A meditation on art, aging, and memory, John Updike's Seek My Face
is the fictional equivalent of a PBS documentary on postwar American art. Seventy-nine-year-old Hope Chafetz, a painter of merit but, most importantly, wife to two major American artists, allows a young journalist named Kathryn to interview her for an online magazine. Having expected perhaps a two-hour talk over coffee, Hope is dismayed to find that her guest has brought sheaves of questions, a tape recorder, and the kind of scrupulous attention to detail--even sexual detail--that Hope would rather avoid. She gives an entire day to Kathryn, who, like memory itself, seems oblivious to Hope's need to eat, rest, or breathe fresh air.
Seek My Face draws on the story of Lee Miller and Jackson Pollock, the model for Hope's first husband. These are the best parts of a slow, sumptuous, and intricately detailed novel that lacks any significant action except in retrospect. Hope's second husband is depicted as an amalgam of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Wayne Thiebaud--a useful survey of the period, but not compelling characterization. One can sense the author folding in important art-historical points and details toward the end, like last-minute ingredients in a cake that may be too heavy to rise. Readers who stay with Hope and Kathryn through the day, however, will be rewarded with a gorgeous, resonant, and almost antimodern ending. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
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.
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