John Updike’s Toward the End Of Time proved a bit of an enigma to me. At times I thoroughly enjoyed it and at other times I seriously thought about putting the book down, never to open its contents again.
In the novel our protagonist goes by the name of Ben Turnbull, a retired finance expert who now haunts his home in the country as his wife obsesses with the garden, her social circles, and a gift shop she helps run. The year is 2020, and a war with the Chinese has all but obliterated the United States as we currently know it. However, New England has been little affected and so life is fairly normal.
Perhaps that is Updike’s most astonishing talent. Amongst all the mundane aspects of his tale, he’ll sometimes throw in facts about the war, or briefly mention a new life form that has emerged as a result of the war, or slip into metaphysical dissertations about all aspects of science that will virtually boggle your mind. Along with that, at times Ben, our narrator, will slip into . . . something . . . where he is someone totally different living in ancient Egypt or soon after the death of Christ. Perhaps just as flummoxing is the disappearance and reemergence of major characters with little to no explanation.
Amidst all this, however, exist the story of a man aging, a man who feels useless to his wife and to himself more and more with each passing day. He is a man still hot with passion for life and for love, but he finds fulfillment for these passions in the most unusual and sometimes immoral of places.
While this novel presented itself as a constant frustration, one cannot ignore the sheer talent Updike has at imagery. Ben’s wife’s garden is described in the utmost detail, and there are many, many metaphors as the garden is constantly torn asunder and the local wildlife exterminated in favor of the garden’s survival for Ben’s slow but sure demise and for his strained relationship with his wife.
If you are a fan of Updike and want to explore more of his interesting styles and techniques, you would probably enjoy this work very much. However, if you are a casual reader looking for a new book, I don’t think you would enjoy this particular work.