John Updike: Towards the End of Time

John Updike
Towards the End of Time

THE NEAR FUTURE is looking bleak. A Sino-American war so bestial it makes WW II look like United Nations Day has turned the U.S. into an ungovernable and depopulated Wild West. The federal government is, of course, inoperative, and FedEx is vying for administrative and territorial control of the East Coast. Meanwhile, out in California, UPS carves out its own empire, while keeping the eastern competitor in check. The United States of America as we know it is but a collection of messily outlined territories (the Republic of Texas seems to be the exception) with its citizens fleeing to Mexico in the face of increasing food shortages and utter lawlessness.

Yet life is otherwise pretty normal in Updike's vivid and periodically moving new novel: except that you have to watch for metallobioforms--those artificial creatures the size of ladybugs which feed on motor oil, electricity, and the occasional human limb. Ben Turnbull, a retired investment adviser who still gets his Boston Globe every morning in the tiny Massachusetts village of Haskells Crossing, spends his third-age days observing the changing of seasons, visiting his numerous grandchildren, having frequent sex, and squabbling with his domineering wife Gloria. Surprisingly, though, Ben's squabbles with Gloria concern not Ben's prolific extramarital sex life but the pestilent deer in their garden that she wants exterminated at any cost.

Such detailed minutiae of daily living in Towards the End of Time do not conceal the fact that Updike's 47th book is mostly a work about dying. When Ben tests positive for prostate cancer and his formerly virile self is swaddled by adult diapers, one can't help but view cancer--the mad proliferation of otherwise healthy cells--as a metaphor for the planet's losing battle against our race.

Towards the End of Time begins and concludes in winter and Updike's careful prose orients us within each season with the precision of a compass. So richly detailed are his descriptions, so methodical the images he constructs, that these passages recall Walden. It isn't clear in the end who will lose the battle: "our extra-polite host," Nature, which we have long taken advantage of; or humankind, with our population wildly imploding; or both. The changing of seasons, after all, can occur in the absence of either.

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