It is one of the petty conventions of petty critics that all authors have a nemesis. This shadow, this alter ego, this deranged double has met with the cackling approval of the psychobabble circuit, a hippodrome that is thankfully no longer very hip (it has been replaced with insecure, ignorant, and resentful termites, but these bugs can be safely crushed underfoot). What does a nemesis say about us? To the computerized mind, apparently everything; but to a first-rate writer, to the nimble-witted and light-pawed genius who playfully eludes the symbol hunters, the only nemesis is the critic who insists on reading a book with his cookie-cutter and scalpel, instead of attempting to understand artistic brilliance on its own terms. If you think a great artist is a tyrant, you should turn in your passport and voting card and proceed to the bleakest wilderness, where you can impose your dim drivel upon oblivious caterpillars and tree bark. And while the author of this quasi-novel is most certainly a genius, we may reserve judgment on the faculties of his much-ballyhooed protagonist.
Some of us remember Henry Bech as the quiet, plain divorcé who just happens to be a major American novelist in the way that, for better or worse, there must be at all times some major American novelists. Will posterity smile upon Travel Light or When the Saints? Will Think Big, one of the silliest idioms in the English language, sustain its readership over the centuries? Those critics who deem Bech to be merely a Jewish variant of Updike impose untruths (as a banal example, Bech is notoriously unfecund, Updike amazingly prolific); those who admit that Bech is a rather unpleasant fellow of middling talent, even if his thoughts, which Updike generously disclosed, indicate a wide streak of genius, are not wrong so much as wrong-headed; and those who wish to localize a moral message amidst Bech's sleepy sins miss the point, set, and match. If all great literary works are moral, it is because amidst their layers of aesthetic bliss, stylistic triumphs, and sparkling insights into the human soul, they know right from wrong; this does not and cannot mean that their characters will always act morally. How do we, the readers, know that it, the work in question, knows right from wrong? One passage from the plight of Henry Bech may help illuminate our plan:
Not that Bech had ever liked Izzy's stuff. In fact, at bottom, he didn't like any of his contemporaries' work. It would have been unnatural to: they were all on the same sinking raft, competing for dwindling review space and demographic attention. Those that didn't appear, like John Irving and John Fowles, garrulously, Dickensianly reactionary in method seemed, like John Hawkes and John Barth, smugly, hermetically experimental. O'Hara, Hersey, Cheever, Updike – suburbanites all living safe while art's inner city disintegrated. And that was just the Johns. Bech would not have minded if all other writers vanished, leaving him alone on a desert planet with a billion English-language readers. Being thus unique was not a prospect that daunted him as he sat warming his cold inspirations, like a chicken brooding glass eggs, in the lonely loft, off lower Broadway, to which he had moved when his suburban marriage to his longtime mistress's sister had finally been dissolved. Solipsism was the writerly condition; why not make it statistical? Certainly the evaporation of Izzy Thornbush was a pleasing fancy .... Izzy, the former artificer, maker of hazy verbal Pyramids, need build no more; a magnificently kept man, he need oversee only the elaborate buttressing of his crumbling reputation.
Who is Izzy Thornbush, you may ask? The man himself might not be able to tell you; on the dotted line, as they say, he is another Jewish writer, but one "stocked with not just highbrow erudition but low mercantile cunning," which should tell you exactly what types of works he tends to produce. In stark contrast to the reclusive Bech, Izzy is loudly selfish and hormonal; he married a plastic heiress of plasticine temperament so that he can be fêted in the grandest manner (celebrations for writers, it seems, are inversely proportional to their talents); and as the world turns, so spins Izzy Thornbush, who has never met an idea or movement or theory that he didn't like. If all this suggests the very opposite of Henry Bech, Bech would agree. But like the discerning reader, he would not care a hoot.
Does the pentarchy of Bech at Bay really make a novel, quasi or otherwise? The five not-so-easy pieces will be treated on these pages as separate entities, because "Bech presides" has as much in common with the first part of the quasiness as it does with, say, a guidebook to Prague. Yes, the plot concerns an organization called the Forty, which gathers and compresses writers and other artists like a bunch of daisies, an organization which our Bech (the title cannot lie) will gavel into session. Will he bring doom to this dilapidated institution, a hangover from days when people thought books important and writers noble? Dear reader, why would such minutia concern you? Especially when you can just sample the snippets of ecstasy from Bech's humble agenda, most of which concern fellow scribes: "The famously tall one and the famously short one, who insisted on huddling tête-à-tête like the letter 'f' ligatured to the letter 'i'; "This, again, took them to a level of seriousness where neither was quite prepared to breathe"; "This browsing was selfish and superstitious: he was looking for clues that would help him turn his own peculiar world into words, and he resisted submitting for long to another's spell"; "The fascinating face, which, like a plate of nouvelle cuisine, was bigger than it needed to be to contain what was on it"; "Izzy came up to them, bringing the fresh air of familiar rudeness"; "That dazzling WASP blankness which comes of never having been persecuted and scorned." All we need, Bech seems to imply, is a few good books and our souls, miserable bogs, would be cleansed; indeed, very early on in his term, the president of the Forty lectures the other members (who are not the Thirty-Nine; they were more like the Eight) about "the artistic spirit, the appetite for truth and beauty." Who can deny such truths? Should we then be surprised when Bech scans a host's shelves for one of his books, whose "spines [he knew] better than his past mistresses' faces"? Too many questions for a single writer, I am afraid, which is why we have wonderful organizations like the Forty: to provide a cacophony of pretentious rhubarb before it all dies out, sound, fury, glory, and the rapture of youth unregained, Henry Bech's youth and everyone else's. Because Henry Bech has long since determined that the only thing which separates him from the rest of humanity is that instinctive search, the first time he sets foot in any house, for a bookshelf.