BECH IS BACK

A NOVEL

Updike grows steadily more dazzling. After all, how many other contemporary novelists have had the artistic suppleness to launch two such different series of character-based books and allow them to do so much? (If Rabbit is a tennis-shoed archbishop of the American middle, Bech is Updike's pulchinello, his writer-as-sad-clown, a Mosaic itinerant.) Yet both characters feed off the same basic freedom: not failure exactly, but resonated disappointment. Henry Bech, you'll remember, is Updike's prototypical writer: New-York-Jewish, naturally—and a big splash that's now dried-out. (He's the winner of the Melville Award, "awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence.") So, stalled on his work-in-progress, Think Big, Bech scrambles. Signing limited-edition reprint pages of an earlier novel, each scrawl worth a buck-and-a-half and a free vacation in the Caribbean, he enters the nightmare of having his very name dismantle under his hand. When he travels on State Department tours to the Third World, his alkaline talks and the student demonstrations against him lead him to be "sorry he had ever said anything, on anything, ever. He had meddled with the mystery of creation. There was in the world a pain concerning which God has set an example of pure and absolute silence." He marries his WASP lover Bea, who gets him to move up to Westchester, to travel to Israel (where, to great comic effect, she's more enthusiastic than he is) and to Scotland (where Updike indulges in piquant travel-writing with sparkling economy). And they finally settle in, in Ossining-where the goyim terrify Bech as exotics, "so brittle and pale and complacently situated amid their pools and dogwoods and the old Dutch masonry of their retaining walls, that he felt like a spy among them and, when not a silent spy, a too-vigorous, curly-haired showoff." At last, then, Bech writes: he finishes Think Big (which seems wonderful/dreadful in Updike's clever outline), earns a bundle, winds up as just another celebrity . . . and ultimately abandons the let-down Bea. ("I just thought . . . your living here so long with me, with us, something nice would get into your book. But those people are so vicious, Henry. There's no love making them tick, just ego and greed. Is that how you see us? I mean us, people?") Schlemeil humor at its ventriloquistic best, fine travel observations, literary acid—all splendid. But Updike's newest Bech-book moves past the satiric pinpricks of the first volume and into a personification of moral compromise—sure to make any writer squirm in recognition, sure to reward any reader. Like a delicious sundae that turns out to be whipped up out of vitamins and minerals: brilliant fiction, great fun.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 1982

ISBN: 0449004538

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1982

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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