John Updike - Toward the End of Time
Why? The question asserts itself when a competent - indeed, a very good - author makes narrative choices in a novel that cannot readily be aligned to his ordinary method of creativity. Why choose a certain plot line? Why embellish a specific character over another? Why focus on this or that aspect of plot or story or description or theme? These choices often become clear as the form of the novel coalesces and the author's vision reveals itself, but this is not always the case. John Updike's 1997 novel, Toward the End of Time is a sterling example of a misguided literary attempt, of an author completely missing their target. The narrative thrust behind Toward the End of Time is so skewed that it is not at all clear what it is exactly that Updike set himself to achieve – but what is clear is that he has failed.
The novel is set in 2020. America has collapsed – in a mostly friendly, non-threatening and vague sort of way that doesn't seem to affect the characters until the plot calls for it – which has seen various states print their own money and, towards the end of the novel, has Fed Ex operating as a sort of nation-wide protection service against the petty thugs and criminals that are taking advantage of the chaotic new world. We are told, in off-hand snippets, that America's population has thinned dramatically, that the President is a figure-head without any real power or influence, that China has suffered an equally, or perhaps even greater, devastation, but none of it particularly matters, and here is why.
The protagonist, Ben Turnbull, is the protagonist of an Updike novel, which means that he will travel along some fairly well worn paths. Sex is an obsession. The physicality of people – especially women – is very important. Women are things to observe and not always to love or understand. The penis is everything. In some cases, this is an astonishingly effective literary technique, as it has allowed Updike in the past to burrow through the male psyche in search of masculine truth and, even, if we consider Harry Angstrom, grace. Ben is a fine person, as Updike's protagonists go, but he is shoved into a bizarre futuristic world for no real reason at all. John Updike, frankly, doesn't have the chops to pull it all off. Put him in a Protestant middle-class home in the nineties and Ben would have shined, another in Updike's long series of introspective, outwardly ordinary but inwardly shining men, and interesting particularly because the themes focus heavily upon death. But in a world of metallobioforms – and if I throw these little machine-monsters into the review with an air of flippancy that may seem somewhat grating and insulting, think how it would feel when the same is done within the novel – Ben is not needed. Or, rather, the science fiction isn't needed.
But there is worse waiting in the wings. A great amount of noise is made about a recent scientific discovery involving the concept of quantum physics whereby looking at an object 'collapses' the possibilities of its existence into whatever is perceived at the time. Schr?ger's cat is a fine example of this. Loosely, a cat is placed into a box and the lid is closed. A mechanism is attached to the box and, based upon the decay of a radioactive substance – which is random – the mechanism either releases poison to kill the cat, or it does not. Until the lid is open and the cat is observed, there is no way to determine whether it is alive or dead – opening the lid 'collapses' the possibility and the fate of the feline is known. Updike uses this admittedly sketchy and purely imaginative example of Erwin Schr?ger's to transport the novel into several bizarre alternate-Ben worlds. We are with him for several pages as he robs an Egyptian tomb. Ben's wife disappears, a prostitute moves in and then, bang!, the wife is back and the prostitute is maybe dead, maybe not. We experience the events surrounding Christ's resurrection; there are more. To explain one of the intermittent switches to a different time and place, Updike offers that 'Another universe, thinner than a razor blade, sliced into the sinister locker room.' and we are off, transport to the Eastern front of World War II. Why do these events occur?
So we amble through this novel, which is eighty per cent ordinary middle-class musing about life and love and death, and twenty per cent bizarre science fiction and unexplained narrative shifts. Cut the twenty and we'd have a fine, though not amazing, piece of fiction. Leave it in, and we read of tiny little metal machines that inexplicably and conveniently chew away characters which are clogging the story and needed to be removed for the novel to end with some sort of closure. Updike is a far better writer than this, though the book doesn't often show it.
Updike is, as always, best when he is describing physical features - and best when he is describing a woman. Here, the main character is admiring the young fourteen year old female of the motley crew assembled at the bottom of his forest: '...to take my eyes from the freckled breadth of her bony upper chest, the glossy rounds of her shoulders like inverted china cups, the single navel-dented crease across her lean belly.' And a page later, 'Her breasts smelled powdery, like a baby's skull, and her nipples were spherical, like paler, smokier versions of honeysuckle berries.'
But these rays of light should be compared to the staggering arrogance of this particular thought that rumbles through Ben's mind: 'Sometimes I think the thing I'll mind about death is not so much not being alive but no longer being an American'. Remember, please, that this novel is set in a future where America is virtually non-existent. If Updike loves his home country that is fine, but to put such thoughts into words like these is offensive and tactless. And, he is even somewhat mean to other authors: '...reading a textbook edition, shortened and simplified for junior high students, of that twentieth-century master, John Grisham.' Take that, genre fiction! One hopes Updike has failed to achieve what he set out to accomplish with this novel. To consider it a success would be a greater show of hubris than what is already on display. What little here that is good is overshadowed by the almost astonishing amount of bad on display.
And that is how the novel ends, with the unsatisfying sensation that the author has wasted his talent on mediocre material. It is perhaps unfair to condemn Toward the End of Time by comparing it to Updike's Rabbit books, which remain his lasting contribution to fiction. Lightning strikes so rarely; for John Updike it struck four times, each a decade apart. Having just finished the series for the third time it is clear that Updike's muse was Harry and without him, a lot of the magic faded away. Updike and Harry needed one another, the second to be brought into being and the first to create a lasting realist literary creation. It is unclear whether Ben or John ever needed one another. There is hardly any verve, very little in the way of spark, and nothing at all that lasts beyond the final page.
The Afterlife and Other Stories
Hugging the Shore
The Complete Henry Bech
"Rabbit in Retrospect", posted to the South Wing website.
Wikipedia - Author
Wikipedia - Novel
New York Times - First Chapter
New York Times review (by Margaret Atwood)