Seek My Face
Knopf; 288 pp.; $23 John Updike, perhaps America's preeminent man of letters, like his contemporary Philip Roth, has become prolific in the autumn of his career. He, also like Roth, is producing some of his best work still. The high-wire act that is an Updike sentence is very much in evidence in Seek My Face, Updike's 20th novel. These sentences could have come from Rabbit, Run or even Of the Farm, his earliest work -- sentences that seem to accordion-out like intricate origami, sentences that are exhaustively beautiful. Seek My Face tells the story of Hope Ouderkirk, a semisuccessful, octogenarian painter. She is being interviewed by a brash young New York magazine writer, Kathryn, an occasion which brings about a self-examination for the artist as well as a recitation of her wide-ranging life. While the "action" of the story takes place in a single day, the flashbacks offer a time-capsule reflection on 20th-century art, a subject dear to Updike's heart and one he has written about on numerous occasions but never before in fictional form. Updike admits to using two texts as reference: Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and the anthology Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics. It is useful to consider these jumping-off points for the novelist's exploration of the innovative explosion that was modern art. Hope is a reluctant interviewee at best -- she confesses to having "a wandering, frayed, old mind" -- and the testy, contentious back-and-forth between her and Kathryn gives Hope (and Updike) an opportunity to expound on art, fame, and the creative spark. "Interviewers and critics are the enemies of mystery," Hope muses, sotto voce to the reader, "the indeterminacy that gives art life." The focus of the discussion is Hope's life with her painter husband, Zack. The parallels to Jackson Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, are obvious and give the book a verisimilitude and center it would not otherwise have. There are other thinly veiled portraits of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, among others, but it is the fascination surrounding Pollock that's given the primary spotlight. "He began to drip when?" Kathryn asks. "What do you remember of that moment? Did it seem epochal to you and Zack? Did he talk about it as something revolutionary?" But art is not all Updike wants to talk about, of course. Especially, in his later books, a spiritual dimension has entered in, a concern with religion. In Seek My Face, he makes Hope a Quaker. "Hope had loved herself," he writes, "having been raised in the illusion of a loving God; she had found the facts of her body amazing, as they emerged from beneath the quilts and the Quaker silence concerning such matters." And about an early teacher, Hope says, "The whole world comes to us, as we experience it, through the mystic realm of color. The Real in art never dies, because its nature is predominantly geistlich, spiritual. He had us believing that to make art was the highest and purest of human activities, the closest approach to God, the God who creates Himself in this push and pull of colors." And, as usual with Updike, he gets all the details right. He may be the most "concrete" writer working, one who can make you see sunshine slanting through the window, hear the raindrops pattering on the skylight. He still cares about setting, what Iris Murdoch once called the "thingy world." He is ... well, painterly. He can make the creation of a cup of coffee seem a holy thing: "For her guest the Taster's Choice undecaffeinated with its red label and friendly waist (the incurved glass sides in her bent fingers remind her of something: what?) ." In Seek My Face, John Updike kindles a fire for art in the reader -- the art of his painter characters and the art of his novelist gifts. "The Real in art never dies." This is both a statement of purpose and a prayer.