Books: Coming unstuck in the future

The poet of suburbia takes a trip into SF and gets lost down a time-line. Scott Bradfield reports; Toward the End of Time by John Updike Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99
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John Updike is the sort of working writer who turns out product, bang bang bang, as if he's marking his daily output in the pages of a desk-top calendar. Poems, novels, essays and reviews, his corpus clicks steadily past, hand-tooled and tightly bound, never letting the public forget that Updike's always out there - playing rounds of tennis and golf, wondering about infidelity, reading across the curriculum with a polymathic perversity.

But a sense of diminished enthusiasm has haunted his recent novels, such as Memories of the Ford Administration and Brazil. Updike seems to focus so intently on the word-by-word manufacturing of books that his long works are growing aimless. The beautifully written pages add up; none seems to matter.

Toward the End of Time starts out in traditional Updikean territory, and then veers off into a new direction: the future. Its narrator is Ben Turnbull, a retired financial adviser trying to make his peace with the wilds of Massachusetts. While Ben's control-freak wife mounts a campaign against the deer that devour their hedge, his progeny and step-progeny come and go, trailing broken relationships in every direction.

Like many of Updike's men, Ben has been treading the same ground all his life, from porch to mailbox to porch again, measuring his days according to the deliveries from UPS and FedEx. Remarkable things never happen to him any more. Until, that is, he starts speculating on alternative universes.

In many ways, the future Ben imagines is a fairly pedestrian one, especially if you keep up with the latest SF. The US economy has collapsed. Morality has loosened; smart prostitution rings advertise in the Christian Science Monitor. The failure of technology has planted a second "moon" in the sky, a gigantic broken space station orbiting Earth with a cargo of dead, Ballardian astronauts. Updike's future doesn't glitter much. It just unravels, like houses, marriages and rocks.

Reminiscent of Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Ben comes unstuck in time. And during his relativistic hops between today and tomorrow, he takes a series of additional side-trips into history, encountering Nazis, Vikings and St Paul. But because neither Ben, nor Updike's intention, ever grows very clear, every diversion feels obtuse. Which causes Updike to produce some very uncharacteristic bad prose, such as the Conan-like dialogue among Egyptian tomb-robbers ("May Anubis dine on his own excrement in the life everlasting!").

Because this novel's sense of time is continually displaced, it never achieves any momentum. The writer seems genuinely lost, filling up pages with dead scenes and even deader people. None of it manages to transcend some pretty awful sex-chat, with the narrator telling his young whore, Deirdre, things like: "You money-grubbing cunt, I want to prong you up to your fucking eyeballs." Scenes like this aren't rude so much as bloated and endlessly recurring, like a Nietzschean version of history.

Updike is a genuinely gifted poet of suburban claustrophobia but he is simply not philosophically suited to write a novel about branching time- lines: an idea memorably explored in such classic genre novels as Keith Roberts's Pavanne. He writes best about the calming routines of everyday life, and the impossibility of change taking you anywhere but slowly downhill. In fact, the notion that our universe may be filled with infinite possibilities just seems to make him nervous.

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