October 17, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Toward the End of Time

Current Status
In Season
John Updike
Fiction, Sci-fi and Fantasy
We gave it a B-

The future isn’t what it used to be. A century ago futuristic novels were radiantly utopian, but as the 20th century clouded over, so did the fictional future. For a long time writers peering into it have seen nothing but postapocalyptic landscapes furnished with rubble and marauders. It’s not the sort of place you’d expect to meet John Updike. His caressing prose seems better suited to retrieving the past and preserving the present than descending into the depths of the future. His most recent novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, rendered four generations of 20th-century Americans with brilliant, Flemish-painting precision. But there was a dark undertone to that novel, and Toward the End of Time picks it up and runs with it all the way into the year 2020.

China and the United States have recently exchanged nuclear missiles. The West Coast is pulverized. The federal government and the economy have collapsed. A species of metallic vermin, spawned in toxic dumps, is multiplying. Most unsettling of all, there’s a ”former President Gore.”

But all these postapocalyptic flourishes amount to a sketchily painted backdrop. In the foreground is familiar Updike territory: the almost unscathed Boston suburbs, complete with golf, marital stalemates, giddy adulteries, and lapsed-Protestant melancholy. The narrator, Ben, has to pay thugs to ward off other thugs, but it’s not too different from paying off the IRS — and cheaper. The malls are still crowded, the teenagers still pierced and tattooed. It might as well be 1997. The biggest problem for Gloria, Ben’s icy second wife, is (aside from Ben) the deer that devour her garden. Ben putts and putters around and mentally composes drooling inventories of naked young female bodies, of which there are two in the story, belonging to a sullen prostitute and a 13-year-old waif.

Sex is ersatz transcendence here, as movies were in In the Beauty of the Lilies, and that book’s motif of lost faith is echoed in this one. Voices from the past, suddenly commandeering the narrative — an Egyptian tomb robber, a Christian evangelist, an Irish monk about to be poleaxed by invading Vikings, a Nazi camp guard — provide variations on a theme of faith and barbarism. Ben also conveys the latest scientific news about quantum theory and the fated collapse of the universe. But the novel’s cast and catastrophes are too thinly and inconsistently realized to carry the weight of these serious themes, leaving the sinking gloom of this time-spooked story seeming more personal than cultural or cosmic. It’s never dull, but the erotic and psychic self-exposure makes you want to look the other way. B-

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