Books: Bech's back - and weirder than ever

Bech at Bay by John Updike Hamish Hamilton pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
John Updike's Bech at Bay has a bad review on its own title page. We are told that this is Bech at Bay: a Quasi-Novel, hardly the kind of inducement that has you rushing to Waterstones with 17 quid in your hand. Still, at least it's honest - honest verging on kind. Bech at Bay: Almost a Quasi-Novella might have been nearer the mark.

John Updike is clearly a masochist. The fact that he has now written 49 books is evidence enough of this fact. Further proof could not be better provided than by his choice of alter-ego: Henry Bech. Like Roth's Nathan Zuckerman, Updike has a character who appears intermittently in his work, of precisely the same age and career as his creator, whose primary purpose is to serve as a conduit for authorial self-flagellation. Bech is Updike as viewed by someone who loathes him. He is vain, self-obsessed, lazy, lecherous, morally weak and, worst of all, overrated as a writer. One has the feeling that any base thought to flit across Updike's mind gets jotted down on a pad and saved up for the next Bech novel.

He has appeared twice before, in Bech: A Book and Bech is Back, both of which are among Updike's lightest novels. Once every decade, Updike seems to get the urge to take a break from writing masterpieces to dash off a short, silly novel taking the piss out of the whole writing process. Bech at Bay feels like the last of these. If nothing else, it simply can't get any sillier. When John Updike, the ultimate dirty realist, writes about a novelist who dresses up in a cape and, along with an accomplice called Robin, sets about murdering critics who have given him bad reviews, something strange has happened.

This Portrait of the Artist as An Old Man meets Batman scenario occurs in "Bech Noir", the fourth of the five increasingly weird stories which comprise this collection/quasi-novel. If you don't believe that things could possibly get odder than this, then you will have to read the final story for yourself. Suffice to say, it culminates in Henry Bech getting his baby to deliver the conclusion of a Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Though Bech at Bay opens with a rather weak from-the-bottom-drawer story set in Communist Czechoslovakia, it soon builds into something more substantial. The heart of the book is the second story, "Bech Presides", the longest and most satisfying in the collection. It tells of how Henry Bech becomes President of a generously endowed New York arts club at the moment when the club's ageing members realise that they are sitting on a piece of prize real estate, and can consequently make a fortune for themselves by dissolving the organisation.

Bech is initially horrified by this suggestion, but after a while all the members are sucked into the greedy spiral of trying to sell off the institution. The story builds into a darkly funny satire of the pervasion of financial greed into the arts. The prospect of wealth reveals the composers, painters, novelists and poets as, primarily, capitalists. This works extremely well as a sour microcosm of Nineties ethics - of the hollow victory of capital over principle. A skyscraper ends up on the site of the club. Money wins.

"Bech Pleads Guilty" is the other strong story in the book. A court room anti-drama, it details the litigation between Bech and a Hollywood producer whom he has carelessly libelled in a magazine article. The case builds, then dribbles away as it gradually becomes clear who will win, with the losing side's motivation tailing off some time before the end of the case. How Bech, the victim of a predatory suit, ends up feeling guilty about his victory produces a finely-tuned and subtle climax. Updike shows how human guilt and legal guilt intertwine in a courtroom, producing ambiguous tinges to any verdict.

Bech at Bay will never have a prominent place in Updike's vast oeuvre, except perhaps as the least characteristic book he could possibly write. Still, for curiosity value, and for the two stories at the heart of the collection, it is an oddly satisfying read.