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Book Review – Roger’s Version by John Updike
Updike’s Version: New Tryst on an Old Theme
John Updike is back on familiar turf, mixing high theology and low scatology in Roger’s Version. This book is not so much an emotional exercise as an intellectual gambit, with the provability of the Almighty serving as its leitmotif. While trying to prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God is certainly not a new sport, Updike chooses to play with slightly different rules than those that bind the likes of St. Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and a lot of less. known Christian philosophers. Instead, he hurls his argumentative and theological lightning bolts into the background of modern scientific thought and method—he evokes evolution, the Big Bang, and the binary bugaboo of today’s supercomputers. Planck and Heisenberg take on Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, resulting in an electric charge that permeates Updike’s ever-literate and often erudite pages.
The Roger of the title is Roger Lambert, a divinity professor at a Northeastern college (probably, but not necessarily, Harvard Divinity School). Into his office enters Dale Kohler, a computer hacker and university research assistant who had requested an appointment on the strength of his friendship with Roger’s niece, Verna. Dale, hungry for a research grant, proceeds to harangue Roger about the possibilities of using science – specifically, computer science – to finally prove the existence of a Supreme Being, declaring: “The most miraculous thing has happened . the nito-gritty, they really have about pared things down to the last detail, and the last thing they expected to happen happened. God is showing through. They hate, but they can do nothing. The facts are facts. And I don’t think that the people in the business of religion, so to speak, are really aware of this – aware, that is, that their case, far-fetched as it always seemed, has finally been proved.” .
A specialist in early Christian heresies, Roger plays the devil’s advocate of Dale’s religious enthusiasm. Where Dale longs to quantify God through modern empiricism and computer simulations, Roger prefers to maintain “everything else.” The combative exchanges between the two offered some of the most interesting controversies to hit the press in years.
But Roger’s Version is not just an exercise in theological pomposity. This intellectual antagonism is played out against a modern retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Roger is Roger Chillingworth, Dale is Arthur Dimmesdale, and Esther (Roger Lambert’s second wife) is Hester Prynne. It’s a story that Updike has been fascinated by for years. Where his first novel, A Month of Sundays, tried to give Dimmesdale’s point of view in Hawthorne’s classic story of adultery and revenge, Roger’s Version takes Chillingworth’s side. Hawthorne’s villainous Roger becomes Updike’s heroic Roger. However, Roger Lambert is not without his vile streaks. After Dale begins his extended affair with Esther, Roger plots his revenge on both of them: on Dale by not only breaking down his arguments, but also destroying his faith; about Esther embarking on an incestuous relationship with her niece Verna.
It is through all this rather energetic philandering that Updike has to explore his second obsession: sex. “It is a great surprise that nature has prepared for us,” thinks Roger at one point, “love with its accelerated pulse rate and its drastic overestimation of the object of love, its rhythmic accumulation and the discharge; but then that is it, there is none. Life cannot offer another such treatment, unless you count the bridge of the contract and death.”
Ruggero is first of all a voyeur: “The secret glances … of the life that proceeds without knowing of my watching have always excited me.” He often goes beyond the secret glances, however, using his vivid imagination to graphically detail Dale and Esther’s clandestine rendezvous. Most of the novel, in fact, shows Roger identifying more and more with Dale, until he begins to look at everything around him—especially his wife—through Dale’s eyes. Roger finds this an infinitely fascinating and frightening experience, as the young pirate rekindles in him old feelings and beliefs that he had long abandoned for dead: “… I felt too hot, and began to sweat. I was trying too hard. I was dragging the beliefs he had once arrived at and buried for a long time, to keep them safe.It is for this as well as for Dale’s business with Esther that Roger demands his revenge.
In many respects, Roger’s Version—though not Updike’s best or most representative novel—is a book he’s been working on for years. The uneasy relationship between religion and science is a familiar feature of his work, and one can see the germ of this novel in what is possibly Updike’s most famous story, “The Music School.” In it, the protagonist Alfred Schweigen relates that: “In the novel I never wrote, I wanted the hero to be a computer programmer because it was the most poetic and romantic occupation I could think of, and my hero had to be extremely romantic and delicate. , because he had died of adultery. Die, I mean, to know that he was possible; the possibility crushed him. I conceived of him … conceiving idioms that problems could be fed to the machines and emerge, under binomial percussion, as the music of truth…”
While Roger’s Version often seems poetic, it is far from romantic. There are no pure heroes, no absolute villains. Dale is too blunt and rude and caught up in his own genius to incur much sympathy; Roger is too cold, too calculated, and too detached to inspire much emotion; the rest are just players. “The Music School,” of course, was written more than twenty years before Roger’s Version, and Updike’s rose-colored glasses have long since been tinted by experience. While Roger’s Version teases few human emotions, it manages to be both fascinating and frustrating.
Those who have little patience for theological debate may find all this a bit much, but Updike has managed to produce another mature work for those willing to take a challenge.
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