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Seek My Face
John Updike
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
$23.00, 276 pages, ISBN 0375414908.

Lisa Rull
University of Nottingham

Few could deny the delights of Updike’s prose: beautifully imagined detail that describes action and place, and characters that one can almost smell, let alone see or hear. From the first lines we settle in for another dose of what his readers have grown to admire and love.

“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.” (3)

So much information is packed into that lengthy sentence. We visualise the nervous energy of the young woman in her “jackknifed position”. Her question frames the drifting recollections of an elderly woman artist named Hope. A room, and its history—the persons who have occupied it in past times (both Hope and her grandfather)—are encapsulated in the description of furniture and light that in a single word (“Germantown”) also identifies the European origins of Hope’s family. [Ironically, of course, ‘Germantown’ was named thus by Dutch Quakers such as Hope’s Ouderkirk family and not as some may assume German Jews—but as Hope admits when musing on the ethnic/religious identity of her interviewer “we are all so assimilated” (11)].

The narrative takes place in a single day: an intensive interview by an “edgy” New York art historian named Kathryn (5)—her Mediterranean surname D’Angelo is only revealed at the end of the book (256)—of the oft-married and otherwise somewhat neglected artist Hope. At seventy-eight years old, Hope acts as a conduit to memories of the American art scene during the mid-twentieth century. Updike neatly captures the all-too-real fears of women artists whose reputations and stories live in the shadows of their infamous male colleagues and partners. Kathryn makes an early attempt to reassure Hope that the article is not about her first husband Zack McCoy—“Not Zack, you. All of you” (12)—but even towards the novel’s close Hope is still fearful that her husbands are the real story and not her (237). Zack was the archetypal artist-drunk whose marriage to Hope could never be anything other than tempestuous: rather like the best of his drip paintings. After his car-wreck death, Hope marries Guy Holloway—a mannered and thoughtful practitioner whose works place him firmly in the Pop Art scene. He produces images of flags (160), uses found objects (158), makes “hilarious huge plastic reproductions of junk food” (173), artfully paints mimetic portrayals of everyday goods and images (174), and his silkscreen prints demonstrate an acute fondness for popular culture. When he walks out Hope falls in love with an art collector, Jerome (Jerry) Chafetz with whom she spends “nine wonderful years” (227) before his death. Hope looks back over her life—sometimes with regret, but mostly with distanced acceptance that the past cannot be changed. She ends as she begins, with thoughts of her grandfather stirred by the presence of his chair (276).

As always Updike constructs some great set-piece scenes for us, with several involving the preparation of food. The lunch prepared by Hope for Kathryn is particularly good, as it is both tangible and hilarious. The recipe-like detail of the menu (129-134) and his description of “Kathryn’s idle long black-nailed hands” (131) from which Hope takes the can of tuna, capture the scene in the mind’s eye and the nostrils as well as on the tongue. Yet this scene also highlights one of the key delights of the book—one that Updike’s writing captures more acutely as the years pass. His ability to portray ageing—its feelings, emotions, physical constraints, generational anxieties, or sudden frustrations—is precisely conveyed in his choice of language. He may be writing through the (ageing) eyes of an artist, but these are ageing eyes nonetheless. Her looking back into the past, her lapses into first-hand memory, her difficulties with the modern world: all these help us appreciate the viewpoint of this seventy-eight year old woman.

Updike has stirred claims that he is a misogynist, but both Hope and Kathryn come across as rounded female characters—as flawed and human as any of us could ever hope to commit to print. However, Updike is more open to criticism on the matter of sexuality: the condemnatory manner in which Hope’s lesbian daughter Dorothy is portrayed is caustically dismissive. Her parents disappointment—“Guy and I had assumed […] that a daughter of ours would be beautiful” (180)—comes across as the reason for her “gender orientation” (181). The casual flippancy with which the simultaneously hapless and spiky Dot handles her place in the world could be read as an accurate reading of the character through her disappointed mother’s eyes. But the handling of Hope’s response to her daughter’s lesbianism, and the ambiguous sexual preferences of the men in her artistic circle, provide some distinctly jarring moments in reading this novel.

The critical response to the novel has been mixed, with a considerable portion downright hostile. These responses turn on one key element to the novel: whether they accept Updike’s creation of art world characters that so clearly resemble actual historical individuals or ‘blend’ versions of these into single personas, when integrated with named historical figures. It is one thing to write fiction about recognisable settings and types, but the slippage between the genres of fiction and biography can overpower our readings of the human actions presented. For all the beauty of his prose style, too often in this novel his fascination for real figures seems to constrain the development and articulation of the narrative.

