Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, August 25, 2013

1997: Toward the End of Time (Updike, John)

The flawed mind & body of an imperfect man (4/5)

Some titans of the English language line my shelves, among them: Gene Wolfe, J. G. Ballard, Dan Simmons, Iain Banks and Neal Stephenson. Though the I love the science fiction and borderline fantasy of these five men, one author, above all others, entrances me with his masterful use of the language: John Updike. Toward the End of Time seems to be Updike’s only science fiction-esque novel so I was eager to read it with my experience of Rabbit, Run (1960), Of the Farm (1965) and Afterlife and Other Stories (1994). Languid passages of ambiance, unique and precise descriptions of objects of affection, and the literary exhibition of human flaw are among the reasons that spark fires of inspiration in my mind.

While labeling him a “penis with a thesaurus” may suit some, a thesaurus is used for renaming lingual units in a text and cannot greatly alter the context (the text around the text) without the author’s intention. If you like reading words, read the dictionary; if you like reading context, read a book… Updike is most suitable. A dictionary or thesaurus can put perspective on your search for language origin or pronunciation, but offers very little in terms of context with other words. Updike, however, offers nearly a pure sense of context within the reasons of the prior paragraph: ambiance, affection and human flaw. I read this author’s work with moderation, not because the experience is too rich, but because I like to think about which novel I would like to read next; now, this stands at Rabbit Redux (1971), The Witches of Eastwick (1984) or Terrorist (2006).


“Ben Turnbull is a sixty-six-year-old retired investment counselor living north of Boston in the year 2020. A recent war between the United States and China has thinned the population and brought social chaos. In Massachusetts, the dollar has been replaced by scrip; instead of taxes, one pays protection money to competing racketeers. Despite the vast political upheavals, Ben’s life, traced by his journal entries over the course of a year, retains many of its accustomed comforts.

A science buff, Ben soon finds his personal history curiously connected to the ‘many-worlds’ hypothesis derived from quantum theory. And, as his identity branches back through history and ahead in the evolution of the universe, his own moral, nature-enshrouded existence moves toward the end of time…”


Nuclear war with China has thinned out the American population, gutted Washington D. C., and largely destroyed the west coast… but China was the bigger loser in the game of mutually assured destruction. Life in America, specifically in Massachusetts, goes on. Grudges are still held, the weather is still the center of conversation, water and electricity still run, and FedEx still delivers packages, yet a frission exists between Ben and his reality—a disbelief in the order of things which causes him to fantasize and detach himself from the sluggish reality of his autumn years. Yet, ever the rascal, Ben occasionally waxes poetic about the benefits of the war: “One advantage of the collapse of civilization is that the quality of young women who are becoming whores has gone way up” (39).

His undated journal entries of the year 2020 chronicle the fallacy of his mind. It begins when his mind glimpses a gory image of shooting his wife in the face with a shotgun, whereby he envisions a life where he marries a young prostitute with a sumptuous derriere and experiences the tribulations of living with her, his third wife. Their relationship is libidinous yet tense, casual yet strained. Where Ben considers himself the pinnacle of experience, his whore wife is a recovering addict who is “like a kite whose string is still held in my [Ben’s] hands but whose distant paper shape I can see fluttering and dipping out of control” (91). This coquetry of angst and passion of Ben’s continues until his fantasy reaches its end where his fantasy wife leaves and his real wife, Gloria, returns from a trip.

Here, the reader must confront the unreliable narrator.

In the land where police are ineffective and government inoperable, petty criminals create rackets to extort money from households so that they are “protected”. Ben trusts his local racket and even pays a premium for extra services of security, a transaction which Gloria detests. Eventually as seasons change, so too does the governance of racketeering. A band of mere teenagers begin their dominance of Ben’s neighborhood and meet resistance to their corruption with ill acts of violence and destruction. Initially resistive to their juvenile surge of occupation, Ben grabs a gun a meets the gang which is starting to squat on his property. Ben’s gentler side soon sees the impressionable teens for their worth; he channels his knowledge and experience to the teens for a cut of their profit and the shine of their admiration, but having an affair with the 14-year-old Doreen is icing on the cake.

Ben’s fantasies are not limited to the sexual exploitations of a philandering elderly man, but also touch upon historical elements of the initial spread of Christianity and back to the turn of the millennium. These penned dalliances of daydreaming follow the deteriorating mind and body of Ben who has a strong self-image of himself as source of knowledge and experience, yet without an apprentice to bequeath his trove of a lifetime’s existence. His wife, Gloria, is not impressed with his air of intellectual glory and he condemns her inability to see the logic in all of his arguments; only Ben is apt to see his self-worth, yet this worth lessens in value when he is diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Succumbing to the air of death, Ben corporeally digresses from once an independent and mobile individual to the house-ridden façade of a man who has been cast out of his own bedroom, changes his own diapers and suffers the personal humiliation of a leaky catheter. His still considers his mind strong but his fantasies are limited due to the lack of exposure he has to his environment; he condemns the frailty of his body and reflects, “We are herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle. Death will release us from his responsibility, which grows, morning by morning, ever heavier” (51). And with death, Ben, the patriot, still has a reservoir of resentment: “Sometimes I think the thing I’ll mind about death is not so much not being alive but no longer being an American” (230).


