John Updike's Toward the End of Time, published in 1997, is a mixture of science fiction, magic realism, and a journal account written by an older man who feels his world collapsing around him. The story is written as if it were the journal of Ben Turnbull, a retired financier who is living an economically comfortable life in New England despite the chaos and destruction around him. The majority of the story takes place in 2020, after a massive war between the United States and China. Despite the failure of the U.S. government, a depopulated Midwest, food shortages, and marauding teenagers who stone to death people whom they do not like, the self-indulgent protagonist enjoys sexual relations with young women and has time to golf and to play with his grandchildren. The narrator also drifts into fantasies which are presented so realistically they are hard to distinguish from what is real. Did Ben Turnbull really kill his second wife? Did he then have sex with a deer? Did he really witness Moses on the mountain? In the end, the protagonist, a man whom readers may not like, reveals a vulnerability with which they may identify.
Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
John Updike began his career as one of America’s most skilled and most revered novelists forty years ago with the publication of The Poorhouse Fair (1959), a parable about social disintegration revolving around an old man and set twenty years in the future. Now, on the verge of the turn of the millennium, Updike has written another novel with a similar premise. Toward the End of Time is set in the year 2020, after the federal government has disintegrated in the wake of the Sino-American nuclear war. The old man this time is Ben Turnbull, a sixty-six-year-old retired investment adviser who lives in considerable comfort on eleven choice waterfront acres located in the WASP suburbs north of Boston. Much has changed in this world of the future: There is no cross-country transportation, food shortages are the rule of the day, and the worthless greenback has been replaced by sienna-colored regional scrip called “welders,” honoring a Republican governor who oversaw Massachusetts toward the end of the twentieth century.
Ben experiences only modest discomfort as the result of America’s postmillennial, postwar breakdown. He is rich in his retirement (not only did he succeed in his professional life, but he also married money when he took his second trip to the altar), and his wealth enables him to buy some kind of “protection” from a couple of low-life extortionists who promise to guard him and his property from the threat posed by lawless, mixed-race youths streaming out of urban ghettos. Ben also is able to go on enjoying some of the pastimes traditionally pursued by affluent retirees toward the end of the previous century, such as golf, and his vigorous second wife, Gloria, keeps up a steady round of visits to the hair stylist, the pedicurist, the aerobics salon, and the ladies’ luncheon club. In many respects, the lives of these two proceed with the undiminished regularity of the seasons.
Ben, however, has begun to suspect that time is not as reliable as it once seemed, and he decides to make a play for immortality by keeping a journal. His journal—which ostensibly is the narrative of Toward the End of Time—opens with the first snowfall of the year and traces the events of his life over the next year. Perhaps it is more accurate to speak of the events of the narrator’s “lives,” however, because part of what Updike seems to be attempting to address in this novel is the permeability of time and space.
Toward the End of Time opens with two epigrams, one of which is taken from a 1986 essay by mathematician and science writer Martin Gardner: “We cannot tell that we are constantly splitting into duplicate selves because our consciousness rides most smoothly along only one path in the endlessly forking chains.” One of Gardner’s areas of expertise is quantum mechanics, and Ben—as well as his creator—seems to have done considerable reading in this area of late. Ben, who declares himself uncomfortable with fiction and whose favored reading material includes Scientific American, occasionally interrupts his narrative of day-to-day existence to enter the mind- set of another individual—an ancient Egyptian tomb robber, a murdered medieval monk— who existed, or exists, on an altogether different path. He seems to be able to do this because he lives in a world no longer governed by the accepted rules, one that includes not only Mexico as a land of economic promise but also two moons (one of them human-made) overhead and a new life form below: life-threatening, insect-sized, inorganic “metallobioforms” that sprang up out of the postwar nuclear detritus.
Ben had always been most alive below the waist. In the new world that exists toward the end of time, his sex life, too, seems to be slipping into an alternative universe. Much of the story line of the novel revolves around a deer that Gloria wants to destroy because it is eating her beloved garden. Urged by his wife to shoot the animal, Ben instead comes to believe that he has perhaps shot Gloria. In any event, his wife has disappeared, and her place in the household and in Ben’s bed is taken over by Deirdre, a young prostitute whose tawny skin and blunt nose are reminiscent of the doe Ben was supposed to have destroyed. Like the deer, Deirdre steals Gloria’s property—the family silver instead of dormant tulip bulbs—and like the deer she seems to come from a netherworld Ben cannot hope to understand. Although he muses over evidence that Neanderthal man and the more advanced Cro-Magnon man who was the true forebear of Homo sapiens apparently coexisted for a time and may even have interacted, Ben cannot seem to comprehend that he has slipped...
(The entire section is 1915 words.)