Updike Picks Up His Brush, Whips Off a Dazzling Portrait

Seek My Face , by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages, $23.

The premise of Seek My Face is clean and powerful, like a canvas by Barnett Newman: An old woman, a painter who has lived a full life (three husbands, among them two “men of genius”), is being interviewed by a young woman, a journalist. The older woman, the artist, is the wide field of color; the younger woman, with her tape recorder and her invasive questions, is the stripe-the “zip”-that provides the tension and makes the painting work.

Swirled over that simple, elegant premise is John Updike’s superabundant prose, dazzling strings of looping sentences that wrap the two women in glittering constellations of words, glorious spurts, like this Long Island aria: “There had been the white noise of the waves and the far-stretching scent of beach, salt and iodine and rotting marine bodies, fish and jellyfish leaving their round ochre corpses like puddles of varnish on the rocks, collapsed, unable to get back to their element, their anatomy dimly seen within the puddle, useless, wasted, something like breathing still taking place, poor doomed creatures, so we all.” This fluent extravagance makes the novel more Pollock than Newman. And that’s just right: The old woman is a loosely fictionalized version of Lee Krasner, who was, of course, married to “Jack the Dripper” himself. Jackson Pollock’s story, and the epic story of American art coming of age, is a rich, crowded background-too rich, perhaps: Mr. Updike (who as a young man set out to become an artist and who still writes frequently about art, mostly for The New York Review of Books ) delivers a series of mini-lectures on Abstract Expressionism, and this cumbersome downloading of information and theory distracts from the foreground story and somewhat dilutes its emotional impact.

Forget for the moment Pollock, Krasner and the history of postwar American painting. Mr. Updike’s heroine is called Hope Ouderkirk. When we meet her, she’s a 78-year-old widow, still painting, living alone in rural Vermont, more concerned with the aches and pains of age than with her professional reputation, her place in the history of art, or her magnificent horde of memories. Disturbing Hope’s quiet existence is Kathryn, a “nervously aggressive intruder,” who has driven up from New York for a day-long interview. Kathryn’s edgy questions cover the whole of Hope’s artistic career and pry at the intimate details of her personal life; they elicit both audible answers and silent reveries-in other words, we get Hope whole, an appealing and convincing creation.

Not only was she the wife of Zack McCoy, the roughhewn, booze-soaked inventor of action painting (the result was “absolutely gorgeous … as explosive and finespun and empty and full as the cosmos itself”), but after his death (drunken car crash, just like the movie) she married Guy Holloway, the leading light of the art scene during the 60′s and 70′s (think Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg rolled into one, a hyper-inventive art trickster). Her third marriage was to a wealthy collector who encouraged her to get back to her own painting, which she’d neglected while she was wife and nursemaid to the drunken Zack, and while she was raising the three children she had with Guy. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this novel (his 20th) is the fact that Mr. Updike has managed to make Hope’s emotional life-her estrangement from her only daughter, her memories of her grandfather-just as compelling as her public, her historic , entanglement with various icons of the art world.

Because this interview, like every interview, is a tug-of-war (brilliantly rendered by Mr. Updike, himself a master of the game), and because Hope is at once jealous of her past and eager to share it, we learn to pay attention to the clamorings of her ego. We begin to sympathize. Too eager to please, and quite aware of this weakness, she possesses the cheery confidence of someone who has pleased others, both with her personal charm and with her work. (There’s more than a little of John Updike in Hope Ouderkirk.) In a characteristic moment, after heatedly comparing Dalí’s shameless showmanship with Zack’s tongue-tied dignity, she “feels herself aroused, her face reddening, her heart pumping, striving to please, stung by the fear of appearing doddery.” Hope suspects that she herself is only a minor artist (“the great ones go beyond beauty”), but she guards her self-respect closely-and so, after a few dozen pages, do we.

In 1942, age 20, she came to New York to study art: “As she walked the dangerous streets, making her way among eyes in which she registered with a flick like that of a brush, her freedom enthralled her.” She listened to the impassioned impromptu debates at the Cedar Tavern, took lovers. Mr. Updike has great fun giving the painters names-Onno De Genoog (Willem de Kooning), Bernie Nova (Barnett Newman)-and sketching them for us: Zack’s “habitual scowl (that baffled crease of extra skin between his eyebrows).” The material, as I’ve said, is almost too rich; it invites Mr. Updike to explore the difference between a hot artist like Pollock and a cool one like Warhol; the difference between male and female artists; the difference between great artists and the rest of us. (After all these years, Hope is still stung by Zack’s ultimate indifference to her, “his leaden dedication to something else, this sacrifice of all that was orderly and decent and daily in the world to the sullen, obsessive blaze of his art, his stupid, selfish art.”)

Michiko Kakutani, in her review of the novel in The New York Times , seems somehow offended by the appropriation of Pollock’s life story. (Why? Wasn’t there a Hollywood film? Hasn’t Pollock’s story outgrown the literal facts of his short, troubled life?) Because she’s outraged (she calls the novel “a graceless rewriting of recent art history, a trompe l’oeil that’s bogus in every respect”) she’s of course unable to acknowledge the playfulness Mr. Updike brings to his recreation of the New York School. And because she’s intent on the men in Hope Ouderkirk’s life (this one’s a “carbon copy” of Pollock; that one’s not Warhol but rather a “composite” and therefore “phony”), Ms. Kakutani misses Hope entirely-and so misses the heart of the novel.

To escape from Kathryn’s interrogation and the barrage of retrieved memory-her busy life compressed into a single day-Hope peers out the windows at the changing April weather: “She sees … that the sky, this morning so blank and pure a blue, is closing down, the scattered white clouds expanding to crowd out the spaces between them.” She looks out and up again and again during the course of the day; it’s as though Mr. Updike is having her seek for something still more enduring than great art. The frail old woman’s gaze, you might say, is searching the heavens.

Kathryn tells Hope, “You must stop thinking so much of your age”-but Hope can’t help it, she sees everything from “the altitude of years.” She’s obsessed with her age and “her irreversible position on the grave’s edge.” She’s afraid to die. She knows what today’s young people know: “Sex sours, wealth melts, fame is for fifteen minutes,” and that she’s alone and will remain so until she dies. But she has a hazy belief in God, residue of her family’s Quaker faith, and she has the enduring satisfaction of having made something: “Creating things to keep ” is how she thinks of it.

Hope is hardly a saint, but she’s led a good life. She’s been a more than adequate caretaker of a valuable self (that nebulous entity which Abstract Expressionists hoped to heave onto canvas). It’s the unpacking of this plain truth, and the wonder of it, that is the essence and beauty of Seek My Face .

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .