Bech at Bay

( 1 )

Overview

In this, the final volume in John Updike’s mock-heroic trilogy about the Jewish American writer Henry Bech, our hero is older but scarcely wiser. Now in his seventies, he remains competitive, lecherous, and self-absorbed, lost in a brave new literary world where his books are hyped by Swiss-owned conglomerates, showcased in chain stores attached to espresso bars, and returned to warehouses three weeks after publication. In five chapters more startling and surreal than any that have come before, Bech presides over...
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Overview

In this, the final volume in John Updike’s mock-heroic trilogy about the Jewish American writer Henry Bech, our hero is older but scarcely wiser. Now in his seventies, he remains competitive, lecherous, and self-absorbed, lost in a brave new literary world where his books are hyped by Swiss-owned conglomerates, showcased in chain stores attached to espresso bars, and returned to warehouses three weeks after publication. In five chapters more startling and surreal than any that have come before, Bech presides over the American literary scene, enacts bloody revenge on his critics, and wins the world’s most coveted writing prize. It’s not easy being Henry Bech in the post-Gutenbergian world, but somebody has to do it, and he brings to the task his signature mixture of grit, spit, and ennui.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Wickedly funny . . . a joy to read . . . John Updike has given us a multitude of memorable characters, but none more lovable than the high-minded, mild-mannered, rather hapless writer Henry Bech.”—Chicago Tribune
 
“Witty, acute, and surprisingly affecting . . . Updike at his most interesting and engaging . . . Like the other books about Henry Bech, this is modest in size but generous with its rewards.”—The Washington Post Book World
 
Bech at Bay is brilliant.”—The New York Review of Books
David Lodge
So here it is: Bech at Bay is brilliant. -- New York Review of Books
Malcolm Bradbury
Writers in particular will love this book, with its cunning observation, its acid cultural portraits of the New York and Californian literary scene, its touches of parody and self-parody, its characters à clef, its sense of the value and the nastiness of literature, its frankness about literary ires and envies. Updike indulges himself with Bech, and lets loose a bitter comic vigour....Other readers will like it too. It's Updike at his most left-handed. But that is still pleasure indeed. -- Literary Review
Richard Brookhiser
When he has other things besides his swing to worry about, Updike sails his ball to the green.
National Review
David Lehman
. . .[A] comic delight, especially deft in its satirical treatment of New York intellectual warfare.
People Magazine
Walter Kirn
There's less rage than it seems behind Updike's satire. . . .Time has passed his character by, but Updike seems bound and determined to say in step. His latest Bech book,however, catches him resting. —New York Magazine
Caroline Angier
If you're anything literary — writerpublishereven critic — you'll love it. And if you're notyou'll love it too. . .Everything Bech-Updike has to say about the writing life is awfulhilarious and true. —The Wall Street Journal
James Shapiro
The best moments in the five stories in this 'quasi novel' are ones in which Updike chooses not to hold back.
New York Times Book Review
Phoebe-Lou Adams
. . .[T]his book is a fine send-up of the literary life — witty, malicious, and fun to read.
Atlantic Monthly
Michiko Kakutani
. . .Mr. Updike has lost some of his enthusiasm for his old creation, and his weariness frequently shows. . . .Bech at Bay . . .intermittently sparkles. ..[but] it's a highly uneven collection of stories. . . .this volume must surely count as one of [Updike's] more minor, if entertaining, productions.
New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At this juncture of his life, 'semi-obscure' writer Henry Bech Bech: A Book; Bech Is Back may be 'at bay' -- attacked by fellow writers, sued for libel, derided by critics, consumed by worry about his place in the literary pantheon -- but his creator, John Updike, is writing with undiminished energy and a bellyfull of chuckles.

In five interrelated sections that move backward and forward through time, from 1986, when the 63-year-old Bech is again in Prague, to 1999, when he accepts the Nobel Prize with his eight-month-old daughter in his arms, Bech pursues his craft, an assortment of women, vengeance and peace of mind, veering between misery and elation, bathing in self-doubt or preening egotistically. Updike uses this opportunity to air issues besetting the arts in the 1990s -- both the factionalism within the literary community and the dwindling interest in the arts without. Updike evokes Bech's Jewish persona with gusto, endowing him with a Yiddish vocabulary, self-deprecation, irony, guilt and a sense of being an outsider in society despite his acclaim. The most entertaining section, one step away from farce, is 'Bech Noir,' in which the writer, with the help of his young lover and a computer, systematically does away with the critics who have disparaged his work. Equally amusing is Bech's stint as president of an august literary society in 'Bech Presides': Updike drolly implants recognizable traits of living writers in the members of the Forty, and extends the joke by interpolating references to Pynchon, Salinger, Gaddis, Sontag and others of his contemporaries. In this and other sections, he has fun reflecting the backbiting and jealousy of the 'Manhattan intelligentsia, a site saturated in poisonous envy and reflexive intolerance.'

While not a 'big' book for Updike? This is an insightful and amusing look at the American literary scene.

Library Journal
In his 49th book, Updike returns with Henry Bech, the middling Jewish American writer he first introduced in Bech: A Book. This time, Bech gets an unexpected award: a Nobel prize.
Library Journal
In his 49th book, Updike returns with Henry Bech, the middling Jewish American writer he first introduced in Bech: A Book. This time, Bech gets an unexpected award: a Nobel prize.
Booknews
Continuation of the chronicles of the protagonist of two of Updike's popular previous works, the "moderately well known Jewish-American writer," Henry Bech. The five stories herein follow Bech through Prague, France, Sweden, California, and New York, as a fictional counterpart through which Updike comments on the foibles--literary, academic, and cultural--of his, and our, times. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Paul Gray
A mordantly comic look at the literary life. -- Time Magazine
Phoebe-Lou Adams
. . .[T]his book is a fine send-up of the literary life -- witty, malicious, and fun to read. -- The Atlantic Monthly
Michiko Kakutani
. . .Mr. Updike has lost some of his enthusiasm for his old creation, and his weariness frequently shows. . . .Bech at Bay . . .intermittently sparkles. ..[but] it's a highly uneven collection of stories. . . .this volume must surely count as one of [Updike's] more minor, if entertaining, productions. -- The New York Times
James Shapiro
The best moments in the five stories in this 'quasi novel' are ones in which Updike chooses not to hold back. -- The New York Times Book Review
Walter Kirn
There's less rage than it seems behind Updike's satire. . . .Time has passed his character by, but Updike seems bound and determined to say in step. His latest Bech book,however, catches him resting. --New York Magazine
David Lodge
Bech at Bay is brilliant. -- New York Review of Books
Joan Mellen
Bech at Bay is wise and funny, charming & pointed. -- The Baltimore Sun
Alex Beam
I suspect you'll find it irresistible. -- The Boston Globe
David Bowman
October 1998

Bech Redux: I'm going to kill a woman I've never met. Kill her in cold blood.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm no stalker. Just an humble novelist. But if I do carry out my terrible intentions, John Updike will be to blame -- and all because of his new book, Bech at Bay. This latest installment of the literary adventures of the "moderately well known Jewish-American writer" Henry Bech is subtitled A Quasi-Novel." Ha! Just how "quasi" is it, Mr. Updike?

