<B>Updike's latest: a flawed portrait</B>In a modern variation on the epistolary narrative, John Updike has crafted an interlocutory novel with <B>Seek My Face</B>, his 20th fictional endeavor (out of some 50-odd books to date). The narrative, spanning a full life remembered and examined, is telescoped into a day-long interview with 79-year-old Hope Ouderkirk McCoy Holloway Chafetz, the much-married muse of two artists (thinly veiled glosses on Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, if you can imagine the latter as husband and father) and a collector who she suspects may have collected her.
Hope herself is a painter and views the world like one: The strongest aspect of this not entirely successful experiment, presented purely from her perspective, is her sharp observation of the physical setting, her studio in Vermont at the onset of spring. For instance, she opens the door onto "the live wet breath of the rain, the sound and stir of it in the dark . . . its thin vertical rods sparkling with reflections, its towering presence stretching up out of sight into the darkness from which it falls."Less rewarding are passages meant to conjure heated debates on the purpose and meaning of art. These dead-air exegeses read as if cadged from a textbook, and Updike who attended art school fresh out of college, in 1954 in fact credits a couple in a brief foreword.
If one has the patience to plow through often Faulknerian passages, a tangle of Hope's personal and professional memories, there are plentiful pleasures to be gleaned here including her cranky observations regarding modern life. She doesn't understand why "suddenly everybody in the new millennium has to have a private bottle of water;" what has become of the "public drinking fountains, the ones that used to be everywhere, spurting thrillingly on your teeth?" Such tactile details show Updike at his best advantage as a writer, rather than synthesizer. This book, offputting as it often is (a weird antisemitic/semierotic subtext clings to Kathryn, Hope's 20-something interviewer), clearly conveys Updike's brilliance. However, one can't help wishing that he didn't succumb so readily to the temptation to subjugate his gifts as observer to his salient need to impress. <I>Sandy MacDonald is a writer based in Cambridge and Nantucket, Massachusetts.</I>