John Updike’s latest novel, Toward the End of Time, describes the burdened crawl toward death of a Boston stockbroker with the evocative Yankee name of Ben Turnbull. Turnbull is “semi-retired”: he spends most of his time poking around his house and grounds on the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay. He is highly intelligent, cultivated, and thoughtful in an utterly self-absorbed way. It is 2020 AD; he is sixty-six years old and desperate.
Turnbull has made his way up from unprivileged rural origins in Berkshire County. Although the book does not suggest it, a reader might imagine him as an epigone descendent much removed of the Boston merchants whose self-confident portraits by Copley and Smibert help remind us of our beginnings. But Ben Turnbull is a crepuscular man. His youthful prime will have been the 1980s and he exhibits the worst characteristics of his era, the ones most commonly deplored. As a man of business, he despised his clients and colleagues. He was an adulterer and a libertine. He is weak, cruel, and sly.
History has taken its revenge on Turnbull and, less importantly to him, on the America he represents at its worst. There has been a devastating war with China which seems to have annihilated much of the continent. No doubt it came about through the self-serving, short-sighted strategies of people like him, bungling foreign policy in Washington. In any case it’s all over now, as Bob Dylan long ago sang for a different generation.
Washington itself has become the turf of “warring gangs of African-American teenagers, who have looted every office of its last stapler and photocopier refill cartridge,” so the national government is a shadow. On the Massachusetts North Shore, the police exist but to no particular purpose. Householders pay protection money to gangs of young thugs and live in dread that “the Croatian gangs from Worcester,” serious gunmen, will make their way to the shore. The dollar has lost its value and the suburbanites pay their way with a unit of currency named for former Governor William Weld—the humor of this nomenclature is reserved for the author and his readers, and seems not apparent to the inhabitants of the novel.
“Paris occupied?” Jean Cocteau is supposed to have cried, when those feldgreise oompah bands came marching down the Champs-Elysées. “How will I get my opium?” Ben Turnbull, another deeply private man, also takes a homely view of the situation actuelle. Most folks may be dead but Federal Express still operates, which is one of the first things Ben, our narrator, assures us about his fallen world. He gets his bond slips from the city via Fed Ex, as the Croatian gunsels in Worcester presumably get their cocaine.
Actually, remarkably little in everyday life has been changed for Ben Turnbull as a result of this somewhat underdescribed and insufficiently detailed catastrophe. Given the right amount of feckless politicking, bad judgment, and bad luck, one might envision a scenario in which things get nearly as bad in America (except for the unregarded millions vaguely dead) without benefit of an apocalyptic missile exchange.
The point is that Turnbull lives in a twilight world of guilt, crippled lust, and dysphoria. He has his bond slips. He has a wife from hell, intermittently in transit, named Gloria, whose older sister seems to have been married to some of John Cheever’s characters, and also a bittersweetly lost ex-wife called Perdita. He has an affair with a little townie who may be also one of the neighborhood deer. It’s a bit unclear, although her name is Deirdre and to Turnbull, little townie broads around Hamilton are sort of like deer.
And he has eleven acres of gorgeously described eastern woodland forest and shrubbery, occupied by shifting bands of armed irregulars whom he capably employs and connives with and plays against each other. Local swamp Yankees and Irish give (the hard) way to a band of Afro-Ibero-American cholos and their thirteen-year-old white-trashy mistress whom Ben makes a deal to fondle periodically. Out there somewhere, beyond Lexington and Concord, the Croatians are coming.
This world, this America, is not a pretty picture nor is it a completely filled-in one. It’s incomplete and sketchy, though the interior and immediate world of Ben is rich with self-loathing, spite, and the fear of death. For Updike, and for readers of Toward the End of Time, that is the point.
