, and award institutions. Updike experiments with parodying film noir conventions and has Bech lash back at his critics by killing them. Ultimately, the plot matters less in this quasi-novel than Bech’s wry observations. Determined to remain optimistic in the face of the writer’s old age and increasing obsolescence, Bech carves out his Updikean aesthetic, seeking order, peace, and the tranquillity of art in the face of critics, the media, old age, and other forces that keep him at bay. As he says: “My life has been spent attending to my inner weather and my immediate vicinity.”
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXXI, November 1, 1998, p. 137.
Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1925.
The Christian Century. CXV, October 21, 1998, p. 977.
Library Journal. CXXIII, September 1, 1998, p. 219.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 27, 1998, p. 11.
New York. XXXI, October 19, 1998, p. 73.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, October 25, 1998, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 20, 1998, p. 204.
Time. CLI, November 9, 1998, p. 114.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, October 18, 1998, p. 3.
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