The latest effort by John Updike '54, Toward the End of Time, is a magnificent work obsessed with the imminence of death on several levels: the end of an individual's life, the end of civilization and the end of human domination of the earth. Through the journals of an aging and increasingly morbid retiree, Ben Turnbull, Updike comments on the hubris of man and anticipates his inevitable fall. Living in 2020 in a posh suburb of Boston, a survivor of the recent Sino-American war and the ensuing social chaos, Turnbull indulges his ravenous sexual appetite and considers his own and his world's decay.
Updike's prose, as ever, makes a fantastically beautiful read. New England hills and frozen golf courses become the landscape of the female body and skinny, thieving prostitutes are virginal deer under his masterful pen. The language of growth, fertility and nature is strewn throughout the book, forming an ideal realm against which the disintegrating, technoiogically advanced world of man seems ridiculously fumbling and doomed.
One potent example is the image of a moonlike abandoned space station which was sent into orbit before the war and whose mission humankind can no longer afford to effect. Stranded and starving to death, these astronauts become for Turnbull a modern Icarus, or maybe even the hapless architects of a new Tower of Babel. Looking into the sky, those on earth see palpable evidence of the waning power of man. These ideas are very fruitfully explored and seem the continuation of certain aspects of Brazil, and even Too Far To Go, though on a very different scale.
The book's pages positively gush with effluvia. Scents, oils and secretions of the young and the old simultaneously fascinate and repel Turnbull. His obsession with these juices and their accompanying bodily phenomena, his scatological dreams, his fantasies of incontinence and impotence all reflect his growing loss of physical control. His physical disintegration makes all the more real the imminence of death and of obliteration. Watching with wonder the futile efforts of his energetic wife and his former business partners at garden-keeping and money-making respectively, he feels keenly his own life's ineffectuality and transience. "What is wrong with me that I want to leave a trace...?" he demands. Writing, he hopes, will save him, will keep him in the memory of those who follow. But what is the use, Updike coyly forces us to wonder, of remaining in the literature of a waning species?
Even before he falls ill with the prostrate cancer that will reduce him to the impotence he so fears, Turnbull anticipates disease and death, imagining his body a "swamp in whose simmering depths a fatal infirmity must be brewing." His wife and doctor seem to him murderous, longing for his death, while his grandchildren and children seem frighteningly indifferent.
Still, Updike estranges the reader by overindulging Turnbull's lapses into fantasy. Depressed by his own breakdown, Turnbull takes to imagining himself in other eras, picturing himself as an Egyptian grave robber, a disciple of the Apostle Paul in the early church, etc. One can only assume that these departures are supposed to orient Turnbull's life and ever-present death in the greater span of history--to connect his existence with others' in some all-encompassing cyclic understanding. In comparison with the use of imagination in such classic Updike as The Centaur, however, these elderly wet dreams seem positively puerile.
Also less than endearing is the protagonist's penchant for philosophizing about sex. Updike can manage heroes with enough testosterone for entire football teams, even fatalistic ones wearing Depends. But when the hero decides that not only does he like sex, but that sex is the natural and proper center of life, he loses a certain amount of reliability. Even die-hard Updike fans may have difficulty stomaching reflections like the following: "When my erection... had attained full stretch, with my left hand cupped nurturingly about my balls, I admired it--the inverted lavender heart-shape of the glans, the majestic tensile column with its marblelike blue-green veins and triple-shafted underside. Stout and faithful fellow! My life's companion.... Nothing as solid and rea... [He is] my best self..." The physicality and vividness of Updike's writing are great assets, but I, at least, am not ready for phallic elegy.
But in spite of occasional lapses into gratuitous sex and idiocy, Towards the End of Time is a lovely and rich work. The melancholic reflections of Ben Turnbull are often quite moving, and his descriptions of the women, deer and flowers he encounters alone make the book worth reading. While the sense of cohesiveness and completion of many of his earlier works is lacking, in a book about losing control and ambition, that may be just the point. Anyone wondering whether Updike has lost any of his formidable potency may rest assured that indeed he has not. On the contrary, like the lightweight plastic snow shovels which so delight Ben Turnbull, Updike is one thing which persuades us that "the world does not only get worse."Photo courtesy of KnoJOHN UPDIKE '54 has done it again: luxuriant lyricism and good, clean fun with more than a trace of smut.