Ben’s resentment for non-intellectual affairs is manifested through his misogyny. Two marriages had failed him and even at the wilting age of sixty-six he isn’t keen to support the flame of his third marriage with Gloria. Through the eyes of Ben, our occasionally humble yet unreliable narrator, the reader is taken through his extra-marital affair with a cherubic, bubble-bottomed hussy named Deirdre. Considerably his intellectual inferior, Deirdre is simply an outlet for Ben’s carnal forays both in corporeal form an in verbal form; their trysts are vulgar as is their conversation. Eclipsing the gluteus goddess is yet another object of carnal affection: the scamp and racketeering Doreen. Her male companions permit Ben to explore her juvenile body because of his great business advice, an allowance which Ben doesn’t attach any emotion or significance to—she’s simple another woman to exploit.

In the introduction, I mention Updike’s gift of providing “unique and precise descriptions of objects of affection”. In his Afterlife collection, these descriptions focused on the warm waves of reminiscing for lost love and childhood; the emotional draw of such memories were wondrous with melancholy. However, in Toward the End of Time, Ben’s objects of affection stray greatly from mere memories; rather, it seems that the female caboose is the center of his more poetic passages. I hesitate to say that the descriptions are derogatory because the language Updike uses is both beautiful and humorous; the awkward fulcrum between the two is interesting, oddly gratifying as if Updike was trying to lessen the impact of a graphic pictorial of Ben’s fantasy. Ben’s curious focus on the female rump takes on three forms: by play, by sight and by function.

(1) By play: “She [Deirdre] had put herself in doggie position, presenting me with the glazed semi-rounds of her tight young buttocks, and, visible in the moonlight between them, the lovable little flesh-knot of her anus, suggestive of a healed scar” (42).

(2) By sight: “I tormented myself with remembering the silken rivers of dark body hair that loving inspection discovered everywhere on her limbs, and … the drier other aperture like a tight-lidded reptilian wink” (139).

(3) By function: “I shied my mind away from picturing my daughter-in-law settling her white bulk on the toilet seat and letting her ample fundament part to give nature its daily toll of fecal matter. Feels good, does it?” (195).

Ben’s poetic turns of lingual introspection doesn’t stop with curious description of butts, but extends to hauntingly warm sensations of familiarity: “Furtive footsteps were detectable below and beyond me, fait as thumbprints on black glass” (45). Transient passages such as this make Ben Turnbull make him an occasionally relatable character to the reader, these eerie parts of common human life made poetic strikes the reader in the heart and in my mind (that’s if you fancy language at all). On the opposite spectrum, Ben is familiar with the taxonomy and classification of all the plants in his garden yet he is unable to write about poetically; rather, his stale prose when writing about his wife’s garden is hollow, written down for matter of fact, for due process. The reader could intuit that Ben’s intellectual side is much more formal when describing reality, the names of things learnt. This botanical exposé is also rather boring if one is not accustomed to the seasonal varieties of New England flora… which I most certainly am not.

Aside from the lyrical and questionable prose of the buttocks and the purposeful outlining of his wife’s garden, Toward the End of Time offers the reader with a man maintaining a strong yet sporadic mind and a strong yet sporadic body. While his poetic musings charm the mind, Ben’s dalliances are insightful detours to his coping with a mundane life; while his feats between the sheets are suggestive of his physical prowess, lurking in his body is the corruption of cancer, a silent enemy which robs him of his independent mobility and control of his lower sphincters. His once preoccupation with the bottom and its functional disposal comes full circle when he is constantly aware of the contents of his diaper and the soreness of immobility.

Though a repulsive man at times, the reader can’t help but sympathize with the frail scaffolding of a man around an insightful mind… Ben said it himself, “We are herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle” (51); as his body decays, his corporeality still maintains a brain of wit and knowledge, a mind which nurtures experience and applies experience, yet now his body, his physical onus, limits him to his lonely house where his own wife has expelled him from her company. This is essentially the death of Ben, the mind.


Flawed for its detours of fantasy from Ben’s mind into the realms of history, Toward the End of Time still has a solid core of exploring the death of a man. This is not a spoiler to the conclusion, but the series of steps in Ben’s life is synonymous with the death of his mind. His journal is testament to his intelligence and insight, yet it will remain is only outlet for intellectualism as his body goes to waste. The reader can find humor in Ben’s unusually specific descriptions and, in the end, this reviewer hopes others can see the mortal mind behind the words of the journal, those words of both slight repugnance and sympathetic recurrences.

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