Updike at Ease

Bech at Bay
Knopf; 241 pages; $23

Between writing books, John Updike relaxes by writing other books. Like fruit sorbets, they’re supposed to cleanse the palate and sit lightly on the stomach – artistic digestive aids. The latest is Bech at Bay, the third installment in the comic saga of Henry Bech, a “semi-obscure” Jewish American writer whose novels (often derivative and ill-timed, and always faintly bogus) aren’t as important as his observations on the ups and downs and backs and forths of what used to be called the literary life: that amalgam of stifling parties, flash romances, financial setbacks, and pompous ceremonies that pass for success in the world of serious letters.

Although it’s a bit of a mystery how come, it seems to amuse Updike to imagine himself as less commercially popular, less prolific, and less Anglo-Saxon than he really is. Bech is a mess, a sort of holy fool, and a born outsider in ways that Updike isn’t. Bech’s father was a Manhattan diamond trader, his adolescence was spent in teeming Brooklyn, and he suffers, on and off, from writer’s block, once going sixteen years between books. His first novel, Travel Light, a Beat-style road story set in the Midwest and featuring rampaging motorcycle gangs, was a patent fraud. His single best-seller, Think Big, was a conscious sellout. The career Updike gives him is a joke, in other words, but no more of a joke, we’re meant to understand, than most careers, and more serious than many. Still, it’s hard not to sense some arrogance in the whole cartoon. To turn himself into a typical writer for purposes of social satire – to walk among the people, so to speak – Updike lets us know, in subtle ways, that he has to dress down.

Bech is nothing if not typical of the PEN-era literary intellectual. In the first of the five stories that make up this “quasi-novel,” he visits communist Czechoslovakia on one of those earnest cultural junkets that keep the likes of Susan Sontag in plane tickets. It’s a dreary trip, of course, if rather ego-building. The Reagan-appointed American ambassador is a far-too-hearty Akron industrialist, his wife a trophy-blonde youngster. The fawning fans and translators Bech meets struggle in broken English to express a deep admiration he doesn’t fully merit: “Václav sends the regrets he could not come hear your excellent talk. He must be giving at this same hour an interview, to very sympathetic West German newspaperman.” As a sidelight, Updike exercises his gift for racial and national generalization – a guilty pleasure allowed to modern Americans only while abroad: “The Germans in Europe were like a fat man who seats himself, with a happy sigh, in the middle of an already crowded sofa.”

The second story, “Bech Presides,” presents another barn-door target for Updike’s point-blank blasts: the padded pretensions of stuffy New York arts clubs. The story is half elegy, half send-up – a fond remembrance of the genteel golden days when artists got themselves up as ladies and gentlemen, all the better to hobnob and philosophize, as well as a poke at the senile conservatism of over-the-hill genius. Appointed as president of “the Forty,” a generously endowed creative academy that meets in a lovely midtown townhouse coveted by Trump-like real-estate barons, Bech is content and complacent. The gavel suits him, and so does the free food. Indeed, the story is a kind of apology for the artist as upper-middle-class freeloader, spiritually entitled to lick the frosting off society’s cake. Freebies, perks, and honorary titles exist to be laughed at, naturally, but they’re seldom refused, and Updike finds something poignant and redeeming in the sweetly pointless idealism behind them. When the Forty disbands in a greedy scheme to cart away its entrusted assets, thereby unwittingly playing into the hands of barbaric financiers, something is lost. Not a lot, but something. Something that will, and should, be missed.

Losing and missing are what the book’s about. Updike, through Bech, is saying farewell to ceremony, good-bye to the good life of postwar intellectualism. The proud old ambitions are dead, Olympus has been razed and subdivided, and its aging inhabitants, like holdout tenants in a building slated for demolition, hang on only out of sheer irritability. The future, Bech thinks, in a moment of high resentment, belongs to “the mellifluous happy-talk of Microsoft and Honda, corporate conspiracies that would turn the world into one big pinball game for child-brained consumers.” Updike casts this rant as over-the-top, a flight of canned and self-important oratory, but he seems to endorse it, too.

Pretty much every chance it gets, Updike’s text sings the praises of pen and paper, of hardcover tradition. When Bech picks up the hand-typed manuscript of an underground Czech novel, he falls into an ink-stained reverie: “He had been returned to some archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand.” When Bech implausibly triumphs in the last story and wins the Nobel Prize (a chance for Updike to humorously handicap his own real-life competitors for the honor), he writes a trial acceptance speech that lashes out at “brainless book chains with their Vivaldi-riddled espresso bars” and “publishers owned by metallurgy conglomerates operated by glacially cold bean-counters in Geneva.”

There’s less rage than it seems behind Updike’s satire. When it comes to shifting cultural paradigms, he comes off as more of a switcher than a fighter. Bech’s tirades are impotent, mostly bluster; they’re what’s expected from a dying breed. Meanwhile, Updike, who has a streak of science nut and amateur futurologist to match his New England tweediness, shows off his fluency in the latest cyber-idioms. He’s a comfortable post-historical global capitalist, slightly ahead of his rumpled alter ego but sympathetic with the old man’s problems. Time has passed his character by, but Updike seems bound and determined to stay in step. His latest Bech book, however, catches him resting.

Updike at Ease