Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel
by John Updike
Knopf, 241 pp., $23.00
When writers write fiction about writers and writing they brace themselves, nervously or defiantly, for an adverse response from friends, colleagues, publishers, and, in due course, reviewers. They expect to be told that such a project is incestuous, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and of no interest to anyone but themselves. But when these fears have been overcome, and the work begins, a sense of unwonted ease and enjoyment is apt to ensue. The writer is focused on a subject he really knows intimately, and about which he really cares—more perhaps than he cares about any other: the business of writing, in every sense of the word “business.” There is no need tediously to research, or strenuously to imagine, the lives of nonwriters—dealers or dentists or down-and-outs. The material is all there in his head, just waiting to be accessed.
Few writers have earned the right to such an occasional easy ride as fully as John Updike, whose oeuvre is remarkable for scrupulous verisimilitude in rendering a variety of occupations, métiers, and avocations, in a wide range of social, historical, and geographical settings. For over thirty years—for most, in fact, of his long and prolific literary career—he has also been writing stories about the adventures of a fictitious Jewish American novelist called Henry Bech. The paradox is that the first two collections of Bech stories, Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech is Back (1982), slim volumes whose jauntily alliterative titles frankly confessed their metafictional jokiness, not to say in-jokiness, have been among the most popular and warmly received of his productions; and the advent of a new, third installment of Henry Bech’s biography will have provoked tremors of pleasurable anticipation in many readers who perhaps decided to pass on Updike’s recent “serious” novels. Which is not to imply that the Bech books are not in their own way serious, or that Updike’s other novels lack wit and humor. But the former are arguably his most overtly comic works, and this no doubt accounts for their popularity. It is all part of the holiday mood in which one intuits they were written: the author’s (comparatively) effortless enjoyment of his task communicates itself to the reading experience. The last two stories, or chapters, in Bech at Bay especially suggest an author who is taking a wicked delight in his own invention.
For the benefit of new readers: Henry Bech was born in 1923; enjoyed a fashionable success in the Fifties with his first novel, Travel Light, and a novella, Brother Pig; then produced a long novel called The Chosen in 1963 which was intended to be his masterpiece but which was so badly received that Henry succumbed to a chronic writer’s block, a condition he relieved by impersonating himself on various American campuses, and in various foreign countries, as a representative of contemporary American fiction. These adventures, which invariably involved Bech in sexual encounters with various female minders, meeters, greeters, and fans, were chronicled in Bech …