by Phoebe-Lou Adams
Toward the End
by John Updike.
Knopf, 352 pages,
Mr. Updike's latest novel opens with a first snowfall and a disagreement
between the narrator, a retired financial adviser, and his still very active
wife. Ben Turnbull wants to relax and enjoy the natural world. She wants the
property to resemble a parquet floor. These people are living, however, in the
year 2020. There has been a disastrous Sino-American nuclear war. The remnants
of the federal government are holed up somewhere, sending out tax bills that
nobody pays. Massachusetts does local business with a scrip called welders. The
novel purports to be Ben's journal. There are elements of magic realism in the
text, and a few borrowings from science fiction, but futuristic fantasy is the
book's basic character. It combines melancholy reflections on the passage of
time with the author's mischievously idiosyncratic notions of what will survive
Ragnarok. The list includes nagging wives, National Geographic, the
North Shore commuter line, opportunistic crime, the pursuit of young girls by
old boys, UPS, and the telephone, on which mechanical voices continue to order
the pushing of buttons that lead ad infinitum to other mechanical voices. Ben
considers history and golf games. He meditates on black holes and his health.
He records weather and seasons with precision and lyrical appreciation. He
observes that "if not magical, men are not much," and describes a corpse as
"this slumped puddle of deactivated molecules." He becomes, without warning or
explanation, a man of other times and places. Altogether, he is a fascinating,
amusing, eloquent companion, and one feels genuine regret when the year, his
journal, and with them Mr. Updike's novel come to an end.
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A Floating Life:
The Adventures of Li Po
by Simon Elegant.
Ecco, 312 pages, $23.00.
The great Chinese
poet Li Po (701-762) was an artistic innovator and a recalcitrant who spent
much of his life unemployed or in exile. Mr. Elegant's fictionalized life of Li
Po is a swashbuckling picaresque tale, good reading even if one has doubts
about the poet's claim that he rode home on the back of an eagle. His
complaints about that old bore Confucius, phony scholarship, court etiquette,
and the straitjacket rules of Mandarin verse ring true.
The Wind-up Bird
by Haruki Murakami,
translated by Jay Rubin.
Knopf, 640 pages,
Mr. Murakami's long and devious novel opens in a resolutely mundane way,
with the narrator cooking spaghetti. The significant items in the ensuing
phantasmagoria soon appear, however -- a dry well, a house abandoned because of a
series of tragedies, a so-called alley blocked at both ends, the statue of a
bird looking sadly unable to fly, and the unidentified wind-up bird that creaks
invisibly in a nearby tree. "Wind-up" can mean either an end or a preparation
for action. Whether his target is Japan or the world, Mr. Murakami's work sums
up a bad century and envisions an uncertain future. His protagonist is a
harmless fellow who merely wants to recover his cat and his wife. The troubles,
real and delusional, that he encounters can be seen as extravagant metaphors
for every ill from personal isolation to mass murder. The novel is a
deliberately confusing, illogical image of a confusing, illogical world. It is
not easy reading, but it is never less than absorbing.
by Christine Pevitt.
Atlantic Monthly Press,
384 pages, $30.00.
When Louis XIV realized that he would be succeeded by a five-year-old
great-grandson, he drew up a will specifying the personnel of the inevitable
council of regency and their individual duties. His raffish nephew, Philippe
d'Orléans, swept that will aside and took control of the government. His
enemies accused D'Orléans of treason, murder, incest, the manufacture of
poisons, and persistent debauchery. Ms. Pevitt argues that he deserved much
better than that while admitting, with regret, that he remains an enigmatic
figure despite her extensive research. The problem is the nature of the
surviving evidence. The biographer can report what was done, but very seldom
exactly why it was done. On the other hand, she has a mass of information on
matters like diamond-trimmed shoes and the formal nightly delivery of the royal
chamber pot to the King of Spain. One sometimes has the impression that the
play is going on behind the curtain, but there is no doubt that Ms. Pevitt has
provided a well-written and convincing defense. Besides, she has Voltaire on
her side. He was once jailed by the regent, but maintained that Philippe "left
the country better, richer and happier than it had been under Louis XIV, and
even quite considerable sums in the King's coffers," and also that of all the
descendants of Henri IV, Philippe d'Orléans was most like him, with "the
courage, the good nature, the tolerance, the gaiety, the intelligence, the
plain speaking..." Can one ask for a better character reference?
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 280, No. 5;