Updike’s version: new quote on an old topic
John Updike is once again in familiar territory, mixing high theology and low eschatology in Roger’s Version. This book is less an emotional exercise than an intellectual gambit, with the provability of the Almighty as its leitmotif. While trying to prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God is certainly not a new sport, Updike chooses to play by slightly different rules than those that constrain the likes of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and a host of lesser ones. well-known Christian philosophers. Instead, he launches his argumentative and theological rays against the backdrop of modern scientific thought and method, evoking evolution, the Big Bang, and the binary oddball of today’s supercomputers. Planck and Heisenberg collide with Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, resulting in an electrical charge that permeates Updike’s always literate and frequently erudite pages.
The Roger of the title is Roger Lambert, a professor of divinity at a Northeastern university (probably, but not necessarily, at Harvard Divinity School). Entering his office is Dale Kohler, a hacker and university research assistant who requested a date due to his friendship with Roger’s niece, Verna. Hungry for a research grant, Dale proceeds to harangue Roger about the possibilities of using science, specifically computing, to finally prove the existence of a Supreme Being, declaring, “The most miraculous thing is happening. They’re getting down to business.” the nitty-gritty, they’ve really whittled things down to the last detail, and the last thing they expected to happen is happening. God is showing up. They hate it, but they can’t do anything about it. The facts are the facts. And I don’t think people in the religion business, so to speak, are really aware of this;
Roger, a specialist in early Christian heresies, plays the level-headed devil’s advocate to Dale’s bubbly religious enthusiasm. Where Dale longs to quantify God through modern empiricism and computer simulations, Roger prefers to keep him “wholly other.” The combative exchanges between the two offer some of the most interesting controversies to be published in years.
But Roger’s version is not just an exercise in theological pomposity. This intellectual antagonism plays out against a modern version 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 Updike has been fascinated with for years. Where his earlier novel, A Month of Sundays, attempted to give Dimmesdale’s point of view on Hawthorne’s classic tale of adultery and revenge, Roger’s Version sides with Chillingworth. The villainous Roger of Hawthorne becomes the heroic Roger of Updike. However, Roger Lambert is not without his villainous streak. After Dale begins his long relationship with Esther, Roger plans to take revenge on both of them: on Dale by not only bringing down his arguments but also destroying his faith; in Esther by embarking on an incestuous relationship with her niece Verna.
It is through all this rather energetic gibberish that Updike gets to expose his second obsession: sex. “It’s a great surprise that nature has prepared for us,” Roger thinks at one point, “love with its racing pulse and its drastic overestimation of the object of love, its rhythmic build-up and discharge; but that’s all, there is no another delight that life has to offer, unless you count the bridge of contract and death.”
Roger is first and foremost a voyeur: “The secret glimpses… of life that goes by without me noticing my observation have always excited me.” However, he often goes beyond secret glimpses and uses his vivid imagination to graphically detail Dale and Esther’s clandestine trysts. Much of the novel, in fact, shows Roger identifying more and more with Dale, until he begins to see everything around him, especially his wife, through Dale’s eyes. Roger finds this an endlessly fascinating and terrifying experience, as the young hacker reawakens in him old feelings and beliefs long abandoned for dead: “…I felt too hot and started sweating. I was trying too hard.” I was bringing to light beliefs that I once came to and buried long ago, to keep safe.” It is as much for this as for Dale’s affair with Esther that Roger takes his revenge.
In many respects, Roger’s Version, while not Updike’s best or most representative novel, is a book he has been working on for years. The uneasy relationship between religion and science is a familiar hallmark of his work, and one can see the germ of this novel in what is possibly Updike’s most famous short story, “The Music School.” In it, the protagonist Alfred Schweigen recounts 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 was going to die of adultery. To die, I mean, to know that it was possible; the possibility crushed him. I conceive of it… devising idioms by which problems could be fed into 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 outspoken and boisterous and caught up in his own temper to gain much sympathy; Roger is too cold, too calculating, and too aloof to inspire much emotion; the rest are mere players. “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 elicits few human emotions, it manages to be both fascinating and frustrating.
Those with little patience for theological debate may find all this too much, but Updike has managed to produce another mature work for those willing to take on a challenge.