In the chapter titled "Bech in Czech," Bech has a sexual adventure involving a visit to Kafka's grave. "Bech Presides" finds the writer chairing an elite Manhattan literary committee, a scenario that provides numerous opportunities for Updike to indulge in gleefully outrageous literary rants: "Yes, women!" a character cries. "There are so many these days! Wise women! Elaine Pagels! Ellen Zwilich! Eudora Welty! We no longer need to swim on [men's] backs, turning our foolish broken hearts into song, that was what we did in my day." Reminiscent of the O. J. Simpson and Heidi Fleiss trials, in "Bech Pleads Guilty," Bech has his own experience in a Los Angeles courtroom. Then, in "Bech and the Bounty of Sweden," Bech actually receives the Nobel Prize for literature, prompting The New York Times to report, "The Swedish Academy's penchant for colorful nonentities and anti-establishment gadflies as recipients of its dynamite-based bounty has surpassed mere caprice and taken on, in this latest selection, dimensions of wantonness."

I have to tell you that I loved Bech's new adventures. But I live in New York and work in publishing. Will you enjoy Bech as well? Yup. Updike's calm wit is ever evident in these latest episodes. They have appeal far beyond the pearly gates of Knopf.

"So, Bowman," you say. "What about this dame you're gonna off? What's Updike have to do with it?"

There is a chapter in Bech at Bay I haven't mentioned yet, "Bech Noir." This is the chapter that is going to make a murderer out of me. It's nominally about book reviewers. I used to review books for one of the most prestigious literary commentaries in America. Then a new editor took over and the guy thought I was too weird. Can you imagine? He even gave an interview in which he said novelists like me were terrible book reviewers because we use kid gloves in the critical ring, whereas professional book critics never pull their punches. I decided to write a rebuttal -- novelists make damn good book reviewers. To buttress this claim, I interviewed the foremost novelist and book reviewer in the country, John Updike.

"I think I began reviewing around 1960," he told me. "It's getting on to 40 years I've been doing it." He then praised the literary reviews of another novelist, Henry James. "I find him invaluable, really, a wonderful critic with the voice of a man who's been there. He can see another person's novel from the inside, which I suppose is an advantage a novelist might bring to reviewing a novel."

Updike doesn't recommend book reviewing for everyone: "In a sense it clutters your desk with books that you would otherwise not read, and takes energy from truly pleasurable reading that you might otherwise do."

I then asked how he wrote reviews. (A general question, I know -- but I made it sound sophisticated.) "I tend to try to give the sort of review I would like to get," he told me. "Even if the review is not enthusiastic, it should show some signs of understanding what the author tried to do."

He then went on to say that the two novelists he has always reviewed are Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. "I have given A plus to every book of theirs that I have reviewed," he said. What about other writers' books that turn out to be duds? "A person who thinks of himself as a creative artist does not write the kind of review that a professional critic, including The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani, does -- ready to weed the garden, pull up and cast away those unworthy of life and growth. You don't give that kind of alienating reviews to other novelists because it might be your turn next."

He sighed. "I could cite early reviews of mine that were harsh and unfriendly. Very early in my career I reviewed Franny and Zooey not very favorably on the front page of The New York Times Book Review."

Ha! So it was John Updike who turned J. D. Salinger into a literary recluse! I didn't say this, of course. Instead I asked if literary revenge was real -- that is, if novelist A gives novelist B's book a bad review, when A's next book is published, it will be reviewed by one of B's friends and panned. "I think that fear is real. The laws of war probably function in the literary world as in any other."

Four months after that interview, I read "Bech Noir" and discovered that the reasonable, gentlemanly writer I had spoken to has a decidedly darker side. In "Bech Noir," Updike's alter ego kills the book reviewers who gave him bad reviews. One reviewer is sent to the big sleep Agatha Christie-style, with poison on an envelope flap. (That may sound far-fetched, but novelist and former CIA agent Charles McCarry tells me that spies do this all the time.) Bech doesn't stop with just one critic. He goes after more. And the murders get nastier. "I'm going to shut you up," Bech tells his last victim. "I am going to squeeze this f****** trigger and rub you out. Don't think I'm too squeamish. I've killed before."

Now, I don't just review books. I write them. And as I savored each act of Bech's murderous vengeance, I considered a particularly nasty book reviewer who has been much on my mind this past year. She reviews books for a prestigious publication, though, of course, she's never written a book herself. I happen to know that this woman is cheap to waiters and cabbies. She kicks dogs. She votes for the politicians you and I despise. She is also the only critic in America who didn't like my last novel, proclaiming it too "nihilistic," because it concerned a group of armed nannies who shoot babynappers. She has obviously never heard of Dashiell Hammett or Sergio Leone. Women with guns are not nihilistic, they're hard-boiled.

Can you imagine the hellish joy I would feel watching that reviewer's little pink tongue lick an envelope flap laced with arsenic? Or how gleefully I'd bash the back of her head with a box of James M. Cain novels? (Before the blow I'd whisper, "I'm not being nihilistic...just hard-boiled." Then, thunk!)

Why am I confessing this to you? Because we all have our uncomprehending critics, that numskull who turns in the bad review or the substandard job report. But if, after reading Bech at Bay, you too are inspired to silence those nagging, critical voices, just remember: Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. On the other hand, Updike has written 48 books. You can get a lot of reading done in stir (not to mention the nifty tattoos).

As for John Updike: Anyone who has ever given him a bad review better be on the lookout. He yacks like a gent, but he's got a Clint Eastwood heart.

David Bowman is the author of Let the Dog Drive and Bunny Modern.

Richard Brookhiser
When he has other things besides his swing to worry about, Updike sails his ball to the green. -- National Review
David Lehman
. . .[A] comic delight, especially deft in its satirical treatment of New York intellectual warfare. -- People Magazine
Caroline Angier
If you're anything literary -- writer, publisher, even critic -- you'll love it. And if you're not, you'll love it too. . .Everything Bech-Updike has to say about the writing life is awful, hilarious and true. -- The Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
More literary and amorous adventures enjoyed and endured by 'the semi-obscure American author' previously celebrated in Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech Is Back (1982)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780449004043
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Series: Quasi-Novels Series
  • Edition description: 1st Ballantine Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,104,508
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal. In 2007 he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Updike died in January 2009.

Biography

With an uncommonly varied oeuvre that includes poetry, criticism, essays, short stories, and novels, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike helped to change the face of late-20th-century American literature.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954. Following a year of study in England, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, establishing a relationship with the magazine that continued until his death in January, 2009. For more than 50 years, he lived in two small towns in Massachusetts that inspired the settings for several of his stories.

