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John Updike's Toward the End of Time

By Blake de Pastino

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  It seems fair to say that John Updike is one of the most traditional writers around. More to the point, he's one of the most dedicated practitioners of that stalwart and steadfastly American form--realism. From his first novels featuring the angst-ridden everyman Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Updike has proved that there is a certain poetry to reality, that details don't have to be tedious. He can make a day at the office seem like some kind of Norse epic. He can create characters so fleshy and full that they not only remind you of yourself, but you hate them for it. And he can invest more loving attention into a single description--of a daylily, say, or a housewife's nipples--than most writers devote to an entire novel.

That's why it's weird to find that in his latest novel, John Updike threatens to break with tradition--and reality. After years of writing about everyday human drama--the stuff critics like to call "straight fiction"--he now comes out with something that looks more unique, more gimmicky, more like a kind of "genre fiction." But figuring out just what genre Updike has taken up is part of the pleasing puzzlement in Toward the End of Time.

The hero is Ben Turnbull, just as typically rich and white as any of Updike's other leading men, except that Turnbull's world is not our own. He's living in the year 2020, on a stretch of Massachusetts land that has been spared from a recent war with China. The conflict has left the government in radioactive ruins, and local toughs are now squeezing the suburbs for "protection money." Fortunately, Updike doesn't let this callow new world steal the story. Instead, the setting reveals itself slowly, through mere passing details in Turnbull's daily journal. What's really central to Ben's story, it turns out, is himself. At 66 years of age and counting, Ben is obsessed with the passage of time, the expansion of space and the question of how--if at all--one retired investment counselor fits into the Grand Scheme of Things. When he begins to suspect that he does not fit, he begins to force his way in.

This is where Turnbull--and Updike--begin to show new colors. Soon, Ben's comfortable, everyday life becomes infected with surreal subplots. As if in some kind of fever dream, he begins to find himself transported, living as a grave robber in ancient Egypt, a monk in medieval Ireland, a jackbooted guard in a Nazi prison camp. Most of the time, it's unclear just what's happening. Are these daydreams? Past lives? "Actual" twists in the ontological fabric? And more importantly, what kind of story is this? Is it sci-fi? Historical romance? Or--in the case of one pleasantly intense "life" where he's living with a beautiful hooker--some kind of geriatric soft-core porn?

The answer is none. And all. As a reading experience, Toward the End of Time wavers between hyperrealism and metaphysical chaos. But what keeps it all together is Updike's trademark style: long and flowing, knowing no line between prose and poetry, intensely visual and passionately real. Almost without effort, Updike's writing creates narrative order out of the tempest in Ben's head.

But of course, along with the bargain come some of Updike's less fine qualities. There are two whole passages about Ben's golf game, for example, and no fewer than 10 pages devoted to describing the flowers in his wife's garden--symptoms of Updike's passion for describing domestic life down to the last teacup. Then there's his habit of using words like "opisthognathous" and "orotund." Not to mention his dubious portrayal of women--every female in the book is treated like a walking vagina--a pattern that is regrettably common in Updike's oeuvre.

These are the hazards, perhaps, of being such a famously traditional writer, and they seem easy enough to forgive in a book that is otherwise so rewarding. It is, after all, the story an old man dowsing around for his place in the universe, so you can't expect it to be a breezy read. In the end, the success of Updike's 18th novel is the fact that it's as graceful as it is ambitious, as predictably elegant as it is unpredictable. Basically, it both is and is not what we'd expect from one of the strongest authors in the American mainstream. (Knopf, cloth, $25)

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