Friday, January 30, 2009

John Updike

Writer's Note: John Updike, born March 18, 1932, was a prolific writer--a novelist, essayist, and poet--and I saw him not longer after I first moved to New York at the 92nd Street Y, reading on stage from his work, many years ago; and I wrote about him briefly for a literary journal (comments below); and he, with lung cancer, died a few days ago, January 27, 2009.

John Updike. Seek My Face. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. 276 pages. ISBN 0-375-41490-8.

John Updike’s novel Seek My Face is a fiction inspired by the painters Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others, with Hope Ouderkirk standing in for Krasner, Zack McCoy for Pollock, and Guy Holloway as a combination of others. The story is told through an interview format, with a young internet reporter visiting Hope’s country house near the end of her life; and this allows for a comprehensive telling of twentieth-century American art’s development and the intensity of the complicated lives that produced it, but this structuring also gives the book a stiff quality, with most of the drama located in the past. The novel is, of course, thoughtful, well-researched, and observant, but it only came to life for me in the intellectual conversations between the artists in New York’s Cedar Tavern, the rude exchanges between abusive Zack and the intelligent, direct Hope, and the tenderness between Hope and her last of three husbands, a successful and loving businessman and art collector, at his deathbed. The exchanges between Hope and the admiring but interrogating reporter allow comments about the exploitive, scandal-chasing nature of the press (there were allegations that Zack had been involved in all-male orgies), brief commiseration between two working women of different generations over the ways of men, and intriguing moments of kindness when Hope feeds the reporter and attends to her comfort.

Sometimes Updike’s dialog is amusing, as when Hope says, “People speak of natural foods as if nature isn’t where everything bad ultimately comes from,” or, after lunch, when Hope takes issue with one of the reporter’s questions by saying, “Kathryn, the tuna salad has made you so oppositional.”

Reading the novel, I was taken aback by crude references to blacks (“long legged coons loping along A Hundred Twenty-fifth Street”) and homosexuals (“fairies”), odd references to Jewish characteristics, an unpleasant recounting of fellatio, small damning nods to jazz and contemporary art, and the many run-on sentences. (Hope’s aside regarding social justice concerns: “…I didn’t have the patience myself, it seemed very pretentious, with an undertone of violence toward the elected government that reminded me of Fascism, simple fallible government not good enough for fine spirits…” Another aside: “When you look at these Middle Eastern men, with these five days’ beards so they all look like terrorists…”) What is an accurate presentation of the vocabulary of the time, or an expression of a particular character, and what is Updike’s petty indulgence?

The title Seek My Face refers to divinity’s call; and art is sometimes thought an exploration of spirituality, and this was one of Hope’s artistic goals. Unfortunately, the appeal of the book remains historical and, as the history of the American twentieth-century art Updike focuses on most is well-known, the novel offers no significant surprises or satisfactions; and yet, it is descriptive, intelligent, and, even during its vaguely repellent moments, worth reading.

(c) DG