Updike opens his work with the usual (and legally required) statement “This is a work of fiction. Nothing in it is necessarily true.” But he then identifies two very specific texts as the basis for “a large number of [biographical] details” and the source from which “my fictional artists’ statements are closely derived”. These are the “admirable, exhaustive” Naifeh and White Smith study of Jackson Pollock, and the anthology of statements Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics (unpaginated). Would Updike have been better to leave out such direction to the reader? Probably not, since several of his figures are presented in familiar ‘on first name terms’: Clem (Clement Greenberg), Peggy (Guggenheim), Leo (Castelli). Moreover, as we glide into the reconstructed mid-twentieth-century moment we encounter other scarcely veiled figures: Onno de Genoog (Willem de Kooning), Bernie Nova (Barnett Newman), and Hermann Hochmann (Hans Hoffmann). Even when the names do not contain alliterative links to their ‘originals’, there are still enough points of similarity to stir you into reading the character ‘as’ their real-life counterpart: Zack McCoy (Jackson Pollock) and Hope (Lee Krasner). But reading the list of works made by Guy Holloway causes the reader to switch uneasily between aligning him with Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claus Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. This amalgamation is less successful and is the root of why many critics dislike the novel as a whole.

Does this approach to creating characters significantly damage the novel? It is worth thinking about responses towards the hybrid genre of documentary-drama. Audiences like to know what genre they are dealing with and the more aware they are of the ‘real’ persons the more likely it is they will be dissatisfied with its dramatisation. The cry of ‘but that’s not what really happened’ will rise up and consume the writers when they admit that ‘some characters have been combined for dramatic purposes’. Equally, the peril is that the scenes that are ‘real’ will be those that appear most absurdly dramatic (even melodramatic). Although the written word inevitably creates different responses to the notion of fiction/drama than performance, you can sense that readers will easily be annoyed and distracted from the thrust of Updike’s narrative by these concerns. Like the bio-pic where no-one can admit for copyright reasons who the central character actually is (but we all know), readers could be left feeling somewhat disappointed by the not-quite-fictional world Updike presents. Read without the preface on source material, or an awareness of the historical setting (if such a thing were likely or possible for a reader of Updike), perhaps you could enjoy the pleasures of this novel much more. But our following Updike’s character arcs is both hindered by and yet simultaneously depends on some degree of recognition: the resulting tensions are never quite resolved

In a peculiar way, it actually reads very similarly to a real autobiography of a barely preceding moment. When Peggy Guggenheim produced her first autobiography in 1946, her narrative read like an extended gossip-column on the art scenes of Paris in the 1920s, London in the 1930s, and New York in the 1940s. It was fascinating, in the way a car-wreck might be, but also wildly exaggerated, prone to errors of fact and perception, and drifting as easily into anecdotal recollection as citation from letters, reviews, or gallery documents. She also blithely and erratically gave pseudonyms to many of the key figures from her life. Her first husband, Laurence Vail, became ‘Florenz Dale’; his sister Clotilde, ‘Odile’; and his second wife—writer Kay Boyle—became Ray Soil. These, and the other not-very false identities she provided, glisten from the pages of anecdotal scandal recording the lives, loves and creative endeavours of the artist scene she adopted. Some had much less patently translatable identities: Samuel Beckett was ‘Oblomov’, and artist-filmmaker Humphrey Jennings became ‘Henry Slaughter’. But others only had the cover of ‘false’ names for certain parts of her text (often the more scandalous). Thus Marcel Duchamp briefly turned into “Luigi” when Guggenheim claimed he kissed her after nearly twenty years of platonic association.

Guggenheim’s autobiography fooled no one, certainly not anyone aware of the circles she moved in. Updike’s novel feels like a companion piece to it: it is never truly serious in disguising identity, and memory is a fickle creature whether imagined (by Hope via Updike) or reconstructed (by Guggenheim). For all Kathryn’s committed interest in Hope, the remembrances of affairs past and their emotional turmoil provide the most engaging elements of Hope’s story and we cannot help but read these against the material we know from biographies of Pollock et al. It is curiously frustrating that the very sources for Updike’s narrative should prove its critical undoing. We are invited to ‘seek my face’, but whose face we finally see is open to debate

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