In 1958, Updike's first collection of poetry was published. A year later, he made his fiction debut with The Poorhouse Fair. But it was his second novel, 1960's Rabbit, Run, that forged his reputation and introduced one of the most memorable characters in American fiction. Former small-town basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom struck a responsive chord with readers and critics alike and catapulted Updike into the literary stratosphere.

Updike would revisit Angstrom in 1971, 1981, and 1990, chronicling his hapless protagonist's jittery journey into undistinguished middle age in three melancholy bestsellers: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. A concluding novella, "Rabbit Remembered," appeared in the 2001 story collection Licks of Love.

Although autobiographical elements appear in the Rabbit books, Updike's true literary alter ego was not Harry Angstrom but Harry Bech, a famously unproductive Jewish-American writer who starred in his own story cycle. In between -- indeed, far beyond -- his successful series, Updike went on to produce an astonishingly diverse string of novels. In addition, his criticism and short fiction became popular staples of distinguished literary publications.

Good To Know

Updike first became entranced by reading when he was a young boy growing up on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania. Afflicted with psoriasis and a stammer, he escaped his self-consciousness by immersing himself in drawing, writing, and reading.

An accomplished artist, Updike accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University. He decided to attend Harvard University because he was a big fan of the school's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon.

One of the most respected authors of the 20th century, Updike won every major literary prize in America, including the Guggenheim Fellow, the Rosenthal Award, the National Book Award in Fiction, the O. Henry Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, and the National Medal of the Arts.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Hoyer Updike (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shillington, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Death:
      January 27, 2009
    2. Place of Death:
      Beverly Farms, MA

Read an Excerpt

       BECH HAD A NEW SIDEKICK. Her monicker was Robin. Rachel
          "Robin" Teagarten. Twenty-six, post-Jewish, frizzy big hair, figure on the
          short and solid side. She interfaced for him with an IBM PS/1 his
          publisher had talked him into buying. She set up the defaults, rearranged
          the icons, programmed the style formats, accessed the ANSI character
          sets--Bech was a stickler for foreign accents. When he answered a letter,
          she typed it for him from dictation. When he took a creative leap, she
          deciphered his handwriting and turned it into digitized code. Neither
          happened very often. Bech was of the Ernest Hemingway
          save-your-juices school. To fill the time, he and Robin slept together. He
          was seventy-four, but they worked with that. Seventy-four plus
          twenty-six was one hundred; divided by two, that was fifty, the prime of
          life. The energy of youth plus the wisdom of age. A team. A duo.

              They were in his snug aerie on Crosby Street. He was reading the
          Times at breakfast: caffeineless Folgers, calcium-reinforced D'Agostino
          orange juice, poppy-seed bagel lightly toasted. The crumbs and poppy
          seeds had scattered over the newspaper and into his lap but you don't
          get something for nothing, not on this hard planer. Bech announced to
          Robin, "Hey, Lucas Mishner is dead."

              A creamy satisfaction--the finest quality, made extra easy to spread by
          the toasty warmth--thickly covered his heart.

              "Who's Lucas Mishner?" Robin asked. She was deep in the D
          section--Business Day. She was a practical-minded broad with no
          experience of culture prior to 1975.

              "Once-powerful critic," Bech told her, biting off his phrases. "Late
          Partisan Review school. Used to condescend to appear in the Trib
          Book Review, when the Trib was still alive on this side of the Atlantic.
          Despised my stuff. Called it 'superficially energetic but lacking in the true
          American fiber, the grit, the wrestle.' That's him talking, not me. The grit,
          the wrestle. Sanctimonious bastard. When The Chosen came out in '63,
          he wrote, 'Strive and squirm as he will, Bech will never, never be
          touched by the American sublime.' The simple, smug, know-it-all son of
          a bitch. You know what his idea of the real stuff was? James Jones.
          James Jones and James Gould Cozzens."

              There Mishner's face was, in the Times, twenty years younger, with a
          fuzzy little rosebud smirk and a pathetic slicked-down comb-over like
          limp Venetian blinds throwing a shadow across the dome of his head.
          The thought of him dead filled Bech with creamy ease. He told Robin,
          "Lived way the hell up in Connecticut. Three wives, no flowers. Hadn't
          published for years. The rumor in the industry was he was gaga with
          alcoholic dementia."

              "You seem happy."

              "Very."

              "Why? You say he had stopped being a critic anyway."

              "Not in my head. He tried to hurt me. He did hurt me. Vengeance is
          mine."

              "Who said that?"

              "The Lord. In the Bible. Wake up, Robin."

              "I thought it didn't sound like you," she admitted. "Stop hogging the
          Arts section. Let's see what's playing in the Village. I feel like a movie
          tonight."

              "I'm not reading the Arts section."

              "But it's under what you are reading."

              "I was going to get to it."

              "That's what I call hogging. Pass it over."

              He passed it over, with a pattering of poppy seeds on the
          polyurethaned teak dining table Robin had installed. For years he and his
          female guests had eaten at a low glass coffee table farther forward in the
          loft. The sun slanting in had been pretty, but eating all doubled up had
          been bad for their internal organs. Robin had got him to take vitamins,
          too, and the calcium-reinforced o.j. She thought it would straighten his
          spine. He was in his best shape in years. She had got him doing sit-ups
          and push-ups. He was hard and quick, for a man who'd had his Biblical
          three score and ten. He was ready for action. He liked the tone of his
          own body. He liked the cut of Robin's smooth broad jaw across the teak
          table. Her healthy big hair, her pushy plump lips, her little flattened nose.
          "One down," he told her, mysteriously.

              But she was reading the Arts section, the B section, and didn't hear.
          "Con Air, Face/Off," she read. This was the summer of 1997. "Air
          Force One, Men in Black. They're all violent. Disgusting."

              "Why are you afraid of a little violence?" he asked her. "Violence is
          our poetry now, now that sex has become fatally tainted."

              "Or Contact," Robin said. "From the reviews it's all about how the
          universe secretly loves us."

              "That'll be the day," snarled Bech. Though in fact the juices surging
          inside him bore a passing resemblance to those of love. Mishner dead put
          another inch on his prick.

              A week later, he was in the subway. The Rockefeller Center station
          on Sixth Avenue, the old IND line. The downtown platform was
          jammed. All those McGraw-Hill, Exxon, and Time-Life execs were
          rushing back to their wives in the Heights. Or going down to West 4th to
          have some herbal tea and put on drag for the evening. Monogamous
          transvestite executives were clogging the system. Bech was in a savage
          mood. He had been to MoMA, checking out the Constructivist
          film-poster show and the Project 60 room. The room featured three
          "ultra-hip," according to the new New Yorker, figurative painters: one
          who did "poisonous portraits of fashion victims," another who specialized
          in "things so boring that they verge on nonbeing," and a third who did
          "glossy, seductive portraits of pop stars and gay boys." None of them
          had been Bech's bag. Art had passed him by. Literature was passing him
          by. Music he had never gotten exactly with, not since USO record hops.
          Those cuddly little WACs from Ohio in their starched uniforms. That war
          had been over too soon, before he got to kill enough Germans.

