Updike's 'Time' -- meditation on aging


"Toward The End Of Time," by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf. $25. 342 pages.

In John Updike's new speculative novel, "Toward The End Of Time," his 18th, Ben Turnbull, a retired investment counselor, faces the decline of his powers somewhere north of Boston in the year 2020. America has scarcely recovered from a nuclear war with China, the Midwest remaining radioactively uninhabitable. Federal Express is about to relocate the vestiges of the government to Memphis; the dollar has disappeared. To protect their property, people must hire private enforcers. Women once "beauticians, or editorial assistants, nurses or paralegals," now earn their livings as whores. AIDS is no more.

Meanwhile, the universe itself is collapsing. Into this story of decline, deeply mellow in tone, Updike infuses a beauty akin to the reds and golds of autumn. There is a comfort in the finiteness of the universe, which matches the weakening of Ben's body as prostate cancer renders his once vibrant virility mere memory. There is even hope of a "torus," which would reconcile all disparate forces, ex-wives, children and stepchildren.

As for marriage, Updike's persistent theme, it fares no better in the future amid the debris of military hubris than it did among the younger Maples in "Too Far To Go." Ben is certain his somewhat younger second wife, Gloria, dreams of his death, especially once he becomes impotent. Grandchildren provide the small ambiguous comfort of genetic continuance.

In his diary, Ben imagines himself a figure in history in a startling matrix of fantasies. The sight of his Jewish doctor naked in the locker room inspires him to picture himself a guard in a Nazi concentration camp. But he also becomes an Egyptian grave robber and a disciple of Christ irritated with the distortions of Paul.

Alternatively Ben ponders cosmology as his best hope: "Are the funnel vortices of black holes the passageways whereby we enter the afterlife?"

John Updike remains the finest American prose stylist. If occasionally he cannot resist the exercise of his extraordinary gift for its own sake, it is also clear that he remains firmly at the height of his powers.

In "Toward The End Of Time" he offers once more a philharmonic of sentences. The rhythmic Updike line might undulate amid clauses or bluntly deliver the truth: "We shed our dreams one by one" and "There can be no replacing the landscape of youth." Malls are "boulevards of superfluity"; Ben's first affair is rendered transcendent by Updike's exacting prose: "Its colorful weave of carnal revelation and intoxicating risk and craven guilt eclipsed the gray sensation of annihilating time."

In this beautifully told meditation on aging, Updike passes judgment on "the entire maimed and vindictive century now past." Suspecting that organic life will ultimately yield to the inorganic creatures which have grown from "a soup of spilled chemical and petroleum by-products . . . energized by low-level leaks of radioactivity," Updike and his alter-ego Ben can still provide the pleasures of a mature voice.

"We all have our revelations, on the road to Damascus or elsewhere," Updike insists, voicing an optimism that revels in the poetry of nature even as he and his character, both of a certain age, face "the obliterating imminence of winter."

Joan Mellen teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University and writes a monthly column on novels for The Sun. She has published 13 books, including a novel, several books on culture and biographies, including her latest, "Hellman and Hammett," published by HarperCollins.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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