Updike’s 20th novel is, like its predecessor, Gertrude and Claudius (2000), yet another illustration of this adventurous writer’s enduring curiosity, versatility, and stylistic energy.
In a single unbroken scene, well-known (if not precisely “famous”) painter Hope Chafetz is interviewed in her rural Vermont home by young New York City journalist Kathryn D’Angelo. Their day-long session begins as Kathryn probes for details about Hope’s first husband, Zack McCoy, an ebullient, self-destructive nonrepresentational painter (“America’s marvelous drip machine”) whose checkered career and violent accidental death unmistakably parallel the life and death of Jackson Pollock. Hope keeps meandering, the stern Kathryn keeps tugging her back to the subject at hand—and Updike gradually builds the reader’s confidence in his loose structuring, in which flashbacks of varying length and fullness are triggered by both random musings and pointed specific questions. The initial impression of contrivance fades, as the richness of detail has its way with us. The result is a compact panoramic view of the postwar “revolution” in American art, especially among the Long Island crowd surrounding Zack/Pollock; (sometimes forced and tedious) reiterations of conflicting theories about “the redemptive mission of paint” and the artist’s responsibilities to society and to himself; and Hope’s fragmented personal history, including her second marriage to commercially successful collagist Guy Holloway (another dead ringer, this time for Andy Warhol) and conflicted motherhood to the three children she bore him, a happy third marriage to a companionable stockbroker and art collector, and her sturdy passage into solitary, meditative old age. The story can be faulted for its cook’s-tour approach to the history of modern art, but its portrayal of the unillusioned Hope’s understanding of her limits, and of her difference and distance from the passionate risk-takers who were her contemporaries and confederates, is stunningly revealing.
Another new fictional world entered, as Updike himself enters old age, with skills and ambitions very much intact.