              Down in the subway, in the flickering jaundiced light, three competing
          groups of electronic buskers--one country, one progressive jazz, and one
          doing Christian hip-hop--were competing, while a huge overhead voice
          unintelligibly burbled about cancellations and delays. In the cacophony,
          Bech spotted an English critic: Raymond Featherwaite, former
          Cambridge eminence lured to CUNY by American moolah. From his
          perch in the CUNY crenellations, using an antique matchlock arquebus,
          he had been snottily potting American writers for twenty years, courtesy
          of the ravingly Anglophile New York Review of Books. Prolix and
          voulu, Featherwaite had called Bech's best-selling comeback book,
          Think Big, back in 1979. Inflation was peaking under Carter, the AIDS
          virus was sallying forth unidentified and unnamed, and here this limey
          carpetbagger was calling Bech's chef-d'oeuvre prolix and voulu. When,
          in the deflationary epoch supervised by Reagan, Bech had ventured a
          harmless collection of highly polished sketches and stories called Biding
          Time, Featherwaite had written, "One's spirits, however initially
          well-disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended
          reputations, begin severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of
          watching Mr. Bech, page after page, strain to make something of very
          little. The pleasures of microscopy pall."

              The combined decibels of the buskers drowned out, for all but the
          most attuned city ears, the approach of the train whose delay had been
          so indistinctly bruited. Featherwaite, like all these Brits who were
          breeding like woodlice in the rotting log piles of the New York literary
          industry, was no slouch at pushing ahead. Though there was hardly room
          to place one's shoes on the filthy concrete, he had shoved and wormed
          his way to the front of the crowd, right to the edge of the platform. His
          edgy profile, with its supercilious overbite and artfully projecting
          eyebrows, turned with arrogant expectancy toward the screamingly
          approaching D train, as though hailing a servile black London taxi or
          gilded Victorian brougham. Featherwaite affected a wispy-banged Nero
          haircut. There were rougelike touches of color on his cheekbones. The
          tidy English head bit into Bech's vision like a branding iron.

              Prolix, he thought, Voulu. He had had to look up voulu in his French
          dictionary. It put a sneering curse on Bech's entire oeuvre, for what, as
          Schopenhauer had asked, isn't willed?

              Bech was three bodies back in the crush, tightly immersed in the
          odors, clothes, accents, breaths, and balked wills of others. Two
          broad-backed bodies, padded with junk food and fermented malt,
          intervened between himself and Featherwaite, while others importunately
          pushed at his own back. As if suddenly shoved from behind, he lowered
          his shoulder and rammed into the body ahead of his; like dominoes, it
          and the next tipped the third, the stiff-backed Englishman, off the
          platform. In the next moment the train with the force of a flash flood
          poured into the station, drowning all other noise under a shrieking gush of
          tortured metal. Featherwaite's hand in the last second of his life had shot
          up and his head jerked back as if in sudden recognition of an old
          acquaintance. Then he had vanished.

              It was an instant's event, without time for the D-train driver to brake or
          a bystander to scream. Just one head pleasantly less in the compressed,
          malodorous mob. The man ahead of Bech, a ponderous black with
          bloodshot eyes, wearing a knit cap in the depths of summer, regained his
          balance and turned indignantly, but Bech, feigning a furious glance behind
          him, slipped sideways as the crowd arranged itself into funnels beside
          each door of the now halted train. A woman's raised voice--foreign,
          shrill--had begun to leak the horrible truth of what she had witnessed,
          and far away, beyond the turnstiles, a telepathic policeman's whistle was
          tweeting. But the crowd within the train was surging obliviously outward
          against the crowd trying to enter, and in the thick eddies of disgruntled
          and compressed humanity nimble, bookish, elderly Bech put more and
          more space between himself and his unwitting accomplices. He secreted
          himself a car's length away, hanging from a hand-burnished bar next to an
          ad publicizing free condoms and clean needles, with a dainty Oxford
          edition of Donne's poems pressed close to his face as the news of the
          unthinkable truth spread, and the whistles of distant authority drew
          nearer, and the train refused to move and was finally emptied of
          passengers, while the official voice overhead, louder and less intelligible
          than ever, shouted word of cancellation, of disaster, of evacuation
          without panic.

            
          [CHAPTER CONTINUES IN EXCERPT #2...]

          
                          

Obediently Bech left the stalled train, blood on its wheels, and climbed
          the metallic stairs sparkling with pulverized glass. His insides shuddered in
          tune with the shoving, near-panicked mob about him. He inhaled the
          outdoor air and Manhattan anonymity gratefully. Avenue of the
          Americas, a sign said, in stubborn upholding of an obsolete gesture of
          hemispheric good will. Bech walked south, then over to Seventh Avenue.
          Scrupulously he halted at each red light and deposited each handed-out
          leaflet (GIRLS! COLLEGE SEX KITTENS TOPLESS!
          BOTTOMLESS AFTER 6:30 P.M.!) in the next city trash receptacle.
          He descended into the Times Square station, where the old IRT system's
          innumerable tunnels mingled their misery in a vast subterranean maze of
          passageways, stairs, signs, and candy stands. He bought a Snickers bar
          and leaned against a white-tiled pillar to read where his little book had
          fallen open,

               Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
                  Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

                  For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
               Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

          He caught an N train that took him to Broadway and Prince. Afternoon
          had sweetly turned to evening while he had been underground. The
          galleries were closing, the restaurants were opening. Robin was in the
          loft, keeping lasagna warm. "I thought MoMA closed at six," she said.

              "There was a tie-up in the Sixth Avenue subway. Nothing was running.
          I had to walk down to Times Square. I hated the stuff the museum had
          up. Violent, attention-getting."

              "Maybe there comes a time," she said, "when new art isn't for you, it's
          for somebody else. I wonder what caused the tie-up."

              "Nobody knew. Power failure. A shootout uptown. Some maniac," he
          added, wondering at his own words. His insides felt agitated, purged,
          scrubbed, yet not yet creamy. Perhaps the creaminess needed to wait
          until the morning Times. He feared he could not sleep, out of nervous
          anticipation, yet he toppled into dreams while Robin still read beneath a
          burning light, as if he had done a long day's worth of physical labor.

