IN IMPORTANT RESPECTS Henry Bech, the novel ist whom we first met in John Updike's most agreeable work of fiction, Bech: A Book, speaks directly for Updike himself. Needless to say Updike throws up smokescreens to distract the reader -- Bech is Jewish, Updike is Christian; Bech lives in New York, Updike lives in Massachusetts; Bech is blocked, Updike is prolific -- but Bech's love of literature and his amused befuddlement over the rituals of the literary life echo Updike's own; when Bech reflects, as he does in Bech: A Book, that "reading can be the best part of a man's life," what is certain above all is that this is Updike speaking.
So what are we to make of it when Updike, in Bech Is Back, depicts his alter ego in the throes of composition, fretting over what next to do with a central character in his novel-in-progress: "But when it came time in the novel to bring her to that capital of ruined innocence, New York City, he was at a loss for what professional field he should mire her in. The only one he knew first-hand, that of publishing, inspired great distaste in our author when encountered in fiction; he did not much like involution, indeed, whether met in Escher prints, iris petals, or the romantic theme of incest." What, precisely, is the ever self-aware Updike saying here? Is he gently lampooning himself, as from time to time he takes pleasure in doing, or has he for once caught himself unawares? The question arises because whatever else it may be, Bech Is Back is a work of indisputable involution, packed with literary in-jokes, publishing arcana, and not a few petty if adroit efforts to settle scores.
This is not to say that Bech Is Back is a bad book. Quite to the contrary, it is clever at worst and witty at best, and by comparison with Updike's most recent novel, the flatulent Rabbit Is Rich, it is positively sunny. Anyone possessed of a reasonably sophisticated acquaintance with literary gossip is likely to find it amusing and, in small but interesting ways, illuminating. But it is about as involuted as a work of fiction can get -- a miniature exploration of a miniature world.
As it happens, though, Updike is best at miniatures. Like just about all American writers of fiction, he has his eye on the main chance -- the "big" book--but when he goes after it he invariably and spectacularly fails, washing away in oceans of muddy prose and formless plot. His most successful work is less self-conscious, more modest: Bech: A Book, Of the Farm, The Poorhouse Fair, the short stories that deal with domestic alliances and disentanglements. Bech Is Back, a collection of interrelated stories more than a novel, falls into this second category.
In it we find Henry Bech stumbling uncertainly into his sixth decade, still struggling to put words on paper and still managing to find excuses to avoid doing so. As in Updike's first chronicle of Bech's affairs, for much of this volume he is overseas, traveling the State Department circuit of embassies and lecture halls, ruminating aloud over "the writer's duty to society" and similarly lofty, vapid matters. The Third World, he fears, is "a vacuum that might suck him in"; he is more at home in Australia and Canada, the "safe places" where the customs and language are known to him. It is in the hope of further safety that he marries Bea, his Episcopalian mistress, but senses during their honeymoon trip to Israel that this is merely "an attempt to be safe on an earth where there was no safety."
For a time his apprehensions seem misplaced. He moves into Bea's rambling suburban house -- "Now Bech was installed in the mansion like a hermit crab tossed into a birdhouse" -- and at her insistent urging gets to work on the long-shunned novel. Laboring away in his private aerie, he finds to his astonishment that page by page the manuscript grows ever higher; suddenly he has a completed novel, called Think Big, and a rhapsodic publisher nursing him along to "the dread plunge of publication, as when, younger, he would mount in a line of shivering wet children to the top of the great water slide at Coney Island." But as the novel roars toward the best-seller lists, his private affairs become messy and unpleasant; Bech is back, all right, but only after paying a large and painful price.
As he makes his way toward Bech's comeuppance, Updike has a good deal of fun prowling around through the labyrinthine passages of the literary cosmos. Publishers, editors, reviewers, critics, academics, hucksters, hangers-on -- hardly a soul escapes Updike's clinical eye, and hardly a one comes away unscathed. Consider, for example, Bech's encounter in Canada with "an Anglican priest who had prepared a concordance of Bech's fiction." They meet at a dinner party:
"The Anglican priest . . . asked him if he were aware of an unusual recurrence in his work of the adjectives lambent, untrammelled, porous, jubilant and recurrent. Bech said no, he was not aware, and that if he could have thought of other adjectives, he would have used them instead -- that a useful critical distinction could be made, perhaps, between recurrent imagery and authorial stupidity; that it must have taken him, the priest, an immense amount of labor to compile such a concordance, even of an oeuvre so slim. Ah, not really, was the answer: the texts had been readied by the seminarians in his seminar in post-Christian kerygmatics, and the collation and printout had been achieved by a scanning computer in twelve minutes flat."
On somewhat more serious matters, Updike reflects in these pages on the odd and unsettling ways in which art can impinge upon life, the ways in which a book acquires a life of its own that seems wholly unrelated to that of the person who created it, the ways in which celebrity separates those upon whom it is bestowed from reality. These reflections are intelligent and give the book a firm thematic base, but it is for the asides such as the one quoted above that the book will be read. There is an edge of cruelty to Updike's wit, no doubt about that, but the pleasures to be derived from observing it at work cannot be denied. And as an object of Updike's affections, Henry Bech is vastly more attractive and rewarding than Rabbit Angstrom. CAPTION: Picture, John Updike, Copyright (c) 1982 by Jill Krementz.; Illustration, no caption, by Arnold Roth