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The Boston Phoenix John Updike

Toward the End of Time

By Scott Stossel

TOWARD THE END OF TIME, by John Updike. Simon & Schuster, 334 pages, $25.

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  About three-quarters of the way into John Updike's new novel, Toward the End of Time, 66-year-old retired investment adviser Ben Turnbull has surgery on his cancerous prostate and is rendered both impotent and incontinent.

An Updike character impotent? Impossible. After all, what is Updike if not America's official chronicler of the illicit suburban tryst? Sex makes Updike's books go. Without it, they might simply . . . stop.

But it is Ben Turnbull's other affliction -- his incontinence -- that may be the more metaphorically apt. Updike is relentlessly prolific; he needs an antidiuretic, something to stop him from coasting so easily on his considerable virtuosity. His novels, pouring forth amidst a continuous stream of poetry, short fiction, and essays since the late 1950s, feel facile; masterpieces of evocative prose description, they often meander aimlessly, without apparent point or direction.

The novel at hand is no exception. Toward the End of Time is set in the standard Updike milieu of middle-class suburbia (in fact, it takes place on the North Shore, near Lynn), yet although most of the usual motifs and settings are there (the golf, the adulterous liaisons), the year is 2020. A destructive four-month war with China has wiped out a large portion of the US population. The federal government is largely nonexistent; Federal Express and UPS, with their vast national networks, compete to assume the government's role (the capital may soon move from Washington to Memphis, where FedEx is headquartered). In lieu of taxes, Ben pays protection money to local thugs. In place of a national currency, Massachusetts trades in "Welders," scrip named after our former governor. New life forms, metal species the size of rodents, have developed from low-level radioactivity, and are devouring organic wildlife near chemical dumps and oil spills. A simple AIDS vaccine has been discovered. Textbook editions of John Grisham (simplified for easy comprehension) are assigned to ninth graders. And -- most unimaginable of all -- Boston's Big Dig has long since been completed.

Yet these futuristic details, though interesting and sometimes wryly amusing, are largely incidental. The suburbs are much like the suburbs in many other Updike novels, only slightly less populated. So why set the story, a year in Ben's retired life -- during which he lives with his wife in "hostile symbiosis," fights with her over whether to kill a deer in their front yard, takes up with a prostitute who moves in while his wife is away, plays golf, consorts with hooligans on his property, and has prostate surgery -- in 2020? Perhaps because, as its title suggests, this book is a meditation on time -- setting it in the future casts the narrator's riffs on the subject into greater relief. But maybe the novel is set in 2020 because it's also a meditation on mortality -- placing Ben's reflections on death and decline some 20 years in the future allows Updike to keep his own intimations of mortality (at 66, he's the same age as Ben) at a safe distance.

"Writing these scattered sad paragraphs" is Ben's (and probably Updike's) way of trying to "freeze and defeat time," even as it cycles round him inexorably. His vivid descriptions of seasonal climate changes, of sunlight at different times of day, and, most of all, of flowers and trees -- dahlias, forsythia, peonies, daffodils, crocuses, Austrian pines, Siberian irises, enkianhus, lilacs, grass, all baroquely rendered in dazzling prose -- serve as perennial reminders of death and renewal. Ben's children and grandchildren, who flit in and out of the story only sketchily realized, represent the promise of perpetuation, the Turnbull DNA transmitting immortality into the future. Alas, Ben's body -- with its aches, pains, diminishing appetites, and cancerous prostate -- is a register of decline, a harbinger of entropy and extinction.

The wandering plot of Toward the End of Time is not very important. Its structure is symphonic. Events unfold. Lovers -- Gloria, Ben's Thurberesquely domineering wife; Deirdre, the hooker who moves in while Gloria's away; Doreen, the 13-year-old moll of the townie squatters who take up residence on Ben's property and exact protection money from him -- come and go. There is some intrigue (early on, where has Gloria gone? later, where has Deirdre gone?), and some violence (as competing thugs vie for Ben's protection money). But Updike's mode is meditative; like Vivaldi's Four Seasons, he introduces his themes in the fall, then revisits them in winter, spring, and summer. The novel ends where it begins, with winter threatening -- and, most uncharacteristically, with sex only a memory, no longer a promise.

Does this elegiac tone (along with Ben's loss of virility) portend the imminent waning of Updike? Let's hope not. Because despite his considerable weaknesses -- his lazy plotting, his sometimes overgrown thickets of prose, his famously clinical sexual descriptions, his absence of moral vision -- he is a master stylist, one of the best ever. He is also our most tireless literary chronicler of suburban existence. If the Updikean output, a relentless force of nature, can fade out, what will not?

Scott Stossel is executive editor of the American Prospect.

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