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A splattering of art history

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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."

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