Seek My Face was one of the last novels John Updike wrote.
Its premise is this: a thirties-something, serious freelance journalist from New York City comes to New England to interview a seventies-something artist who also was married to two famous artists, had affairs with others, and eventually married a rich collector.
The idea is that the interview will help Kathryn, the journalist, write about Hope, the artist. Hope is a well-known painter in her own right (she’s a Lee Krasner stand-in), and still active. But she’s not the equivalent of her husbands and lovers, who are pastiches of Jackson Pollock, Roy Liechtenstein, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman and the like.
So the aesthetic arc Hope’s life follows runs from the earliest abstract impressionists to later Pop and Op Art types. At present she’s painting canvases in shades of gray, trying to find ways to make the various shades push and pull at one another.
The strength of the book lies in Updike’s ability to verbalize abstract impressionism’s aspirations. He doesn’t believe in abstract impressionism, but he does a great job considering a field of paint that has no object, no story, nothing to represent except the beautiful moment of being within which the abstract impressionists worked.
Updike is just about as good dealing with successor movements. He wanted to be a graphic artist before he became a writer, and he knows his stuff.
There’s something empty about the way in which Hope relates her experiences with men and the art world. The men, especially the Pollock figure, don’t come alive for me. The better you know Pollock as a man, I suspect, the less interesting you find him. He was an enfant terrible in a sense, a Westerner, an alcoholic, a rule-breaker, and someone who, inevitably, met an early and violent death. It’s hard to imagine most of his acquaintances didn’t find him a bore, which is what he wanted to be (setting painting aside).
Of course, Pollock’s art is powerful and unique, but in a novel, most of the main male characters can’t be paper thin, not palpable, just beings Hope, however well she knew them, describes.
That’s a big flaw.
Hope is personally quite interesting, almost exhaustively so. Updike pours into her his astonishing ability to perceive, name and connect things--be they doorknobs, reflections, alterations in the clouds, or the wings of nostrils. This can be funny, but at the same time, it’s an oddly concrete mode of rendering reality--very representational, not at all abstract, though somewhat expressionistic. I sometimes felt as though I were being subjected to Homeric catalogues. There’s a fair amount of descriptive brilliance that doesn’t make up for a real story.
The real story is bookended between the morning when the Kathryn arrives in Vermont and the afternoon when she leaves. One day. In between, there’s tons of talk and tons of internal reflection on Hope’s part. The issue is whether the two women can find and believe in one another, I suspect. The answer is that they can’t. Updike forces Kathryn to keep asking Hope personal questions about sex with her men, and Hope doesn’t like it, and most readers won’t like it, either. So no matter how hard Hope works at reframing the exchange, she keeps failing. She can’t mother Kathryn, she can’t take her back and make her see exactly what here life was like, she can’t even get Kathryn to understand what being 70+ is like, and yet still working.
Updike being Updike, you expect a lot of stylistic pirouettes and are grateful for them, you expect a lot of sex, and have your doubts about it, but you also cheer him on when he seeks the metaphysical in quotidian reality. He was a “believer,” a kind of optimist, and a single child whose primary narcissism was never injured. No matter how many times he experienced or witnessed personal setbacks (his own and others) he kept thinking God lurked around the corner, willing and able to make things better.
I think this book should have been cut by 25%, but I wasn’t the editor in charge of telling John Updike that, and I doubt he would have listened. He was like Hope: he wanted to talk. So he talked.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund