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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Updike Toward the End of Time

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published as "Future Tense" in the The New Yorker, Dec. 8, 1997. Reprinted in Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going.

Set in the near future in mythical Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts, an affluent and sequestered oceanfront suburb north of Boston, John Updike's eighteenth novel and forty-eighth book, "Toward the End of Time" (Knopf; $25), bears an oblique kinship with Updike's first novel, "The Poorhouse Fair" (1959), similarly set in the near future, though amid the impoverished elderly. In "The Poorhouse Fair," a comparatively pastoral fiction, American culture has become Hispanicized, and much of the population seems to be institutionalized in "swelling poorhouses" as part of the process of Settling:

—an increasingly common term that covered the international stalemate, the general economic equality, the population shifts to the "vacuum states," and the well-publicized physical theory of entropia, the tendency of the universe toward eventual homogeneity .... This end was inevitable, no new cause for heterogeneity being foreseen.

Near the conclusion of "Toward the End of Time," a seemingly mystical "heavenly circle," a torus, appears to the narrator, who links it to cycles of human belief and nonbelief, or human delusion and intellectual freedom:

To generations its presence is evident and the source of omens, miracles, admonitions, and reassurances. People live by its wan light, sing its praises while they work .... Then it gradually dims, succumbing to mockery and disproof. The generations grow bored with repeating the pieties of their fathers; a cry for human freedom and self-expression rises .... The altars are slighted; the temples fall into mossy ruin.

The contemporary world is this fallen world, yet "the world by itself is not enough; there must be another"—and, in time, like an elliptically orbiting comet, the torus reappears. People can't endure without supernaturalism of some kind, however remote from their personal lives.

"Toward the End of Time" takes up such issues fairly lightly, for its narrator, Ben Turnbull, is, at sixty-six, rather more concerned with his waning sexual powers than with the waning of the universe. Like the aging retirees of Updike's recent short-story collection "The Afterlife," he's frightened, resentful, embittered about his body's "accumulating failures" and his position in a "twilight of inconsequence." The morbidly narcissistic Ben, a retired investment councilor who can't look back upon his life with much pleasure or pride, nonetheless wants to leave something of him behind by "scribbling these disjunct and jumpy notes" concerning an idle, precarious existence in the Earthly year 2020. Like Updike, Ben is gifted with 20/20 vision and sees things, including himself, with painful, pitiless clarity:

I had looked down once again into the dismal basement of life, where in ill-lit corners spiders brainlessly entrap segmented insects, consume them bit by bit, leave a fuzzy egg sac, and die. All those leggy spider corpses ... did they perish of starvation, having spun a web in vain, or of old age, in the natural course of things, after years of drawing upon Medicare and Social Security?

Though in some ways the most inventive of his myriad fictions, Updike's new novel is, like "Poorhouse Fair," at heart a wholly realist work, saturated in memory, emotion, meditation, and the staple of realistic fiction human relations. Its often inspired, and funny, "futurist" detail serves the function of ectoplasmic daubs on a photograph: it isn't really integral to Ben Turnbull's experience as aging lecher, eventual prostate-cancer patient, a fantasist who compensates for his narrow life by drifting into what he calls "parallel universes." Cranky, maudlin, and nasty by turns, now poetic, now crude, yet continuously a rapt witness to what's about him, Ben seems rather more like eighty-six than sixty-six, and his preoccupation with his own advancing age highlights those prevailing Updike themes: an almost Thurberesque view of the war between the sexes (Ben is convince that his younger, far more energetic wife, Gloria, eagerly anticipates widowhood, awaiting his death like a "cheerful, soigné vulture") and what the similarly obsessed Renaissance poets called mutability—the inexorable gravitational tug of death and dissolution. (Ben writes that his "bed seems a slant surface from which I might fall into an abyss.") For all its strangeness, this is a familiar world, in which time's arrow flies in the direction of "well-publicized" entropy and men rail against women who are no longer sexually attracted to them. It is hardly a tragic world, for tragedy implies grandeur and dignity, but, rather, a broken, twilit world, in which even the art of fiction is dismissed: "that clacking, crudely carpentered old roller coaster, every up and down mocked by the triviality ... of human experience, its Sisyphean repetitiveness."

If not tragedy, then comedy. A cheerily bleak black comedy in which, as Ben laconically informs us, there have been catastrophic events that haven't (for reasons the novel doesn't make entirely clear) much affected him and his upper-middle-class Caucasian New England neighbors: the financial crash of 2000; a four-month Sino-American conflict, that left millions of Chinese and Americans dead and much of the United States a radioactive wasteland; the dissolution of the federal government. Oceans are nearly exhausted of fish. Malevolent new mouse-size inorganic species called "metallobioforms" ("oil-eaters" and "spark-eaters") have emerged. Earth's atmosphere is so polluted that the very stars have become dull and hazy. With the weakening of governments, FedEx has gone into the protection racket, extorting money from anxious affluent homeowners like Ben.

Yet instead of nightmares there's a reassuring grid of the comically banal in Haskells Crossing, where citizens read the Boston Globe and the New York Times, still delivered to their homes; they seem to have access to food, out of what cornucopia we can't imagine, and they prepare it in microwave ovens; they watch TV, mulch their fussy suburban gardens and fret over deer, marauding woodchucks, and occasional squatters on their property; they play golf and ski and, of course, bicker with their aging spouses, like "The Honeymooners" seven decades later. ("After a certain age marriage is mostly, its bitter and tender moments both, a mental game of thrust and parry played on the edge of the grave.") Ben's "elderly proximity to death" drives him into fantasies of more passionate lives, in which, variously, he's the robust lover of a doe-turned-woman and of a thirteen-year-old Nabokovian nymphet. Perhaps less convincingly, he's a companion of St. Paul, someone known to us as the author of the Biblical Gospel according to Mark. Ben is also a ninth-century Irish monk slaughtered by a pagan Norseman, a sadistic Nazi hitting a captive Jew (who resembles Ben's own physician), and a lone human being in a mysterious primal-symbiotic relationship with an immense fungus. All these are curious, wayward adventures that seem merely coincidental to 2020 A.D.—as indeed the futurist setting seems merely coincidental to Ben's experience. (Compare, for instance, the intensely imagined contemporary literary novels "The Handmaid's Tale," by Margaret Atwood, and "Fiskadoro," by Denis Johnson.)

Updike's prose, as always, is distinguished by passages of lyric beauty even amid the despairing rubble of Ben Turnbull's cobwebbed cellar. The prose-poem interludes in which, for instance, Ben recalls his impoverished rural childhood, dominated by a passionate, aggrieved mother and a hapless father, echo similar passages in other works of Updike's, from the early, gracefully elegiac short stories and the boldly Joycean nostalgia of "The Centaur" (1963) to the lapidary writer's prose, and these pages ring with emotional urgency:

At the kitchen table during a quarrel—my parents' quarrels were always about the same thing, it seemed to me, about there no· being enough—she would fold her arms and hide her grief-reddened face in them, terrifying me, for her face was the face of life to me, and I could not bear to have it hid. I witnessed so many tears of anger and frustration and pain on my mother's face, there in our bleak house ... that I wonder if my heart was not permanently hardened, to save me from a lifelong paralysis of grief.

Is this jokey old Ben, or John Updike in his perennial, supremely eloquent youth? Elsewhere, by way of Ben, Updike lovingly describes a "halo of iridescence" in the sky:

This new moon, visible at night as a faintly luminous lariat slowly moving across the paralyzed sprinkle of stars, by daytime is imprinted on oxygen's overarching blue like the trace of a cocktail glass, a sometimes silvery ring of pallor.

Meeting such similes running wild in the deserts of Arabia, to paraphrase Coleridge on some verse of Wordsworth's, we should instantly cry "Updike!"