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A splattering of art history

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

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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.

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