              ENGLISH CRITIC, TEACHER DEAD / IN WEST SIDE
          SUBWAY MISHAP, the headline read. The story was low on the front
          page and jumped to the obituaries. The obit photo, taken decades ago,
          glamorized Featherwaite--head facing one way, shoulders another--so he
          resembled a younger, less impish brother of George Sanders. High brow,
          thin lips, cocky glass chin.... according to witnesses appeared to fling
          himself under the subway train as it approached the platform. ...
          colleagues at CUNY puzzled but agreed he had been under
          significant stress compiling permissions for his textbook of
          postmodern narrative strategies ... former wife, reached in London,
          allowed the deceased had been subject to mood swings and fits of
          creative despair ... the author of several youthful satirical novels
          and a single book of poems likened to those of Philip Larkin ...
          Robert Silvers of The New York Review expressed shock and termed
          Featherwaite "a valued and versatile contributor of unflinching
          critical integrity" ... born in Scunthorpe, Yorkshire, the third child
          and only son of a greengrocer and a part-time piano teacher ... and
          so on. A pesky little existence. "Ray Featherwaite is dead," Bech
          announced to Robin, trying to keep a tremble of triumph out of his voice.

              "Who was he?"

              "A critic. More minor than Mishner. English. Came from Yorkshire, in
          fact--I had never known that. Went to Cambridge on a scholarship. I
          had figured him for inherited wealth; he wanted you to think so."

              "That makes two critics this week," said Robin, preoccupied by the
          dense gray pages of stock prices.

              "Every third person in Manhattan is some kind of critic," Bech pointed
          out. He hoped the conversation would move on.

              "How did he die?"

              There was no way to hide it; she would be reading this section
          eventually. "Jumped under a subway train, oddly. Seems he'd been
          feeling low, trying to secure too many copyright permissions or
          something. These academics have a lot of stress. It's a tough world
          they're in--the faculty politics is brutal."

              "Oh?" Robin's eyes--bright, glossy, the living volatile brown of a slick
          moist pelt--had left the stock prices. "What subway line?"

              "Sixth Avenue, actually."

              "Maybe that was the tie-up you mentioned."

              "Could be. Very likely, in fact. Did I ever tell you that my father died in
          the subway, under the East River in his case? Made a terrible mess of
          rush hour."

              "Yes, Henry," Robin said, in the pointedly patient voice that let him
          know she was younger and clearer-headed. "You've told me more than
          once."

              "Sorry."

              "So why are your hands trembling? You can hardly hold your bagel."
          And his other hand, he noticed, was making the poppy seeds vibrate on
          the obituary page, as if a subway train were passing underneath.

              "Who knows?" he asked her. "I may be coming down with something.
          I went out like a light last night."

              "I'll say," said Robin, returning her eyes to the page. That summer the
          stock prices climbed up and up, breaking new records every day. It was
          unreal.

              "Sorry," he repeated. Ease was beginning to flow again within him. The
          past was sinking, every second, under fresher, obscuring layers of the
          recent past. "Did it make you feel neglected? A young woman needs her
          sex."

              "No," she said. "It made me feel tender. You seemed so innocent, with
          your mouth sagging open."

          [CHAPTER CONTINUES ...]

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

BECH IN CZECH........................................................3
BECH PRESIDES.......................................................37
BECH PLEADS GUILTY.................................................117
BECH NOIR..........................................................152
BECH AND THE BOUNTY OF SWEDEN......................................210

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First Chapter


Excerpt

Bech Noir

BECH HAD A NEW SIDEKICK. Her monicker was Robin. Rachel "Robin" Teagarten. Twenty-six, post-Jewish, frizzy big hair, figure on the short and solid side. She interfaced for him with an IBM PS/1 his publisher had talked him into buying. She set up the defaults, rearranged the icons, programmed the style formats, accessed the ANSI character sets--Bech was a stickler for foreign accents. When he answered a letter, she typed it for him from dictation. When he took a creative leap, she deciphered his handwriting and turned it into digitized code. Neither happened very often. Bech was of the Ernest Hemingway save-your-juices school. To fill the time, he and Robin slept together. He was seventy-four, but they worked with that. Seventy-four plus twenty-six was one hundred; divided by two, that was fifty, the prime of life. The energy of youth plus the wisdom of age. A team. A duo.

    They were in his snug aerie on Crosby Street. He was reading the Times at breakfast: caffeineless Folgers, calcium-reinforced D'Agostino orange juice, poppy-seed bagel lightly toasted. The crumbs and poppy seeds had scattered over the newspaper and into his lap but you don't get something for nothing, not on this hard planer. Bech announced to Robin, "Hey, Lucas Mishner is dead."

    A creamy satisfaction--the finest quality, made extra easy to spread by the toasty warmth--thickly covered his heart.

    "Who's Lucas Mishner?" Robin asked. She was deep in the D section--Business Day. She was a practical-minded broad with no experience of culture prior to 1975.

    "Once-powerful critic," Bech told her, biting off his phrases. "Late Partisan Review school. Used to condescend to appear in the Trib Book Review, when the Trib was still alive on this side of the Atlantic. Despised my stuff. Called it `superficially energetic but lacking in the true American fiber, the grit, the wrestle.' That's him talking, not me. The grit, the wrestle. Sanctimonious bastard. When The Chosen came out in '63, he wrote, `Strive and squirm as he will, Bech will never, never be touched by the American sublime.' The simple, smug, know-it-all son of a bitch. You know what his idea of the real stuff was? James Jones. James Jones and James Gould Cozzens."

    There Mishner's face was, in the Times, twenty years younger, with a fuzzy little rosebud smirk and a pathetic slicked-down comb-over like limp Venetian blinds throwing a shadow across the dome of his head. The thought of him dead filled Bech with creamy ease. He told Robin, "Lived way the hell up in Connecticut. Three wives, no flowers. Hadn't published for years. The rumor in the industry was he was gaga with alcoholic dementia."

    "You seem happy."

    "Very."

    "Why? You say he had stopped being a critic anyway."

    "Not in my head. He tried to hurt me. He did hurt me. Vengeance is mine."

    "Who said that?"

    "The Lord. In the Bible. Wake up, Robin."

    "I thought it didn't sound like you," she admitted. "Stop hogging the Arts section. Let's see what's playing in the Village. I feel like a movie tonight."

    "I'm not reading the Arts section."

    "But it's under what you are reading."

    "I was going to get to it."

    "That's what I call hogging. Pass it over."

    He passed it over, with a pattering of poppy seeds on the polyurethaned teak dining table Robin had installed. For years he and his female guests had eaten at a low glass coffee table farther forward in the loft. The sun slanting in had been pretty, but eating all doubled up had been bad for their internal organs. Robin had got him to take vitamins, too, and the calcium-reinforced o.j. She thought it would straighten his spine. He was in his best shape in years. She had got him doing sit-ups and push-ups. He was hard and quick, for a man who'd had his Biblical three score and ten. He was ready for action. He liked the tone of his own body. He liked the cut of Robin's smooth broad jaw across the teak table. Her healthy big hair, her pushy plump lips, her little flattened nose. "One down," he told her, mysteriously.

    But she was reading the Arts section, the B section, and didn't hear. "Con Air, Face/Off," she read. This was the summer of 1997. "Air Force One, Men in Black. They're all violent. Disgusting."

    "Why are you afraid of a little violence?" he asked her. "Violence is our poetry now, now that sex has become fatally tainted."

    "Or Contact," Robin said. "From the reviews it's all about how the universe secretly loves us."

    "That'll be the day," snarled Bech. Though in fact the juices surging inside him bore a passing resemblance to those of love. Mishner dead put another inch on his prick.

    A week later, he was in the subway. The Rockefeller Center station on Sixth Avenue, the old IND line. The downtown platform was jammed. All those McGraw-Hill, Exxon, and Time-Life execs were rushing back to their wives in the Heights. Or going down to West 4th to have some herbal tea and put on drag for the evening. Monogamous transvestite executives were clogging the system. Bech was in a savage mood. He had been to MoMA, checking out the Constructivist film-poster show and the Project 60 room. The room featured three "ultra-hip," according to the new New Yorker, figurative painters: one who did "poisonous portraits of fashion victims," another who specialized in "things so boring that they verge on nonbeing," and a third who did "glossy, seductive portraits of pop stars and gay boys." None of them had been Bech's bag. Art had passed him by. Literature was passing him by. Music he had never gotten exactly with, not since USO record hops. Those cuddly little WACs from Ohio in their starched uniforms. That war had been over too soon, before he got to kill enough Germans.

    Down in the subway, in the flickering jaundiced light, three competing groups of electronic buskers--one country, one progressive jazz, and one doing Christian hip-hop--were competing, while a huge overhead voice unintelligibly burbled about cancellations and delays. In the cacophony, Bech spotted an English critic: Raymond Featherwaite, former Cambridge eminence lured to CUNY by American moolah. From his perch in the CUNY crenellations, using an antique matchlock arquebus, he had been snottily potting American writers for twenty years, courtesy of the ravingly Anglophile New York Review of Books. Prolix and voulu, Featherwaite had called Bech's best-selling comeback book, Think Big, back in 1979. Inflation was peaking under Carter, the AIDS virus was sallying forth unidentified and unnamed, and here this limey carpetbagger was calling Bech's chef-d'oeuvre prolix and voulu. When, in the deflationary epoch supervised by Reagan, Bech had ventured a harmless collection of highly polished sketches and stories called Biding Time, Featherwaite had written, "One's spirits, however initially well-disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended reputations, begin severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of watching Mr. Bech, page after page, strain to make something of very little. The pleasures of microscopy pall."

    The combined decibels of the buskers drowned out, for all but the most attuned city ears, the approach of the train whose delay had been so indistinctly bruited. Featherwaite, like all these Brits who were breeding like woodlice in the rotting log piles of the New York literary industry, was no slouch at pushing ahead. Though there was hardly room to place one's shoes on the filthy concrete, he had shoved and wormed his way to the front of the crowd, right to the edge of the platform. His edgy profile, with its supercilious overbite and artfully projecting eyebrows, turned with arrogant expectancy toward the screamingly approaching D train, as though hailing a servile black London taxi or gilded Victorian brougham. Featherwaite affected a wispy-banged Nero haircut. There were rougelike touches of color on his cheekbones. The tidy English head bit into Bech's vision like a branding iron.

    Prolix, he thought, Voulu. He had had to look up voulu in his French dictionary. It put a sneering curse on Bech's entire oeuvre, for what, as Schopenhauer had asked, isn't willed?

    Bech was three bodies back in the crush, tightly immersed in the odors, clothes, accents, breaths, and balked wills of others. Two broad-backed bodies, padded with junk food and fermented malt, intervened between himself and Featherwaite, while others importunately pushed at his own back. As if suddenly shoved from behind, he lowered his shoulder and rammed into the body ahead of his; like dominoes, it and the next tipped the third, the stiff-backed Englishman, off the platform. In the next moment the train with the force of a flash flood poured into the station, drowning all other noise under a shrieking gush of tortured metal. Featherwaite's hand in the last second of his life had shot up and his head jerked back as if in sudden recognition of an old acquaintance. Then he had vanished.

    It was an instant's event, without time for the D-train driver to brake or a bystander to scream. Just one head pleasantly less in the compressed, malodorous mob. The man ahead of Bech, a ponderous black with bloodshot eyes, wearing a knit cap in the depths of summer, regained his balance and turned indignantly, but Bech, feigning a furious glance behind him, slipped sideways as the crowd arranged itself into funnels beside each door of the now halted train. A woman's raised voice--foreign, shrill--had begun to leak the horrible truth of what she had witnessed, and far away, beyond the turnstiles, a telepathic policeman's whistle was tweeting. But the crowd within the train was surging obliviously outward against the crowd trying to enter, and in the thick eddies of disgruntled and compressed humanity nimble, bookish, elderly Bech put more and more space between himself and his unwitting accomplices. He secreted himself a car's length away, hanging from a hand-burnished bar next to an ad publicizing free condoms and clean needles, with a dainty Oxford edition of Donne's poems pressed close to his face as the news of the unthinkable truth spread, and the whistles of distant authority drew nearer, and the train refused to move and was finally emptied of passengers, while the official voice overhead, louder and less intelligible than ever, shouted word of cancellation, of disaster, of evacuation without panic.

    Obediently Bech left the stalled train, blood on its wheels, and climbed the metallic stairs sparkling with pulverized glass. His insides shuddered in tune with the shoving, near-panicked mob about him. He inhaled the outdoor air and Manhattan anonymity gratefully. Avenue of the Americas, a sign said, in stubborn upholding of an obsolete gesture of hemispheric good will. Bech walked south, then over to Seventh Avenue. Scrupulously he halted at each red light and deposited each handed-out leaflet GIRLS! COLLEGE SEX KITTENS TOPLESS! BOTTOMLESS AFTER 6:30 P.M.! in the next city trash receptacle. He descended into the Times Square station, where the old IRT system's innumerable tunnels mingled their misery in a vast subterranean maze of passageways, stairs, signs, and candy stands. He bought a Snickers bar and leaned against a white-tiled pillar to read where his little book had fallen open,

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
   Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
   For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

He caught an N train that took him to Broadway and Prince. Afternoon had sweetly turned to evening while he had been underground. The galleries were closing, the restaurants were opening. Robin was in the loft, keeping lasagna warm. "I thought MoMA closed at six," she said.

    "There was a tie-up in the Sixth Avenue subway. Nothing was running. I had to walk down to Times Square. I hated the stuff the museum had up. Violent, attention-getting."

    "Maybe there comes a time," she said, "when new art isn't for you, it's for somebody else. I wonder what caused the tie-up."

    "Nobody knew. Power failure. A shootout uptown. Some maniac," he added, wondering at his own words. His insides felt agitated, purged, scrubbed, yet not yet creamy. Perhaps the creaminess needed to wait until the morning Times. He feared he could not sleep, out of nervous anticipation, yet he toppled into dreams while Robin still read beneath a burning light, as if he had done a long day's worth of physical labor.

    ENGLISH CRITIC, TEACHER DEAD / IN WEST SIDE SUBWAY MISHAP, the headline read. The story was low on the front page and jumped to the obituaries. The obit photo, taken decades ago, glamorized Featherwaite--head facing one way, shoulders another--so he resembled a younger, less impish brother of George Sanders. High brow, thin lips, cocky glass chin.... according to witnesses appeared to fling himself under the subway train as it approached the platform. ... colleagues at CUNY puzzled but agreed he had been under significant stress compiling permissions for his textbook of postmodern narrative strategies ... former wife, reached in London, allowed the deceased had been subject to mood swings and fits of creative despair ... the author of several youthful satirical novels and a single book of poems likened to those of Philip Larkin ... Robert Silvers of The New York Review expressed shock and termed Featherwaite "a valued and versatile contributor of unflinching critical integrity" ... born in Scunthorpe, Yorkshire, the third child and only son of a greengrocer and a part-time piano teacher ... and so on. A pesky little existence. "Ray Featherwaite is dead," Bech announced to Robin, trying to keep a tremble of triumph out of his voice.

    "Who was he?"

    "A critic. More minor than Mishner. English. Came from Yorkshire, in fact--I had never known that. Went to Cambridge on a scholarship. I had figured him for inherited wealth; he wanted you to think so."

    "That makes two critics this week," said Robin, preoccupied by the dense gray pages of stock prices.

    "Every third person in Manhattan is some kind of critic," Bech pointed out. He hoped the conversation would move on.

    "How did he die?"

    There was no way to hide it; she would be reading this section eventually. "Jumped under a subway train, oddly. Seems he'd been feeling low, trying to secure too many copyright permissions or something. These academics have a lot of stress. It's a tough world they're in--the faculty politics is brutal."

    "Oh?" Robin's eyes--bright, glossy, the living volatile brown of a slick moist pelt--had left the stock prices. "What subway line?"

    "Sixth Avenue, actually."

    "Maybe that was the tie-up you mentioned."

    "Could be. Very likely, in fact. Did I ever tell you that my father died in the subway, under the East River in his case? Made a terrible mess of rush hour."

    "Yes, Henry," Robin said, in the pointedly patient voice that let him know she was younger and clearer-headed. "You've told me more than once."

    "Sorry."

    "So why are your hands trembling? You can hardly hold your bagel." And his other hand, he noticed, was making the poppy seeds vibrate on the obituary page, as if a subway train were passing underneath.

    "Who knows?" he asked her. "I may be coming down with something. I went out like a light last night."

    "I'll say," said Robin, returning her eyes to the page. That summer the stock prices climbed up and up, breaking new records every day. It was unreal.

    "Sorry," he repeated. Ease was beginning to flow again within him. The past was sinking, every second, under fresher, obscuring layers of the recent past. "Did it make you feel neglected? A young woman needs her sex."

    "No," she said. "It made me feel tender. You seemed so innocent, with your mouth sagging open."

[CHAPTER CONTINUES ...]

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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, October 27, 1998, barnesandnoble.com welcomed John Updike, author of BECH AT BAY.


Moderator: It is an honor that we can welcome you online tonight, Mr. Updike. Do you have any opening comments for your online audience?

John Updike: No, not really. I am flattered that there is an online audience. I am offline myself, so this is a brave new world to me.


Dale from Williamsburg: The story "Bech Noir" is obviously a darkly funny one. But is there perhaps a kind of moral here -- perhaps that writers take themselves too seriously? Or is that too obvious?

John Updike: Maybe writers do take themselves too seriously, but I think my basic idea here was, in the realm of print, what level fierce competition and murder obtain. By killing a few critics, Bech is only attempting to repay criticism that has tried to annihilate him. I am not recommending that people emulate Bech, but the rage is actual and instinctual.


Davin Quinn from Burke, Virginia: Mr. Updike, at a time when ethnic diversity and tolerance are lauded values, do you find yourself and especially in the case of Henry Bech, from the Jewish American perspective being more careful about the types of thoughts concerning ethnicity you attribute to your characters?

John Updike: Yes. I think that all this talk of political correctness and tolerance has certainly gotten through to people like Henry Bech, but he, being a city man and himself in an ethnic minority, probably was always tolerant and generous-spirited. In the case of a less-enlightened character like Rabbit Angston, there could be no fudging the racist undercurrent of some of his thoughts, but he too in the course of the four novels learns some tolerance and understanding, without ever being, I fear, totally politically correct. A novelist's job is not to present the world as it should be but as it actually is, and we all have ethnic awareness as part of our general awareness.


Neil McAleer from Baltimore, MD: Good evening, Mr. Updike. Have you ever done a full piece on your literary fans, especially the more eccentric ones? In BECH AT BAY, you talk about Bech's signing sessions in Czechoslovakia. Did the Czechs really open their books to the title page? And have you ever felt, like Beck, that these autographed books were "like so many checks that would bounce"? Again, about your fans, the people who especially appreciate you and your work: Do you know how many pets are named Updike after you? I know of a particular male Siamese cat named Updike, and the name carries well throughout our neighborhood. He almost always comes when he's called. Are you aware of other pets named after you? Cheers!

John Updike: I was in a Boston aquarium some years ago at a poetry reading, and that very night a baby seal was born, and in honor of me being there, they named him Updike. I fear the seal did not have a very young or healthy life. That is the only animal I knew of to be honored with my name. To answer your first question, I have never written a piece exactly as you describe, but in a number of the Bech stories, various alleged fans are described in their approach to my beleaguered hero. I recommend in BECH: A BOOK the story called "Bech Slings." He grapples with one persistent interviewer. And in the first story in BECH IS BACK, he copes with an avid collector and several telephone callers. I am delighted to think I have fans, but at certain moments their attentions can be distracting.


Dale from Williamsburg: Bech is a wordsmith. But we do not know Bech through his writings so much as his thought processes, which are often tormented. Is Bech satirizing himself? Bech, a mediocrity, is brilliantly conceived: Is this your "joke" on the reader? That we should examine so many brilliant facets only to discover dross?

John Updike: Several examples of Bech writings do occur in the Bech saga -- I call to your attention his excellent introduction to BECH: A BOOK, and to the fine Festschrift contribution that he writes in "Bech Presides" in the present volume. I do not mean to suggest that he is a mediocre writer, but my interest in him centers on him as the writer as public figure, as pseudocelebrity, as a social being, rather than as an artistic creator. His thoughts may be tormented, but then, whose aren't?


J. Fuches from Chicago: Your sheer output over the years continues to amaze me. You don't seem to share Henry Bech's case of writer's block. How do you do it? What kind of writing schedule do you keep?

John Updike: I have arranged my life so there is no other job to prevent me from going upstairs after breakfast and writing for the morning. I begin around 9am and end a little after 1pm, when I am hungry and probably have written my days quota. When engaged in a long project, I try to meet a quota of three pages a day. Better to meet a modest quota every day than to try to write in binges. By these modest procedures, I have managed to accumulate a great deal of manuscript. But ideally, much of my day should be, in a strict sense, idle, for it is often in idle moments that real inspiration comes.


Mark Dukas from Oakland, CA: You have spoken before of the "shapes" of your fiction, the Y shape of THE POORHOUSE FAIR, the zigzag of RABBIT, RUN. There is a also the triangle of the Scarlet Letter trilogy, a four-sidedness to the four Rabbit books, as well as the four generations of IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES. PROBLEMS is literally covered with a geometry problem. TOWARD THE END OF TIME includes some parallel lines and a large, hovering torus. How consciously do you play with these geometric shapes in your fiction? Does the geometry have anything to do with the influence of your junior high math teacher also being your dad?

John Updike: That is a very good question, and you show an intimate acquaintance with my work. I began as a would-be cartoonist and gravitate in my conceptualizations toward clear shapes. I think it is useful to be able to visualize, in however rudimentary a form, the story line you are working on, and I suppose, yes, that my fondness for mathematics and geometry, as communicated to me by my father, has strengthened this tendency toward, as you say, rectangles, triangles, and other simple shapes. These shapes, of course, are just skeletons; one still has to try to imagine flesh for them.


Elise from Brooklyn, NY: Hi, Mr. Updike. I just read the review in last Sunday's New York Times, and it mentioned that BECH AT BAY might be your last in the Bech series. Is this true? If not, how long do you envision the series continuing?

John Updike: I certainly have no immediate plans for any sequel. It would depend in part upon how much longer I have to live and to some extent how much longer Henry Bech can go on. He is 75; I am 66. I would not predict a very long future for either of us. But I confess that he remains dear to me, and a few ideas for further stories have flitted across my brain. We shall see what comes of these.


Davin Quinn from Burke, Virginia: Mr. Updike, to what or whom do you attribute your writer's aesthetic sense, or what has informed the voice and style you use in your fictional prose? And just how much does revision contribute to the voice? Do you rely on strong first drafts or heavy revisions?

John Updike: A complex set of questions. In brief, my aesthetic notions of writing have come of my sense of the importance of writing well, beginning with my mother's example: She wanted to be a writer, and had very refined and enthusiastic tastes. I loved reading as a child and adolescent various modes of fantasy and escapism. In college I came to grasp some of the classics of English literature -- Shakespeare, above all -- and actually specialized not in prose but in poetry. My love of The New Yorker magazine and my early acceptance as a contributor there no doubt helped shape my taste. Certain of the 20th-century masters -- let me name Marcel Proust, the English novelist Henry Green, and J. D. Salinger influenced me forcefully. My fondness for graphic art, and pictorial art in general, no doubt played a part in my approach and in my style. You ask about revision -- I try, as I said in the previous answer, to begin with a shape in my mind, but paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, of course there is much revision and adjustment, right up to the last proof that I see. And yet I feel that the short story or novel should eventually take the form it first had in your mind, so in this sense I don't believe that a work can be revised into shape. Many writers do seem to think so, but I think that the important revisions take place in your head before you begin.


Mark from Detroit: In BECH AT BAY, I found it hilarious that you axed a few book critics as revenge for Bech. As a critic yourself, do you ever worry about the consequences of a poison pen? In your career, was it increasingly difficult to write negative reviews when you yourself knew the value of a good review?

John Updike: I probably have been a somewhat softhearted reviewer because of the rough treatment I received when young and tender. I try to be honest in my reviews, but sympathetic to the idea of literature and to the spirit of the authors attempt. I have written a few negative reviews in my day, but always with some compunction. I think the most useful review is one that enables us to read a book with more pleasure and insight, rather than discourage a reader from his own enjoyment.


Albert Raman from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: You have a history of writing introductions to books on art and artists. Recently you published an introduction to THE WORLD OF WILLIAM STEIG. In addition to your own reported interest in cartooning and the many connections to The New Yorker art, do you have any comments?

John Updike: My only field of any real expertise in art lies in the field of cartooning, which I studied keenly in the '40s and '50s, when I still had hopes of becoming a cartoonist myself. I was happy to write about William Steig, whose work has always seemed to me quite special, and in a few other instances, I have been happy to write about cartooning and illustration. But my general art expertise is erratic, and when I do write about it, it really is in the mode of self-education.


David Tarpley from Concord, CA: Is there any hope of a peace accord between you and Gore Vidal? It's depressing to read two of my favorite writers periodically insulting each other.

John Updike: I am not aware of insulting Vidal about much. I fear I have not really read him much, so my capacity for insult is limited. I suppose I don't like an automatically sardonic tone, but then he seems not to like my hopeful, optimistic tone either. I have only met the man once, and we had a pleasant, though brief, conversation. I have read some writing by Vidal which I admire, but this does not include his review of my novel IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES.


Mark Dukas from Oakland, CA: You have written marvelously and very openly about the various experiences of being a man, an American, a growing boy in Shillington, and a husband. My question concerns fathers and children. You have written wonderfully from the child's perspective but seem to have been rather circumspect in writing about your own kids and being a father. Is this a mistaken impression, or have you perhaps held back at their request?

John Updike: My children, bless them, have never asked me to hold back. First they were too little to ask and then they were to polite. There is in the collections PROBLEMS and TRUST ME some accounts of paternal love, for instance the stories "Son" and "Daughter Last Glimpse Of." I loved being a father, and hope I have conveyed some of that happiness in print, but possibly as my children became adults I thought to give them some privacy and freedom from my scrutiny. Now I am a grandfather of seven grandsons, and though they have not figured strongly in my fiction, they do figure in my affections.


Gene Sofie from Washougal, WA: Good evening, Mr. Updike. If NASA allowed you on a space shuttle for the purpose of writing about the trip, would you take them up on the offer?

John Updike: If I could be guaranteed a safe return, I might. I have flown a lot in the last 30 years and would like to think I could endure a flight into space. It would be wonderful and terrifying to see our planet from high above. This is an experience that men have had -- even though I have not had it, I feel enriched and dizzied by what man can do. So I answer yes, but with no expectation of being taken up on it.


Jonathan from Seattle: If you had to go to the bookstore tonight and buy one book you haven't read yet, what would you pick?

John Updike: I think I would buy RESURRECTION by Count Leo Tolstoy. He only wrote three full-length novels, and I have always meant to see what the great man did in his relative decline.


Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, John Updike. It has truly been a pleasure for us, and we wish you the best of luck with BECH AT BAY. Do you have any closing comments for your online audience? How was your first online chat experience?

John Updike: My online chat experience -- it was a new way to compose my thoughts! Not as slow as writing and not as fast as real conversation. I hope my answers possessed some of the virtues of both methods of speech. I thank the questioners for their intelligence and their caring about this particular devotee of the printed word.


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