Future Shock

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 8 1997 3:30 AM

Future Shock

John Updike's science fiction.

Toward the End of Time

By John Updike

Knopf; 334 pages; $25

Illustration by Carolyn Fisher

John Updike is at bottom a religious novelist, but when you try to identify what exactly his bottom-most religious beliefs may be, the whole murky lot of them playfully slither away--which gives his writing a touch of theological suspense. Typically, he conjures a Lutheran or Presbyterian setting for his novels, and his enthusiasm for those particular creeds induces him, at moments of crisis in one plot after another, to plunk his guilty male culprit of a hero (Updike's heroes are almost always guilty males) down on a hardwood pew and to subject him to a vigorous Sunday sermon on biblical themes.

His new novel, Toward the End of Time, takes place in a futuristic Massachusetts in which nuclear war has leveled half of civilization, strange new metallic animals are threatening to gobble mankind, government has collapsed, and a gangsterish network of uniformed thugs called (chillingly) FedEx is establishing a government network of its own. Yet even in this most bizarre of Updike's novels, the guilty hero eventually finds himself sitting primly in a pew, listening to a lady minister declaim on Mary Magdalene and her womanly tears. What do these Sunday sermons amount to, though? Life is drab in Updike's novels, and sins are vast, and the Christian pieties that come tumbling down from the pulpit never seem adequate to the case. And so Updike, in his fervor, goes on a search for God (to thus label the object of his desires) directly, by means of an intimate, unblinking examination of the world in front of his own nose.

He becomes a maniac of miniature observation. Atomic particles dance in his eyesight. The world shimmers at him and, after a while, encouraged by what he sees, he shimmers back, ecstatic. He is something very close to a mystic in that respect--a transcendentalist in the old New England literary tradition, agog at the indescribable radiance of the lawn at his feet, or at the white brilliance of the refrigerator door, or at the ever-dazzling dust motes floating through the sunbeams. He is Emerson--except that, like a lunatic in an asylum, he has spent a lifetime in the mistaken belief that he is Hawthorne.

Toward the End of Time might seem different from his other novels because of the sci-fi trappings, which do get rather fantastic. Updike's hero, Ben, a 66-year-old retired financial manager, is suddenly transposed across the ages to ancient Egypt, then to the time of Jesus, then to medieval Ireland. He begins an affair with a young call girl who on some other plane of existence may be a deer, and then a new affair with a girl so young as still to be a child. Strange astronomical weirdnesses roam across the post-nuclear sky. It's all very puzzling, and the urgent hope that Updike will explain these many mysteries keeps you faithfully turning the pages.

Illustration by Carolyn Fisher

Arguably he does offer an explanation, by means of a theory about how time can branch off in different directions and perform different operations, like a computer program. Alternatively, you could regard some of those strange doings as the addled fantasies of the aging suburban hero, whose journal of a year, filled with rants against his wife and pornographic musings and notations about his deteriorating health, constitutes the novel. But either way, once you get past the sci-fi extravaganzas, Toward the End of Time tells a story exactly like that in any number of Updike's novels--of a man unhappy in marriage, blue with remorse, and unable to figure out what to do, except by attending closely to the radiant surface of the visible reality in front of him.

And so Updike's Ben observes the passage of seasons--life bursting into blossom in early spring, for instance:

There are suddenly children wild on the streets, clogging the doorway to the convenience store, raucously scraping their skateboards and roller blades along the sidewalks, flaunting their pasty winter skins in shorts and baggy untucked T-shirts. Where have they been all winter, these children? They are spontaneously, repulsively hatched, like the flies that now buzz and bump on the inside of the kitchen windows, drunk on warmth. Driving out to Route 128, I see a weeping cherry tree, no less spectacular for being familiar, making its annual splash of purple-pink ... and even along the driveway my poor little spindly pear trees have devised a few blossoms, at one of which I saw a sleepy bee bumbling, my first bee. On Route 128, for no practical reason, there is a thickening of traffic--another spring phenomenon, garaged cars released.

In Toward the End of Time these descriptions never quite rise to ecstatic levels, though. Ben remembers how, as a child, the pulp magazines Amazing and Astounding, with their "remote, radiant, exploding facts," used to relieve the pressure of everyday bleakness for him. But facts seem to have lost that power. Ben's dutiful recording of miniscule new shifts in foliage slips ever deeper into sadness. At the beginning of the year he finds, or imagines, a tiny shred of second-rate love with his call girl/deer, and later on finds, or imagines, an even tinier shred of a preposterous less-than-love with his child-girlfriend. But by the end, he cannot imagine being loved by any human being at all and comforts himself with the pathetic idea that perhaps the fungus growing on the late-autumn soggy ground is offering him, in some spongy vegetable manner of its own, the acceptance he craves. "At times, curled beneath its soft beige gills of thallic matter, a kind of breath hints of love." And it becomes poignantly clear that Updike's hero is beginning to die, not just because his physical self is deteriorating, but because he has a soul, which is shrinking.

It's not a great novel. Updike scatters too many leafy sci-fi fantasies across his pages and never does get around to raking them up again, which is disappointing. I don't entirely believe those sci-fi notions, anyway. The cast of characters is a little thin. But Updike, even in this book, is a great writer, the greatest we have, in his particular areas of strength--in the control of visual details, in his rhythmic intensity, in the colors and shapes that come pouring syncopatedly from his mischievous pen. I fear that too many people will throw up their hands in exasperation at Updike's way of appealing for love by presenting his heroes as ever more odious or cantankerous, and too many other people will celebrate the book mostly for its secondary virtues--its astronomical wonders sailing through the futuristic sky, the human-chomping metal animals, a few political jokes. But there is a primary virtue to this book, subtler than its other traits, and this primary virtue is to be, ever so quietly, heartbreaking.

Paul Berman is a regular contributor to Slate.

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