SEEK MY FACE *

By John Updike

Knopf. 276 pp. $23

The most tiresome thing about writing book reviews is also the most tiresome thing about reading them: the indispensable plot synopsis. Fortunately, in his new novel, Seek My Face, John Updike relieves both reviewer and reader of this chore by supplying a book that doesn't have much plot at all. The premise is this: Hope is a 79-year-old painter living in Vermont who spends the day with Kathryn, a 27-year-old interviewer from New York who is ostensibly writing an article about Hope's life and work. Neither of them actually believes that this will be a piece about Hope -- both are much more interested in Hope's three husbands. Actually, they're interested in Hope's first two husbands, who were famous painters. The third was merely an art collector. The book is an account of their conversation, interspersed with some private musings by Hope, a couple of snacks and three trips to the bathroom.

This is Updike's 20th novel in a collection of more than 50 books, and in the moments when Seek My Face is thrilling, it is thrilling for this reason. It seems that having written so much so well, Updike has managed to free himself from nearly all convention. If he chooses to write a dense dialogue on the nature of art, then that dialogue itself suffices for the structure of the novel.

At first, Hope appears to be a woman whose entire life has been given over to art, and her discourse on its nature and needs is fascinating. But it quickly becomes clear that this image of Hope isn't exactly true. In fact, this is a woman whose life has been given over to men, to their service, to their whims and their tantrums. This is a story of a woman who shelved whatever talent she might have had to take care of a husband who acted like a child and then shelved it again to take care of a husband who gave her three children to take care of. We are told that these men are brilliant. She is a handmaiden to their brilliance.

A pervasive theme in Seek My Face is that women never become great artists. We hear it from the brilliant husbands, we see it in what the art dealer buys, and, most depressingly, we watch it played out between two women who are in different ways both profoundly involved in the world of art. "I think she may have been right in accusing me of living my life in terms of men," Hope says to her interviewer. "But the art world then was almost all male; it was men who had the excess energy, the instinct for battle. This is terribly unpolitic to confess to you, but female artists have always struck me as hangers-on, whether genteel old maids like Cassatt or else layabouts and models like Valadon some man like Degas fed brushes and a pat on the head to . . . . women don't go over the top; they're too timid and respectful, which is understandable enough, and easily distracted, again understandable." At the end of the book, Kathryn suggests that Hope get a dog to keep herself company, but Hope replies, "Dogs don't really respect women the way they do men. . . ." How could they?

The men in this book traipse through like a Who's Who of 20th-century art. When their work is merely discussed or they have a small walk-on part, they keep their real names. Everyone from Picasso to David Salle is here. But the artists with the major roles are given fictional personas. This is easy enough to figure out when the two women discuss Hope's first husband, Zack McCoy, who is unmistakably Jackson Pollock. The younger woman holds him in a regard that borders on a schoolgirl crush. She sees his drinking and dripping in terms of unmitigated genius, whereas the older woman, who actually had to live with him (he was a bedwetter when drunk, and that was only the start of it), has a more realistic take.

Hope's second husband, Guy Holloway, is an amalgamation of so many pop artists that figuring out who they are becomes its own little frustrating game. Even though he's married with three children, Holloway appears to be Andy Warhol at first, making the same boring films with drug addicts and transvestites in between doing silk-screens of Jackie Kennedy in pink pillbox hats. But Guy also paints rows of bakery cakes, makes art on billboards, tries to put up giant sculptures of erasers, and does canvases of block letters, which means he could have dashes of Wayne Theibaud, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenberg or Jasper Johns, to name a very few. Could they be the men who chose the Hollow Way as opposed to the way of the real McCoy?

It is wonderful to read a book that gives itself over so unabashedly to art. Whether Updike is being sly or straightforward, his focus on the importance of art is unwavering. That all three husbands find Hope to be ultimately unimportant, that she finds herself to be unimportant, has to do with her never being as compelling as what is on the canvas. What is ironic, though, is that she is an inspired character for her consistently compassionate and intelligent insights into art and the men who made it. One imagines that if Hope had had a little less to put up with, she would have been quite a genius herself. *

Ann Patchett is the winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction for her novel "Bel Canto."