Two years ago, the British novelist A.S. Byatt wrote what the publisher called "a novel" about a man collecting notes for a biography on a famous biographer. "The Biographer's Tale" was one of those stultifyingly complex productions you're proud to have endured because you don't want to admit you've been had.
In his review of Byatt's novel for The New Yorker, John Updike predicted that "the patience of all but a reader superhumanly tolerant of extended digression will creak and snap under the load of near-random texts, assembled by an author whose love of collection, of assembling and ordering, in this case quite overpowers any urge to tell a smooth story."
If only he'd remembered that commentary when writing "Seek My Face."
Updike's latest book boasts another one of those super-clever premises we've come to expect from him since he finished writing great novels about what it means to be an American man. The story covers just a single day-long interview. Kathryn, a young writer for an online magazine, has finagled an audience with 79-year-old Hope in her Vermont retreat.
As a painter, Hope has won a smattering of awards and hung her work in some of the finest museums and galleries, but she knows her real interest to the world is the fact that she was married to two of the towering artists of the 20th century.
In the introductory note, Updike admits, "It would be vain to deny that a large number of details come from the admirable, exhaustive 'Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,' by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith." Indeed, Hope's first husband, Zack, is a dead-ringer for the famous drip painter who drove his car into a tree during his last alcoholic bout of depression. Her second husband, Guy, sounds like an amalgamation of several modern artists, but mostly he's a weird cross between Ward Cleaver and Andy Warhol. (Fifteen minutes of that would be plenty.)
The book starts in the morning when Kathryn switches on her Sony tape recorder, and it ends in the evening when Hope and her interviewer (and Updike's readers) are exhausted by the uninterrupted flow of so much reminiscence, small talk, critical theory, and gossip.
As a breezy summary of modern art in America, "Seek My Face" beats the paints off the pretentious catalog text at the Guggenheim. After all, it's got Updike's unparalleled style, his witty piercing of social behavior and private anxieties, and free reign across a canvas that's 50 years wide. But as a novel, it suffers the considerable constraints of its static setting. The action takes place only in a series of rushed anecdotes and digressions - "Now, where was I?"
Under the relentless eye of her interrogator, Hope brushes through the details of her first marriage, providing a memorable warning against living with someone who considers himself a great artist. Zack courted fame while spurning its protocol. He thirsted for praise, but attacked his supporters. He needed his wife's devotion, but rejected her love. She talks frankly about their sex life, too, and what little she leaves out, Updike supplies in unseemly, humiliating flashbacks.
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."
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 email@example.com.