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Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel
by John Updike
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 037540368X, Hardcover)After recounting almost every detail of Rabbit Angstrom's mental, spiritual, and (especially) erotic life for almost four decades, John Updike laid his brilliant creation to rest in 1990. Another of his ongoing characters, however, has remained at large--Henry Bech. In Bech at Bay, Updike revives his philandering Jewish American novelist for one last trip through that wringer we call the writer's life. Like his creator, Bech is getting on in years. And although age cannot wither his considerable sexual appetites nor custom stale his cantankerous charms, he is uncomfortably aware of his mortality. In the first episode, during a visit to pre-perestroika Czechoslovakia, the "semi-obscure American author" is taken to view Kafka's grave, and the sight gives him the willies: "It all struck Bech as dumbfoundingly blunt and engimatic, banal and moving. Such blankness, such stony and peaceable reification, waits for us at the bottom of things." His own proximity to the bottom of things is what gives Bech at Bay an extra dose of sobriety. For the first time, Updike's ingratiating impersonation of a Jew--who shares the author's lapidary style, sizable nose, and not much else--is not only supremely amusing but moving.
Which isn't to say that all is gloomy in Bechville. Updike keeps things breezy throughout, as his hero is seduced and subpoenaed, excoriated and honored, finally, with the Nobel Prize. Only once does the author lose his footing, with "Bech Noir": this world-class nebbish just doesn't cut it as serial killer, and even the prose goes untypically to pot. But otherwise the book is a delight, venting all the nastiness about literary life that Updike always purges from his own more genteel (not to mention Gentile) persona. It's also an elegant meditation on literary being and nothingness. "A character," we are told, "suffers from the fear that he will become boring to the author, who will simply let him drop, without so much as a terminal illness or a dramatic tumble down the Reichenbach Falls in the arms of Professor Moriarty. For some years now, Bech had felt his author wanting to set him aside, to get him off the desk forever." Here Updike proves himself Nabokov's equal in the metafictional sweepstakes--and makes us hope that his doppelgänger will get one last reprieve. --James Marcus
(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:25 -0400)
A collection of stories satirizing the American literary scene. All feature Henry Bech, an obscure Jewish writer who is awarded the Nobel Prize. In Bech in Czech, he visits Czechoslovakia and discovers the ghosts of East European Jewry.
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