When I think of the matings, the moaning, jubilant fornications between between ectomorphic oversexed junior editors and svelte hot-from-Wellesley majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy female coffee-fetchers and receptionists that have been engineered with the lever of some of my poor scratched-up and pasted-over pages (they arrive in the editorial offices as stiff with Elmer’s glue as a masturbator’s bedsheet; the office boys use them for tea-trays), I could mutilate myself like sainted Origen, I could keen like Jeremiah. Thank Jahweh these bordellos in the sky can soon dispense with the excuse of us entirely; already the contents of a book count as little as the contents of a breakfast cereal box. It is all a mater of the premium, and the shelf site, and the amount of air between the corn flakes.
That’s Henry Bech by way of John Updike, Bech being Updike’s Jewish, childless alter ego, who wrote one major book (Travel Light) and is the responsible party for a number of others, or so I’m told. He can also turn it on when he needs to—the writing thing, I mean, mostly—and is maybe too self-aware, given his propensity for analogizing writing to sex and sometimes vice-versa.
And he has a taste for obscure, at least to me, allusion. Wikipedia on Origen: “Origen, or Origen Adamantius, 184/5–253/4, was an early Christian Alexandrian scholar and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early Church.”
Wikipedia on “svelte hot-from-Wellesley majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy female coffee-fetchers:” “The page “Svelte hot-from-Wellesley majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy female coffee-fetchers” does not exist. You can ask for it to be created, but consider checking the search results below to see whether the topic is already covered.”
Also, I realize that it’s customary for writers to be cranky on their status as cultural figures; publishers would no doubt like to “dispense with the excuse of us entirely,” but, alas, without books those “oversexed junior editors” and Wellesley grads wouldn’t be employed; it’s hard to imagine them on Wall Street, easier to imagine them unemployed and occupying Wall Street, which is probably even worse paid than publishing. And books endure to the extent a society needs them to endure; what strikes me most about a lot of the older novels I read is that their concerns seem like solved problems. Religion, at least as practiced by most people, seems more about conveying status than it does about the supernatural. Sexual strictures that once bound society have disappeared or shifted, leaving novelists without an obvious source of plot tension and the patina of age on many older novelists who used that as the primary driver of their plots.
Given what’s happened to many—but not all—older writers as a source of cultural authority and importance, and how few people read many of them outside of classrooms, we can easily start to understand how worried Bech is about his life’s work being as important as “the contents of a breakfast cereal box.” He’s tongue-in-cheek, but only halfway. In the age of the “Twilight of the Books,” it’s hard to be a word-slinger of the book variety, especially when so many garrulous bloggers like yours truly are willing to give it away for free.
And people aren’t that inclined to pay for what they can get for free. They also might not value it as much, making high culture-types unhappy about their perceived or actual relevance, which gives us a nice space for mocking and upholding their concerns about relevance at once. Enter Bech, in the fallen age of the novel—though the novel always seems to be dying, but readers don’t seem to have been informed. They keep gathering up words like so many corn flakes, and writers keep the factories running.