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Brief Reviews

by Phoebe-Lou Adams

Toward the End
of Time

by John Updike.
Knopf, 352 pages, $25.00.

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, $26.50.

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.

Duc d'Orléans

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; pages 164-166.

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