TOWARD THE END OF TIME
By John Updike
334 pages, $25
This is John Updike's world: You are a retired stockbroker. You own a great house on 11 acres in town. Your middle-aged wife is stunning. It is December. A doe is eating your euonymus hedge. You are a smart, savvy guy, a little rueful in retirement. In sex you know what you like, two things. You do a complex Heisenbergian analysis of the word "perhaps."
That's Updike, tooling up the fiddle, setting the stage.
"Toward the End of Time" is an effortless pour, written in the American aristocratic style, apres Henry James, a style Vladimir Nabokov strove mightily to get and never did, not even in "Pale Fire," because his was prose too gorgeous. Updike marvelously has it: a droll Jamesian urbanity, quiet virtuosity, a not completely trustworthy narrator of a superior ironic intelligence, and more, cool sex writing, shocking words and shocking scenes that would have lifted both of Henry James' eyebrows. All this and great physical detail in perfect sentences.
I tossed and turned beside my oblivious wife, feeling those deer tracks outside as a love letter I could not answer and replaying the bridge hand until, trying to remember if the queen of spades was in my hand or the dummy, I slipped from the great magician's agitated sleeve into the false-bottomed box of sleep.
In fact, it is 2020 in "Toward the End of Time." Dollars in Massachusetts are called welders. Mexico has repossessed her lost provinces: California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah. To borrow a term from Kurt Vonnegut, there's some timequakery going on in the novel. If you're reasonably well-versed in American politics, you'll know why welders are called welders.
You have to remember the Heisenbergian analysis of "perhaps," and its notion of the "many worlds," as you proceed into the novel.
In his time joint, Updike, writing a social novel, does a memento mori, a farewell to Earth. Everywhere his narrator looks, life and time are in some final phase, "a two-thirds moon hung in a sky already blue." It doesn't matter that it is 2020. We're still in the ordinary, the mundane, safe suburban life in Williamsville or East Aurora. It's Updike's Subaru-driving genteel world. It's hard to leave this world, life is so good.
Goodbye, sward. Goodbye, stone fence.
There has been a nuclear war. The Midwest is wiped out. Updike's world is still here, though, untouched and intact. The retired stockbroker, Ben Turnbull, goes down to the mailbox and picks up his mail. Deer are a haunt and come to eat his shrubbery. His wife, Gloria, scans him "for signs of the inevitable decline that will leave her with a widow's well-heeled freedom." He still plays golf and writes an elegant prose.
Sudden urgent urinary requests from below the belt. Not to mention arthritic finger joints, nocturnal stomachaches, and the mysterious murmurings and twinges the heart emits as it labors away day and night in the mushy total darkness within my rib cage.
There's a lot lovingly spelled out in "Toward the End of Time" you don't really want to know: old men's sexual fantasies, geriatric body things, prostate lore, the blurriness of repetitive retirement days. Then comes the doctor, the new doctor, who calls to tell you the PSA test on your blood has a reading of 11. Not good. Next a biopsy, and it comes back positive.
Certain self-portraits Rembrandt did as an old man are painful to look at. Updike's Ben Turnbull confronts himself as he becomes "purely a body, whose most ignominious and flagrant detail is openly, cooperatively examined and discussed." In the long middle, doing futurist fantasies, the novel disperses its energies. At the end, returned to the single reality of illness and the tortures of medical procedures, the novel gains a certain repulsive power.
After the new doctor and the surgical procedure, comes at long last the professional suburban deerslayer, a bow-and-arrow fellow. He and the Mrs. both like venison. Gloria Turnbull has found him. It has everything to do with the ending, as you'll see.
Like Vonnegut's "Timequake," Updike's "Toward the End of Time" plays with the notion of "many worlds." In this fiction narrative drive has ceased to exist. Vonnegut does a deal of Kilgore Trout numbers.
Narrative serves Updike as an occasion for riffs on paleology, bridge, the Apostle Paul, Laplanders, diverse arcane subjects. Up-dikean narrators usually have a load of learning. Only at the end of the novel, when death is truly possible, does narrative drive re-enter the novel. Here is John with his bow and arrow.
Life's last reductions -- your body, your house. This is the space of this novel. It all takes place there. Every day the walk to the mailbox. Every day the face in the mirror. Every day the wife, her perfect teeth, wiry ash blond hair and frosty blue eyes, regarding you, seeing signs.
One wants many worlds, not just this one.