The End of the World News

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

The End of the World News is a provocative work, by intention and in structure. It consists of three entirely separate strands of story, two of them historical fiction, the third science fiction. The more prominent of the historical strands tells the story of Sigmund Freud, beginning with the notorious moment in 1938 when the Nazis, invading Austria, seized Freud’s publishing house in Vienna only to be confronted with and momentarily ejected by the furious psychoanalyst. From 1938, the narrative returns to the 1890’s and then follows the whole sequence of Freud’s failures, successes, and rivalries to his death in England in 1939. By contrast, the second historical strand—recounted very largely as the libretto for a Broadway musical—focuses on one very short stretch of time, a brief and (apparently) unimportant interlude in the life of Leon Trotsky: the two months, from January to March, 1917, which he spent in New York waiting to be recalled to Russia to take his part in the Revolution. The science-fiction strand, finally, tells a relatively conventional story about the arrival in the solar system of a rogue planet, Lynx, which first sweeps past and then collides with Earth, leaving no survivors except those who escape in spaceships.

The question one must ask, evidently, is whether these strands relate to one another at all; the answer is both yes and no. The strands are given a kind of connection at the very end of the book, when one learns that all of these stories have been or are being told to a class of adolescents on the spaceship America, descendants of those who fled generations before. The stories of Freud and Trotsky just happen to have survived. They, together with the account of the building of America, are the only memories of Earth that the space-exiles have left. The reader’s uncertainty about the way these stories relate to one another, then, is a pale analogue of the complete bewilderment felt by the space-born. The adolescent class in fact simply refuses to believe the stories at all, reclassifying them instead as myth. The building of America is a kind of Genesis to them; as for Freud and Trotsky, they become images of god and demon: Fred Fraud kept people strapped to a couch while Trot Sky wanted to liberate everyone and let them run through space as they, the spaceship-people, do. One can see that the connection offered in Burgess’ epilogue is a fortuitous and pointless one.

In any case, there is something to be said for the theory that there are no connections at all except for those imposed (probably all in different ways) by different readers. In a feigned introduction to the book, Burgess suggests that one inspiration for it was a picture of President Jimmy Carter and his wife in the White House watching three television sets simultaneously. What connection will there be among three randomly selected television programs? Evidently none. Although there seems to have been a pleasure in watching three things at once, at least for the Carters; therefore, there will perhaps be a pleasure—or so the analogy goes—in following three stories at once. “The family of the middle and late 1980’s,” declares Burgess in the publisher’s blurb (written, against convention, by the author), “will have to be a three-screen family.”

Once again, one may suspect that this, too, is provocation, not to be taken seriously: As a prophecy, it certainly seems very unlikely. Nevertheless, the question remains: Can one find, is it legitimate to try to find, any linkages among these three different and separate accounts? Do they not, for example, all deal with the end of the world, or the end of a world, as the title suggests? If so, should one not see in them a kind of “counterpoint,” a term which Burgess uses both in the blurb and in his feigned introduction? The answer to both questions must surely be yes, yet the whole structure of the book makes any such “counterpoint” difficult to see. The author, one often feels, is simply mocking, or tantalizing, his readership.

For one thing, The End of the World News is full of false trails (though in this case, one reader’s false trail may be another’s key linkage). Freud is quite clearly shown smoking himself to death—he died of cancer of the mouth—with a strong suggestion, in his own terms, that this is a case of infantile oral gratification. When one realizes that Hubert Frame, planner of the America project, is doing the same thing, the interpretative faculty leaps into action. After all, both Frame and Freud are also seen as Moses-figures, people who lead their followers to the Promised Land but do not themselves enter it. Freud, furthermore, was famous for his neurotic insistence on getting to railway stations two hours early and then usually almost missing the train. Surely, all of these facts must add up to some statement about human weakness or the urges that make people pioneers. Trotsky, too, surely had a vision of promise in the perfect Socialist state . . . but the connections at this stage peter out. No stress is laid on Trotsky smoking or missing boats, or being a Moses. The whole sequence of thought may be merely a string of coincidences, like the fact that hypnosis, a Freudian...

(The entire section is 2159 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

America. CXLVIII, May 21, 1983, p. 406.

Christian Science Monitor. May 11, 1983, p. 9.

Clark, Jeff. Review in Library Journal. CVIII (February 15, 1983), p. 411.

Commonweal. CX, September 23, 1983, p. 503.

New Statesman. CIV, November 19, 1982, p. 27.

The New Yorker. LIX, April 11, 1983, p. 134.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, January 14, 1983, p. 70.

Reed, J. D. “Dividing Gall into Three Parts,” in Time. CXXI (March 21, 1983), p. 76.

Wilson, A. N. “Faith and Uncertainty: Recent Novels,” in Encounter. LX (February, 1983), p. 65.

Wood, Michael. “A Love Song to What Would Be Lost,” in The New York Times Book Review. March 6, 1983, p. 3.

World Literature Today. LVII, Autumn, 1983, p. 636.