It is notable that this rendering of a dashed America provoked enthusiastic praise in a review by Updike’s spiritual soul-sister to the north, Margaret Atwood, who thereby gained yet another opportunity to use the phrase “great republic” ironically. Her review of Toward the End of Time in The New York Times Book Review gave us a vignette of two North American Calvinists with New England connections in a state of spiritual reflection: Atwood, of the Old Light dispensation, for whom Canada signifies Election and the United States Reprobation, and Updike, New Light apostle of suspect libertine doctrines, struggling, all solitary, in a fallen city on a hill. In fact Turnbull, a monster of egotism, a shrunken, embittered relict of the heroic age of the bourgeoisie, refers to his house as the Hill.
The most striking and moving image in this book is a great ovular form that has appeared in the sky over New England.
And a week or less after this, by daytime, the giant dim torus in the sky, the ghostly watermark on the atmosphere’s depthless Crane’s blue, grew larger, moving toward Earth. Vast and then vaster, it stealthily expanded until its lambent rim touched the sea’s horizon and disappeared behind the treetops; it was encircling the visible platter of Earth; we were within it; our round planet was like a stake to its quoit. The torus’s blue hole, for these many months no wider than ten suns across, had swelled to become the empyrean itself; the upper edge of its “matter”—for matter is just what it seemed not to be—sank, distending, and lost itself, a line of faint pallor, behind the lateral stretch of distant, mountainous summer clouds.
This “torus” may be the remains of a space station destroyed in the recent Sino-American War. Or it may be something timeless and mysterious.
Everyone had seen it: everyone had felt it; yet news coverage of the event was spotty and diffident. Different people, interviewed, gave different times and durations of their mystical sensations. Exact words were hard to formulate. Scientists and psychologists were quick to jump into print with theories of mass hallucination powerful enough to affect even photographic plates. A growing school of opinion holds that the torus had never existed at all—had not hung in our heavens for years—or had been no more a three-dimensional phenomenon than the ring around the moon on a foggy night. Doubt and mockery have become fashionable, on television talk shows and among schoolchildren. T-shirts appeared on the young, displaying the torus encircling a question mark, or diagonally barred to form the symbol for negation. Even among lovers, it was embarrassing to talk about the transcendent moment. Comparing notes elicited disturbing discrepancies.
The form is described as signifying “blissful certainty of universal reconciliation.” It “travelled like a great magnetic field across the depleted planet as it was passed, as in a magician’s trick, through the cosmic ring, which receded in the midnight skies above Australia and vanished, a faintly glowing ringlet in the vicinity of the constellation Octans. By morning it had vanished from all but the most powerful telescopes.”
Yet, Turnbull tells us, the thing may have shown in the sky above the dinosaurs.
Nothingness yawns twice as emptily beneath the vacant life of Ben Turnbull as beneath those of other men. No more awaits him as he gropes through the fading light except prostatitis, impotence, and oblivion. He experiences shards of other lives, past or parallel, as a New Kingdom Egyptian grave robber, as a doomed Irish monk suffering a Viking raid, as the apostle Mark. Everything stinks of his own sin and mortality.
The great torus overhead is for Turnbull a failed ark, the symbol of grace mysteriously abounding, righteously withheld. As he despised others so will he be despised, as he used others so will he be used. The lonely impotence he feels is the thrill of damnation when it stops being fun. The sign in the sky is for him a sign of judgment. The Victory gin is gone, the women are gone and the pleasures of his house; he is alone with God.
And God is out there. Like the computer scientist in Roger’s Version, Turnbull knows the odds on God’s existence, precisely 1,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.
There in the dark Massachusetts woods, the cries of hell’s own savages resound, reminding the transgressor of the tortures of damnation, as it was in the beginning. Within the sinful heart and mind, the arts of the conjuror, of witchery and evil, of transformations and intercourse with horned animals, bring no comfort, though their stench assaults heaven and renders the reprobate naked before judgment. Toward the end of time lies eschatology, the Four Last Things. For Turnbull, tiny man, come three of them—death, judgment, and hell, riding together. Now Turnbull Minor trembles in His just Hangman’s grasp, a sinner in the hands of an angry God.
This may not be among John Updike’s greatest books, although it contains wonderful rushes of near- Melvillean prose. After all, Updike has so many. But Toward the End of Time has a force that gets under your skin and can put the Fear in the best of us.
December 4, 1997