John Updike's twentieth novel, like his first, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), takes place in one day, a day that contains much conversation and some rain. The seventy-eight-year-old painter Hope Chafetz, who in the course of her eventful life has been Hope Ouderkirk, Hope McCoy, and Hope Holloway, answers questions put to her by a New York interviewer named Kathryn, and recapitulates, through the story of her own career, the triumphant, poignant saga of postwar American art. In the evolving relation between the two women, the interviewer and interviewee move in and out of the roles of daughter and mother, therapist and patient, predator and prey, supplicant and idol. The scene is central Vermont; the time is the early spring of 2001.
Couched in the form of a day-long conversation between 79-year-old painter Hope Chafetz, living in seclusion in Vermont, and a chic young interviewer from New York, Updike's 20th novel is an ambitious attempt to capture the moment when America "for the first time ever... led world art." As a fictional survey of the birth of abstract expressionism, pop art and other contemporary genres, the narrative offers a somewhat slick overview of the roiling currents of genius and calculation, artistic vision and personal ambition that characterized the art scene in the postwar years. Updike's ability to get inside an artist's psyche is considerable, as Hope's monologue convincingly demonstrates. Because he tries to distill and convey an era of art history, however, there is a static and didactic quality to the narrative; much of it sounds like art-crit disguised as exposition. As a reader can infer from an author's note in which Updike acknowledges his debt to the Naifeh and Smith biography of Jackson Pollock, Hope's life bears a strong resemblance to that of Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner. Hope's memories recapitulate the dilemma of an artist whose personal expression is thwarted by marriage and the omnipresence of alcohol and drugs, and since this is Updike country, Hope is more than candid about her sex life with Zack (Pollock); her second husband, Guy Holloway (loosely modeled on Warhol); and her third, art critic Jerry Chafetz. Updike's descriptions of landscapes and interiors are painterly in themselves, closely observed and sensuous. On the whole, the novel is a study of the artist as archetype, "a man who in the end loves nothing but his art." On that level it succeeds, but readers who long for plot and action may be disappointed.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 03, 2003
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Excerpt from Seek My Face by John Updike
"LET ME BEGIN by reading to you," says the young woman, her slender, black-clad figure tensely jackknifed on the edge of the easy chair, with its faded coarse plaid and broad arms of orangish varnished oak, which Hope first knew in the Germantown sunroom, her grandfather posed in it reading the newspaper, his head tilted back to gain the benefit of his thick bifocals, more than, yes, seventy years ago, "a statement of yours from the catalogue of your last show, back in 1996."
As a child Hope would sit in the chair trying to feel what it was like to be an adult, resting her little round elbows on the broad arms, spreading her fingers, a ring of fat between each joint, on the dowel end, which was set in the softly curved arm, a kind of wooden coin with a pale stripe in it, the butt end of the wedge that tightened the dowel. The chair's arms had been too far apart for her to rest more than one elbow and hand at a time. She must have been-what?-five, six. Even when new, in the 'twenties or 'teens, the chair would have been a homely unfashionable thing, a summer kind of furniture, baking in the many-windowed sunroom with the potted philodendron and the lopsided hassock, the hassock's top divided like a pie in long triangular slices of different colors of leather. When her grandmother's death in the 'fifties had at last broken up the Germantown house, Hope coveted the old chair and, her amused surviving brother making no objection, brought it to Long Island, where it sat upstairs in her so-called studio, where she would sometimes try to read by the north window, the sash leaking wind howling in off Block Island Sound while Zack played jazz records-Armstrong, Benny Goodman, a scratchy Beiderbecke-too loud downstairs; and then to the apartment with Guy and the children on East Seventy-ninth, in the dun-walled back spare room by the radiator that clanked like a demented prisoner while she tried to set her own rhythm with the loaded brush; and then to Vermont, where she and Jerry had bought and renovated and dug in for their last stand in life, a chair transported from muggy Pennsylvania to a colder, higher climate yet hardly incongruous in this plain, prim, low-ceilinged front parlor, the chair's round front feet resting on the oval rug of braided rags in a spiral, its square back feet on the floorboards painted the shiny black-red of Bing cherries, the browns and greens and thin crimsons of its plaid further fading into one pale tan, here in the sparse blue mountain light of early April. Strange, Hope thought, how things trail us place to place, more loyal than organic friends, who desert us by dying. The Germantown house became overgrown in Grandmother's lonely last years, its thick sandstone walls eaten to the second-story windowsills by gloomy flourishing shrubbery, hydrangea and holly and a smoke tree whose branches broke in every ice storm or wet snow, the whitewash flaking and the pointing falling out in brittle long crumbs lost down among the stems of the peonies, the roots of the holly. She had loved living there when so small, but after her parents moved to Ardmore visits back felt strange, the huge droopy-limbed hemlock having grown sinister, the yard with its soft grass smelling heated and still like the air of a greenhouse, the swing that her spry little grandfather, the first person Hope knew ever to die, had hung from the limb of the walnut tree rotting, ropes and board, in an eternally neglected way that frightened her.
The young woman, a narrow new knife in the chair's fat old sheath, reads in her edgy New York voice, a voice that leans toward Hope with a pressure of anxiousness but also with what seems, in this shaky light of late life, a kind of daughterly affection, "For a long time I have lived as a recluse, fearing the many evidences of God's non-existence with which the world abounds. The world, it has come to me slowly, is the Devil's motley, colorful instead of pure. I restrict my present canvases to shades of gray ever closer together, as if in the pre-dawn, before light begins to lift edges into being. I am trying, it may be, to paint holiness. I suppose I should be flattered when some critics call this phase my best-they write that at last I am out from the shadow of my first husband. But I have, miraculously it might be said, ceased to care what they think, or what figure I cut in the eyes of strangers. End quote. This was five years ago. Would you say it is still true?"
Hope tries to slow the young woman down, dragging her own voice as if in thought. "True enough, I would say, though it does sound a shade self-dramatizing. Perhaps 'fearing' is strong. 'Feeling dread and distaste in regard to' might have been more accurate and-and seemly."