Friday, December 13, 2013

Bech at Bay

The final novel in John Updike's trilogy on Henry Bech is entitled Bech at Bay. In the first novel, Bech: A Book, we were introduced to author Henry Bech - mid-40s, apathetically Jewish, smugly indolent. A man whose body of work includes four novels, one of which has become a classic of its time. In Bech is Back, we meet up with Henry a decade further on. Bech marries for the first time in his life, and after doing little more than coasting on his reputation for some 15 years, writes a book to spite his wife. The book becomes a best seller and Bech's wife divorces him for sleeping with her sister. In the 2008 novel Bech at Bay, following the established pattern, we meet up with Bech another decade later.

This story is not so much about the trials and moods and pressures of being a writer as were the previous two, but more about what it is like to, in some sense, suffer a literary career. The praise that comes along seems completely overshadowed by the envy and criticism. It is about the paralyzing effect of your own track record and the worry about your place in history. This is played out against his taking a lover some 50 years his junior, his almost campy night avenger persona to silence those who he felt effectively silenced him, and about his being awarded the biggest honor in literature only because of political maneuvering amongst the award committee.

Regardless, Bech is still Bech. He never rides too high or sinks too low. He is so much more content to coast along, living his life one scene at a time, sensing himself "as if he were an experiment whose chemicals were about to be washed down the drain." This trilogy served to allow Updike to express his frustrations and distaste and anxiety with what he personally experienced as a writer in the public eye, sometimes subtle, sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes overt. A definitely worthwhile read.