Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *Bech at Bay* by John Updike

I first encountered Henry Bech in Updike's first collection of stories about the fellow, Bech: a book, when I was about 10. I had pulled it off my parents' shelves because the name was somewhat close to Becky and, likely, because I was very bored on some rainy day. I flipped around until I encountered the word "orgasm"--one of Bech's mistresses could have one on the New York subway, but only certain lines--and I realized it was not a book I was up to. I put it back wishing I was a kid who went *towards* the dirty bits, rather than being alarmed by them and fleeing.

Imagine my surprise when, last winter, a fellow-writer enthused over Bech, and said I had to read it. Imagine my surprise when I loved it! Bech is such a slow, sleepy, dopey guy in this book, his life largely structure by the success of a book he wrote when he was so young he can't relate to it, and by the baffling, aggressive, subway-orgasm-having women in his life. There's tonnes of lit-gossip in the book--largely about fictional writers, but occasionally Roth or some similar mid century man will turn up. Bech can be a malicious gossip inside his own head, but terribly funny. The character is Jewish, and Updike isn't, and I know some criticism has turned on whether this portrait is a caricature, but I find it too human, too intelligent and funny, for that. The Jewish thing does come up an awful lot, though. We keep get a few too many lines like, "It was hard to tell with Wasp males how old they were; they don't stop being boys." "Bech Presides"

I received the two sequels, Bech Is Back and Bech at Bay (that second link there has the book labelled "family saga"--what??) for my birthday, and read the first last fall and the second just now (I thought this would complete my Bech reading, but apparently there is one other story hiding in The Complete Henry Bech. They always do that with compilations of old work--how annoying! How am I going to get it??)

I really enjoyed *Bech Is Back." It had all his usual staples, my favourite of which is baffled yet sardonic interior monologue while being on literary or "cultural" tours of foreign countries. And *Bech at Bay* promised more of the same, starting with, "Bech in Czech," which is about what you'd expect (oh, that sentence rhymed!) Detractors of these Bech Abroad stories (there are perhaps half a dozen such stories; I'm not sure how many detractors) might claim that these seem to be too much simply Updike's own observations on the book-tour life, thinly veiled in a Jew'd up, less-successful, more-venal form.

I don't, usually, think that--Bech is a pretty well-fleshed, uniquely voiced character. And his work diverges pretty sharply with Updike's (Bech is far less self-referential!) Occasionally, their sensibilities collide and you think either could be narrating, but that's all right--all authors have at least a few things in common with all their characters. Also, then we get passages like this:

"The historical fullness of Prague, layer on layer, castles and bridges and that large vaulted hall with splintered floorboards where jousts and knightly elections used to be held; museums holding halls of icons and cases of bluish Bohemian glass and painted panoramas of the saga of the all-enduring Slavs; tilted streets of flaking plasterwork masked by acres of scaffolding; that clock in Old Town Square where with a barely audible whirring a puppet skeleton tolls the hour and the twelve apostles and that ultimate bogeyman Jesus Christ twitchily appear in two little windows above and, one by one, bestow baleful wooden stares upon the assembled tourists; the incredible visual patisserie of baroque church interiors, mock-marble pillars of paint-veined gesso melting upward into trompe-l'oeil ceilings bubbling with cherubs, everything gilded and tipped and twisted and skewed to titillate the eye, huge wedding-cake interiors meant to stun Hussite peasants back into the bosom of Catholicism--all this overstuffed Christian past afflicted Beck like a void, a chasm that he could float across in the dew-fresh mornings as he walked the otherwise untrod oval path but which, over the course of each day, like pain inflicted under anaesthesia, worked terror upon his subconscious." "Bech in Czech"

Pretty good, huh?

People who know these books are often a bit surprised that I'm such a Bech fan--I mean, they get why I like the language and the structure and the jokes, but why do I like *Bech*? It's the morality that gets a few, but I wasn't troubled even when he cheated on his (very recent) wife at the end of *Bech Is Back*. In the third set of stories, Henry's in his 60s and 70s, dallying with ever-younger women, who are quite susceptible to his charms. It's unlovely behaviour, but he is as often seduced as seducer and I found I bought it--all the dalliances seemed in keeping with the character Updike created, and while a little yucky, I think one of the joys of fiction is finding empathy with people we would not care to resemble, or even know, in real life.

*However*, there was a story in *Bech at Bay* that broke all these rules, and I hated it. It's the second-last in the collection--thus, in the series (except for that lost one in *The Complete*)--and it's called "Bech Noir." Straight from the title, the piece announces itself as a genre spoof, and though it hasn't much to do with Dashell Hammett, it has only slightly more to do with Bech. The piece concerns the same guy we've been reading about straight along--smart but pretentious, shy but vain, lecherous, envious, easily swayed--only now he gives in to his worst instincts and deliberately shoves a critic who had panned his work off a subway platform.


Not only would the character of the last 2-and-2/3 books not have been capable of doing that, *no one* would have been capable of doing a lot of what comes next--this first success launches a murderous spree that, if not impossible, is at least preposterous. And silly, and totally out of keeping with the other stories in the series.

In truth, if I came upon "Bech Noir" printed alone somewhere and read it having never seen the characters, I would have enjoyed it mildly, as a piece of highly erudite showing-off--a literary author taking a kooky excursion into genre to see how well he does. And that probably *is* what this is--Updike doing an experiment with a character he knows and feels comfortable with.

Obviously, his editors didn't find the disjoint too jarring to keep the piece in--but then again, it is Updike, so who would argue? But it doesn't work, fictionally, to have most of the pieces be seriously realistic fiction, and then have one be a writing-workshop lark! I feel sort of maimed as a reader, as if I had a relationship with someone on the Internet whose photo turned out to be from the Sears catalogue. I invested in Bech as a multi-dimensional, nuanced character, and I feel like "Bech Noir" says, "ha, fooled ya--he's not realistic at all!"

The thing is, you can't even mentally excise it from the canon , because the final story in the collection, "Bech and the Bounty of Sweden" builds on certain events that took place in "Bech Noir." What's interesting here is that the latter story is a return to form--Bech baffled and passive and interacting with the world like human being instead of a plot device. "Sweden" is also very funny and wise, with an ending (thus, the ending of the book) that is just perfect--hopeful and funny and strange and true.

So, what then? A good book with one story I disliked, right--no problem? Except that one story casts doubt on my whole understanding of the fictional project the author was undertaking? Or the project of fiction, period? Or what? Mr. Updike, how could you do this to me?

On the whole, though, it was a pretty good book.

No comments: