Book Beat May 16 2001 (2)

If it is true that many writers imagine their invented people as stylized projections of themselves, it is nowhere more cleverly exemplified than in John Updike’s new book, The Complete Henry Bech. From Bech: A Book (1970) to Beck at Bay (1998) and “His Oeuvre” (1999), Henry Bech has become the object d’artifice in Updike’s literary imagination and a perversely comic vision of the possibilities for autobiography in an age where the Self is perhaps rather more contested than one might hope. It may, however, be consoling to recognize that insofar as Updike’s main Selves are men, he has defended, with charm and unashamed élan, the sometimes indefensible movements of his imperfect beasts. This volume is thus the perfect gesture from a generous imagination and a kind of major minor event.

Certainly, the idea of an alter ego has immediate resonance for Updike, the man, who always has written close to his own experience while others of his generation could hide their secrets in the complexities of fabulism and still sell books. The received critical view is that Updike was more courageous and never turned to myth without some kind of provocation in the daily rigors of American life. That this gives him a kind of counter-revolutionary shimmer seems to affirm the emerging Updike revisionism in which he becomes the arch-harlequin after all. For he had not only one alter ego, in the writer Henry Bech, but a second in Harry Angstrom, protagonist of his Rabbit books, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Whatever else is true of Updike’s experiments with the shifting texts of identity, one has the sense that like Bech himself, “art excites his appetite,” that is, Updike is never far from the telling detail or the luminous phrase or the evocative image. And after 30 years of contemplating the best and worst in masculine psychological aesthetics, Updike has just enough ontological leverage to ask his creations, for the last time, what have you learned???