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You Don't Have To Be Jewish

THE COMPLETE HENRY BECH Twenty Stories By John Updike; Everyman's/Alfred A. Knopf: 512 pp., $23

July 01, 2001|LEE SIEGEL | Lee Siegel is a contributing writer to Book Review and a contributing editor to Harper's and The New Republic

In America, everyone does everyone else. Gay men wrote the classic boy-girl love songs; Jewish screenwriters modeled the ideal American type on their notion of the ideal WASP. Blacks supplied Jewish songwriters with their rhythms; Jewish songwriters gave black jazz musicians their standards. White suburbanites do black ghetto kids; black college kids do the white middle class; professional women mime the manner of executive men; executive men copy the empathetic style of successful women--and on and on and on. After all the historical brutalities and injuries, our national heart is ultimately a miscegenating organ. A kind of spiritual transvestism is woven into our daily existence. No wonder the word "celebrity" is almost synonymous with the word "actor."

Interestingly, in American speech, the verb "to do" means not only to impersonate but to have sexual intercourse with and to kill, as if sex and murder were different phases of the desire to be another person. Perhaps the very act of impersonation is a mastery of the homicidal impulse or a sublimated lust. These verbal echoes are significant because the true Other is never safe in America. Our assimilations of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality repress the profoundly alien element in life.

For the true Other is we ourselves, we who are so different and other than what we expect. This incalculable us-ness persists through all our hearty embraces of seemingly alien identities. It's our own strangeness that makes us fear alienness in the first place and, although popular culture has been the gratifying treasure house of commingling othernesses, literature is the place where the act of impersonation goes beyond superficial inhabitings into the impersonator's own perplexing and perplexed nature.

There have not been many memorable impersonations in classic American fiction: Jim in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn"; the multiple personalities in Herman Melville's "The Confidence Man"; Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie"; arguably, J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield (the adult doing the adolescent); the Jewish Saul Bellow's WASPish "Henderson." Of course, more and more novelists try their hands at inhabiting figures in extremis: Siamese twins or explorers dying on mountain peaks, for example. But these characters are often bloodless exotic essences. A real impersonation requires a palpable everyday existence.

John Updike's impersonation of an American Jewish writer named Henry Bech, an authentic impersonation if ever there was one, has been going on for almost 40 years. It is the WASP version of blackface. The 20 previously published Bech stories, now collected in one volume--not to mention the several "interviews" of Updike by his creation not included here--make up one of the weirdest, most audacious and provocative occasions in American literary history. And yet these stories, bound into a totality, have attracted little attention to Updike's singular enterprise.

There are a few possible reasons for such neglect, the first simply being that a WASP author semi-satirically inhabiting a Jewish character doesn't have the same daring piquancy that it did when Updike published his first Bech story, "The Bulgarian Poetess," nearly 40 years ago, in 1964. Besides, with American Jewish books like "The Talmud and the Internet," with an American Jewish novelist recently comparing Israel to a lost wallet on the New York Times op-ed page, where is the satirist who could outdo the often ridiculous American Jewish literary reality of our day? Now if a gay author were to semi-satirically inhabit a straight author, or vice versa; or a male author send up contemporary feminist and post-feminist attitudes in the person of a female character; or a female author adopt the soft, sensitive, virtue-conscious persona of the new Machiavellian male--these literary feats would attract attention. What a blessing they would be. But everyone seems too careful nowadays for such imaginative improprieties.

There is also, with regard to the stunning indifference with which "The Complete Henry Bech" has been received, the question of literary reputation. Updike puts it well in the short story "Bech Presides," in which he describes the curious literary dynamic that attends authorial duration. The longer an author lives and the less he publishes, the more burnished his or her reputation becomes: "the mud of a clinging fame.... Such an honorable retreat could go on forever, thanks to modern medicine

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