Seek My Face

by John Updike
276 pages,
ISBN: 0375414908

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Updike Gets Good With Women
by Joel Yanofsky

This is a story with a happy ending. More than a decade ago, I interviewed Canadian supermodel Monica Schnarre. Although she was still a teenager at the time, she'd already been a celebrity for years. She was in Montreal to promote her memoir, which consisted mainly of fashion and makeup tips for girls who were just like her, though, let's face it, not nearly as leggy.
All I recall now of Schnarre's book is that it had more exclamation marks than pages. (I counted.) Still, as a book reviewer, I didn't get to meet a lot of supermodels and this seemed like my best and perhaps last chance. (I was right about that.) So I proposed a story about Schnarre and her writing debut to a literary magazine, this one in fact.
We met at the bar of the Ritz Carlton Hotel and the waiters, well, hovered. I don't remember much about the interview except that the service was good¨extremely good.
A few weeks later, at the same bar, I met John Updike. This time when a waiter finally did come over it was not to take our order but to ask us to leave. The reason: I was wearing jeans, which were not permitted at the Ritz bar. (Funny, no one had mentioned my jeans the last time I was there.)
"Do you know who this is?" I said to the waiter as I pointed to the tall silver-haired man beside me, the man who was and, arguably, still is the finest prose stylist in the English language. The waiter shrugged. I left with John Updike trailing behind me. We did the interview in the lobby.
So where, you're probably wondering, is the happy ending? Well, consider this: it's 2002 now and Monica Schnarre has long since given up writing; meanwhile, John Updike has just published his 20th novel, Seek My Face, a wonderful novel-cum-meditation on modern art, aging, life, work, death, men and especially women.
Glamour is short; art is long.
* * *
There's no point denying it: I became a writer because of John Updike. I wanted to write like him¨to make my prose as lush and double-jointed. But that wasn't in the cards. Even so, Updike's career as a high-class freelancer has remained a source of envy and inspiration to me. So when he turned 70 this year it was one of those milestones that sneaks up on you. Imagining Updike old would be hard, though not significantly harder than it had always been to imagine him young.
True, he was a whiz kid in the early 1950s when he got a job at The New Yorker straight out of Harvard. He was also just 28 when he wrote his breakthrough novel, Rabbit Run. But, for me, Updike will always remain fixed at the midpoint¨the quintessential middle-aged, middle-class American.
"To transcribe middleness," was, in fact, the goal he set for himself at the start of his career. And, for the last five decades, he has explored, with uncommon empathy and uncompromising candour, our ambivalent natures¨that place somewhere between grace and resignation, love and selfishness where most of us live our lives.
In Seek My Face, Hope Chafetz, formerly Hope Holloway and Hope McCoy, is 79 and having her mid-life crisis late. Still, the delay is understandable. Married three times, twice to famous painters, she is trying to piece together a career¨she is also a painter¨and an identity for herself.
The plot of Seek My Face is straightforward enough to seem contrived, set up more like a two-character stage play than a novel. Hope is living like a recluse in a cabin in Vermont when she agrees to be interviewed by Kathryn D'Angelo, a young journalist and critic. The story, Hope's story really, is uninterrupted by chapter breaks and takes place over the course of a single spring day in 2001.
But it's a busy day¨as the two women spar and get to know, though not necessarily trust each other. Kathryn is, by turns, fawning and judgmental; Hope is alternately touched and infuriated by her young interrogator.
Mostly, though, the novel is told in flashbacks as Hope's mind¨spurred by Kathryn's leading, often impertinent questions¨inevitably wanders.She recounts a life that has been, like most lives, both full and unsatisfactory. "I mean, were you happy?" Kathryn asks. Not surprisingly, Hope hedges: "Quite, dear. As much as anyone can be, given our human habit of wanting more than we have."
Although she refers to herself as no more than a footnote, Hope has had a front row seat for the unfolding drama¨slapstick comedy may be more like it¨of postwar art in America: from Jackson Pollock's dripping brush to Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup cans. It helps, of course, that Hope was married first to Zack McCoy, a character clearly based on Pollock¨Updike admits as much in an author's note¨and then to Guy Holloway, a composite of several famous pop artists including Warhol.
After reading Updike's third of four Rabbit novels, Rabbit is Rich, Philip Roth confessed to envying Updike for knowing so much about so many things¨golf, kids, porn, marriage, Toyota dealerships, you name it. Reading Updike, Roth said, you can't help feeling you don't know anything about anything.
Seek My Face won't do much to undermine its author's reputation as a know-it-all. His knowledge of contemporary art, a slippery subject anyway, is remarkably lucid. Among many other things, the novel is a lively and opinionated primer on everything from abstract expressionism to installation art.
Occasionally, though, Updike's omniscience works against him. Hope is criticized for her need to fill in all the tiny spaces on her canvas, which is not unlike the kind of criticism sometimes levelled at Updike's prose style. There's always been a quality of too-muchness to his writing and early in Seek My Face, the overload of detail, of meticulous description of, say, Kathryn's combat boots¨"laced up through a dozen more eyelets like two little black ladders ascending"¨can short circuit a reader's attention and interest.
But if a little of that sort of description goes a long way, Hope's voice serves as an antidote. Updike's talent for insinuating himself into the consciousness of his characters¨witness Harry Angstrom, the hero of the four Rabbit novels¨has never been doubted and the more Hope reveals about herself the more we want to know. It's her secrets, her regrets and convictions that urge Seek My Face, and its rather uninspired Q-and-A structure, to life.
Hope has contrary opinions on everything from health food stores¨"People speak of natural food as if nature isn't where everything bad ultimately comes from"¨to jogging: "Now exercise is so fashionable, in the summer people are running all over the roads up here, it's a wonder more of them aren't killed." And if Hope sounds a bit cranky, she's earned the right to be. When it comes to relationships Hope is particularly unsentimental¨a forgiving but uncomprehending survivor of male carelessness: "Men do what they came for and then leave, and for the longest time this seemed heartless to Hope."
Hope also warms up to Kathryn enough to give her the advice she wasn't permitted or able to take as a young woman: "Have your life," she says, in a whisper pushed from within like a shout, "go and have it, dear... Don't hang back. Don't let... any man take it from you."
Another criticism that Updike has had to dodge throughout his career is that he doesn't understand women. To be fair, he's never claimed to. What Updike understands¨better than any writer I can think of¨is the way men understand women. But Seek My Face is proof that an old dog can learn new tricks. At 70, Updike should be set in his ways; instead here he is meeting the challenge of creating a completely convincing old woman.
Hope is neither idealized nor undermined. Over the course of a long day, she is petty and resentful and foolish. She dithers and dissembles. She also criticizes herself for having lived a life that is too timid and respectful and, like women of her generation, she's been too eager to please. She could have been a great painter, but she allowed herself to be sidetracked in a way that a man¨or at least the men she knew¨wouldn't have. She is¨like Updike's male protagonists¨a heroine without being particularly heroic.
But Hope is also harder on herself than Updike is or his readers are likely to be. In the end, Seek My Face is a wise book about the unwise choices we invariably make, whether in art or love. Maybe, there is a point to filling up all the tiny spaces¨even the mistakes and miscalculations, stubborn as oil on canvas, become an indispensable part of the whole picture.

Joel Yanofsky is working on Mordecai & Me, a book about writers, the writing life and Mordecai Richler.

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