Two years ago, the British novelist A.S. Byatt wrote what the
publisher called "a novel" about a man collecting notes for a
biography on a famous biographer. "The Biographer's Tale" was one of
those stultifyingly complex productions you're proud to have endured
because you don't want to admit you've been had.
In his review of Byatt's novel for The New Yorker, John Updike
predicted that "the patience of all but a reader superhumanly
tolerant of extended digression will creak and snap under the load
of near-random texts, assembled by an author whose love of
collection, of assembling and ordering, in this case quite
overpowers any urge to tell a smooth story."
If only he'd remembered that commentary when writing "Seek My
Updike's latest book boasts another one of those super-clever
premises we've come to expect from him since he finished writing
great novels about what it means to be an American man. The story
covers just a single day-long interview. Kathryn, a young writer for
an online magazine, has finagled an audience with 79-year-old Hope
in her Vermont retreat.
As a painter, Hope has won a smattering of awards and hung her
work in some of the finest museums and galleries, but she knows her
real interest to the world is the fact that she was married to two
of the towering artists of the 20th century.
In the introductory note, Updike admits, "It would be vain to
deny that a large number of details come from the admirable,
exhaustive 'Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,' by Steven Naifeh and
Gregory White Smith." Indeed, Hope's first husband, Zack, is a dead-
ringer for the famous drip painter who drove his car into a tree
during his last alcoholic bout of depression. Her second husband,
Guy, sounds like an amalgamation of several modern artists, but
mostly he's a weird cross between Ward Cleaver and Andy Warhol.
(Fifteen minutes of that would be plenty.)
The book starts in the morning when Kathryn switches on her Sony
tape recorder, and it ends in the evening when Hope and her
interviewer (and Updike's readers) are exhausted by the
uninterrupted flow of so much reminiscence, small talk, critical
theory, and gossip.
As a breezy summary of modern art in America, "Seek My Face"
beats the paints off the pretentious catalog text at the Guggenheim.
After all, it's got Updike's unparalleled style, his witty piercing
of social behavior and private anxieties, and free reign across a
canvas that's 50 years wide. But as a novel, it suffers the
considerable constraints of its static setting. The action takes
place only in a series of rushed anecdotes and digressions - "Now,
where was I?"
Under the relentless eye of her interrogator, Hope brushes
through the details of her first marriage, providing a memorable
warning against living with someone who considers himself a great
artist. Zack courted fame while spurning its protocol. He thirsted
for praise, but attacked his supporters. He needed his wife's
devotion, but rejected her love. She talks frankly about their sex
life, too, and what little she leaves out, Updike supplies in
unseemly, humiliating flashbacks.
With a lingering mixture of resentment and affection, Hope
describes their tumultuous marriage in the middle of "the historical
moment, the explosion when everything came together and America took
over from Paris, and for the first time ever we led world art. …