Roger’s Version by John Updike

21 Apr

Roger's Version

Divinity professor, Roger Lambert, seems to have a great deal of problems. Being hassled and annoyed by a young science-minded evangelical student named Dale about a grant for a project involving the proof of God’s existence is a minor inconvenience on the scale. It would seem that Dale is just as determined to find God behind every biological and cosmological corner as Roger’s wife, Esther, is determined to corrupt Dale’s already fragile faith with fornication.

As the divinity board decides whether or not they want to give Dale the grant, his faith slowly diminishes as his grant-project, symbiotically linked to his faith, becomes more difficult.

Thrown into the mix is the ‘trashy teenage girl’ for whom Roger longs, as the back of this paperback, Ballantine Books edition phrases it. I suppose they thought this description of the girl was tantalizing enough and less likely to repel airport readers than the fact of the matter: The teenage girl is, in fact, Roger’s niece.

As Roger’s incestuous longings are slowly teased into fruition, Dale’s longings assault us abruptly, having given us little build-up save an awkward Thanksgiving dinner at the Lambert home. The assault takes the form of Roger’s fist-person narration morphing into a personal but emotionally uninvested God’s-eye view of what takes place in the bedroom between Dale and Esther. The violence of this high style is first evident as the reader questions what the implications of this narrative choice might be. We’re given no answer, ultimately. It serves, at most, to give Roger’s narration a set of jealous wise-cracks. Sometimes he sadistically (yet reasonably) says something to make Dale self conscious about the adultery business, but that’s about all.

Where, then, does the tension lie? Is it the considered abortion of his niece? Well, considering Roger is both in favor of it and not the father, not really. Is it Dale’s impending loss of faith? The potential breakup of the Lambert marriage? Very little comes of any of it. In this case, Roger and the gang’s problems are dealt with just as tidily as Updike’s sentences.

One wonders why he feels the need to take omniscient first-personal narrator liberties when he is capable of such fine regular old first-person perceptions as this one about his childhood:

‘My deserted, husbandless, pitiable mother and I would visit her people, the men horse-faced and leathery and placidly sexless but the women wide sloping mounds of fat trembling on the edge, it seemed to me, of indecency, with their self-conscious shrieks of laughter, their heads at each shriek darting to cover their mouths, their little teeth decayed and crooked, and the steaming food they were copiously setting on the table a malodorous double-entendre, something that excited them, served up in an atmosphere heavy with barn-yard innuendo as well as lugubrious piety.’

Few are the writers who make their quips and witticisms seem so easy. A Quaker on the Divinity Board is ‘ecumenically imperturbable.’ When Roger’s secular wife tries to quiet his boiling irritation with Dale by making light of their common religious ground, he replies, ‘Another end of it … Not distribution. You might call it quality control.’

John Banville once said that most writers are either writers of sentences or writers of paragraphs. Though Updike has a great many beautiful paragraphs, he probably leans more toward being a master of sentences. This probably has something to do with the stubbornness of his sensuality. He pays as much attention to a woman’s cleavage as he does to a soiled diaper or a sketchy clinic, and often with little space between them on the page. Updike has his narrator proposition his niece, Verna, for sex, only moments after demanding she get an abortion. It would be to Updike’s technical favor if she wasn’t up for it. She is, in fact, up for it. This forces me to conclude that it is not simply the character but Updike himself who is bad at timing.

The book layer’s abruptness on top of abruptness until the book ends, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but something more like a shrug. It is one of the few times you’ll see a novel where everything that could go wrong seems to go wrong, but where no one really seems miffed or troubled by it.

Ironically, just as the intellectually eager, spiritually earnest Dale tries to reach a height at which there are no more questions as to the exact nature of God, Updike gives us a story in which there are no real questions either. Perhaps, after a long career of writing about adultery in some form or another, Updike thought this would be an interesting technique to change things up. It’s just unfortunate that the casualty to this change ended up being a sense of wonder.


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