Updike looks back and forth at lost chances

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 1997, 12:00am

Toward the End of Time by John Updike Knopf, $250 John Updike's output is staggering. Few modern novelists have been able to match the quantity and quality of his writing. As a chronicler of the mores and mannerisms of 20th-century America, he is second to none.

When it comes to subject matter, it seems little escapes the reach of his pen: from sex, to golf, to cinema and, usually, more sex. This time it's time itself: its passing, its boundaries, and its ruthless reduction of human life to the blink of an eye in the infinite scope of the universe.

But even genius has its limits, and with this, his 18th novel, Updike appears to have nudged the extremities of his inspiration. Though by no means a bad book, Toward the End of Time rarely gains the momentum we have come to expect. When compared, perhaps unfairly, with his breathtaking last novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, it is found wanting.

The year is 2020, and the world is slowly emerging from the devastation of a Sino-American war that has killed half the world's population and turned vast tracts of the globe into a post-holocaust wasteland.

The United States government has ceased to exist, replaced by a network of protection rackets. The dollar has been replaced by scrip, and beneath the soil an army of metallobioforms - robot insects that feed on the effluent of a post-industrial world - are mustering.

On to this nightmare scenario Updike grafts the mundane world of Ben Turnbull, a retired investment analyst, playing out his days in the seclusion of his Massachusetts home. Through a series of journal entries during the course of a year, he contemplates the passing of time, and within that context, his life, his loves and (a particular favourite of Updike's) his libido.

The conclusion he comes to is that it has all been a regrettable sequence of lost opportunities.

Updike has admitted his writing needs to feed on the experiences of everyday life and that, as a realist, the historical novel is beyond his capabilities. One wonders, therefore, why he has cast his mind forward, albeit only just over 20 years, for inspiration. The futuristic setting is superfluous other than as a metaphor for Turnbull's slide towards oblivion.

'It makes my senile tears tingle,' he writes of his legion of grandchildren, 'to think of them all marching - toddling, creeping - into the future, lugging my genes into the maelstrom of a future world I will never know.' Updike could easily have made this a contemporary fin-de-siecle sentiment, thus dispensing with the sci-fi baggage that slows this novel down.

Everything about this book seems a little overblown, from regular descriptions of his wife's neat garden - a device introduced as a yardstick for the passing year - to his, at times tedious, obsession with sex and scatology.

Turnbull's relationships with women are founded largely on self-gratification. He cuts a sad and often misogynistic figure who, through all his philandering, has yet to find happiness.

Thankfully, Updike's skilful way with prose has not deserted him. There are sections of this novel where time seems to stand still, frozen in the moment it takes to cast a descriptive eye over the most mundane of scenes.

What swings our sympathies behind the hapless Turnbull is his rapid descent into illness with - it would have to be - prostate cancer. With nice irony, Updike makes the hitherto-parallel worlds of hi-tech science and low-tech philandering collide right where Turnbull will feel it most.

His treatment, 'a 21st-century miracle of directed radiation', leaves him incontinent and impotent. 'How could so superfluous an appendage ever have served as the hub of my universe?' he muses sadly.

Perhaps it's a cautionary tale for those who put flesh before friendship. More likely, it's a warning to make the most of our meagre allocation of years. Either way, this is a story elegantly assembled, if a little laboured in the telling.