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A splattering of art history

The wife of a famous drip painter tells all - too much

(Page 2 of 2)

With a lingering mixture of resentment and affection, Hope describes their tumultuous marriage in the middle of "the historical moment, the explosion when everything came together and America took over from Paris, and for the first time ever we led world art." Thrilling as that explosion must have been, at home it destroyed her marriage. She remembers when "how little she mattered to him hit her like a fist to her chest, his leaden dedication to something else, this sacrifice of all that was orderly and decent and daily in the world to the sullen, obsessive blaze of his art, his stupid, selfish art."

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Updike is best in these painful scenes, either described or remembered by Hope, when Zack drowned his talent in alcohol and savaged his wife's artistic ambitions. Not content to ridicule her, sometimes he would even paint over her work with his own. But in the intervening decades, Hope has developed a surprisingly forgiving attitude toward the chauvinistic world in which she lived. "Art was a man's world," she reminds her interviewer. "They could hardly make room for women, even when they married us."

Frankly, what's most interesting about the novel, if one can wade through all the art talk, is Updike's analysis of the process of interviewing. As the victim of countless such withering sessions himself, he must be particularly sensitive to the climate of these strange, temporal relationships.

"Interviewers and critics are the enemies of mystery," Hope thinks, "the indeterminacy that gives art life." Having allowed "this nervously aggressive intruder" into her home, Hope vacillates between wanting to throw her out or to please her, desperate, despite herself, "to communicate with this opaque, rather rejecting young woman."

With a pang of inadequacy, Hope notices that "Kathryn is looking around, disappointed by the plainness - the Redouté calendar such as anyone could buy in a book-and-card shop, the cabinets with their soiled handles, the appliances 20 years out of date, the fading photographic keepsakes - vacation snaps and official school photos of grandchildren tacked to the refrigerator door with magnets in the shape of vegetables. 'Would you like to see my studio?' Hope asks."

Updike is a master at tracing these subtle currents of desire and disappointment that swirl around people trapped in a marriage or a career or an interview that runs on too long. But these moving moments are cramped in a structure that doesn't give them much air to breathe.

"Seek My Face" may justly suffer the same dismissal from ordinary people who don't know they should be intimidated by so many works of modern art: "Why would anyone bother doing that?" Why sew clothing from pieces of meat, make an enormous bunny balloon out of steel, or sculpt a life-sized statue of Michael Jackson with his monkey? Why scramble through the riches of a woman's life and a nation's art history in a single belabored conversation?

It's oddly reassuring in the final pages to hear Hope turn down Kathryn's offer to read a transcript of her interview: "Oh, my goodness, no," she says. "I couldn't bear to read it. And I honestly can't picture who the reader of this article is going to be." Painful as it is to admit, I felt the same way.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to