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Book Review

Spotlight on: Seek My Face by John Updike

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Buy Seek My Face by John Updike John Updike, Seek My Face

One problem I have with John Updike's novels is that I can't tell right away if I'm going to enjoy it. His phenomenal way with words sometimes hides the fact that he doesn't seem to always know where he's going with a story. I can be enjoying the language and not until the end do I realize that I didn't care a whit about the characters.

I thought Seek My Face was going to be one of those novels. From the beginning, Updike eschews plot in favor of description, which, if I'm not in the mindset for concentration, often enables my mind to wander until I realize as I'm turning the page that I have no idea what I just "read."

The story takes place in one day during an interview between a journalist named Kathryn and painter (and, more importantly to this book, painter's wife) Hope Chafetz. Kathryn is ostensibly writing an article on Hope's work, but the talk begins to steer to Hope's first husband, Zack McCoy (an unapologetically fictionalized Jackson Pollack, according to the acknowledgments page) and their relationship.

This is Updike's twentieth novel in a career of fifty books, and in that time an author becomes confident in his style. Enough so, apparently, to feel comfortable jettisoning what most people would consider to be the rules. As a part-time copy editor, there were entire passages that I would have cut out and Updike feels no compunctions about stopping a piece of dialogue mid-sentence to launch into a paragraph-long reminiscence. This is particularly upsetting at the beginning of Seek My Face, when a reader just getting into a new novel needs to be coddled a bit, led in gently to the narrative, held by the hand, so to speak. Updike, however, feels no such duty.

This is not to say that the book is not a great read. Once I got into his rhythms (and his books do often take that original effort), I was sped along by the flitting nature of the conversation. It feels almost voyeuristic to be let in on Hope's thoughts in this way. And, just in case she doesn't feel like telling Kathryn something private, Updike lets us in on it in the form of a memory, thus allowing us to experience this woman's life fully. Such a move requires an inordinately compelling character and Hope is such, as is Kathryn in her own way (we are allowed to a lesser extent into Kathryn's mind), a character that we want to know more about and therefore keep turning the pages.

Of the modern novelists I have read, Updike would be the only one whom I would trust with writing about art. He has published a book of art criticism (Just Looking: Essays on Art) and is well known for his vast knowledge of the subject. This is very important as Hope is not only an artist in her own right, but her life in some ways represents the entire period of post-WWII art's evolution. Husbands Zack and Guy were both artists and third husband Jerry was a gallery owner, so Hope has been in touch with every aspect of art throughout this period of her life and Updike is familiar enough with the history and language to let us know this in subtle, intriguing ways.

On the whole I found Seek My Face an immensely satisfying read. It suffers from what some have come to call "the New Yorker ending"--meaning that the story doesn't end but merely fades out. But how can you end the story of a life that doesn't end with a death. And it's really only one day in that continuing life. Interestingly enough, Updike chooses to end his story with a memory that precedes anything that came before it narratively, as I visualize cinematically a camera pulling out slowly to leave Hope to her discoveries.

Seek My Face is a moving portrait of a woman and her place in history (or lack of it) and an educational look into the history of recent art. It's also one of his better books (certainly better than The Centaur) and it makes me want to read another one soon.

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