Updike’s Version: New Tryst on an Old Theme
John Updike is once again on familiar turf, mixing high theology and low scatology in Roger’s Version. This book is not so much an emotional exercise as it is 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 no new sport, Updike chooses to play by slightly different rules than those which bound the likes of St. Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and a slew of lesser known Christian philosophers. Instead, he hurls his argumentative and theological thunderbolts against the backdrop of modern scientific thought and method – evoking evolution, the Big Bang, and the binary bugaboo of today’s supercomputers. Planck and Heisenberg butt heads with Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, resulting in an electric 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 college (probably, but not necessarily, Harvard Divinity School). Into his office walks Dale Kohler, a computer hacker and university research assistant who had petitioned for an appointment on the strength of his friendship with Roger’s niece, Verna. Dale, hungry for a research grant, proceeds to harangue Roger on the possibilities of using science – specifically, computer science – to finally prove the existence of a Supreme Being, declaring: “The most miraculous thing is happening. The physicists are getting down to the nitty-gritty, they’ve really just about pared things down to the ultimate details, and the last thing they ever expected to happen is happening. God is showing through. They hate it, but they can’t do anything about it. Facts are facts. And I don’t think people in the religion business, so to speak, are really aware of this – aware, that is, that their case, far-out as it’s always seemed, at last is being proven.”
A specialist in early Christian heresies, Roger plays the cool, level-headed devil’s advocate to Dale’s bubbly religious enthusiasm. Where Dale yearns 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 engaging polemics to hit print in years.
But Roger’s Version is not just an exercise in theological pomposity. This intellectual antagonism is played out against a modern re-telling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Roger is Roger Chillingworth, Dale is Arthur Dimmesdale, and Esther (Roger Lambert’s second wife) is Hester Prynne. It is a tale Updike has been fascinated with for years. Where his earlier novel, A Month of Sundays, attempted to give Dimmesdale’s viewpoint 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. Yet Roger Lambert is not without his villainous streaks. After Dale begins his extended affair with Esther, Roger plots his revenge on them both: on Dale by not only tearing down his arguments but by destroying his faith as well; on Esther by embarking on an incestuous affair with his niece Verna.
It is through all of this rather energetic philandering that Updike gets to expound on his second obsession: sex. “It’s a grand surprise nature has cooked up for us,” thinks Roger at one point, “love with its accelerated pulse rate and its drastic overestimation of the love object, its rhythmic build-up and discharge; but then that’s it, there isn’t another such treat life can offer, unless you count contract bridge and death.”
Roger is first and foremost a voyeur: “Secret glimpses…of life proceeding unaware of my watching have always excited me.” He often goes beyond secret glimpses, however, using 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 looking at everything around him – especially his wife – through Dale’s eyes. Roger finds this an infinitely fascinating and frightening experience, as the young hacker reawakens old feelings and beliefs in him that he had long since abandoned for dead: “…I felt too warm, and began to sweat. I was trying too hard. I was dredging up beliefs I had once arrived at and long ago buried, to keep them safe.” It is as much for this as for Dale’s affair with Esther that Roger exacts his revenge.
In many respects, Roger’s Version – while not Updike’s best or most representative novel – is a book he has been working toward 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, 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, for he was to die of adultery. Die, I mean, of knowing it was possible; the possibility crushed him. I conceive of him…devising idioms whereby problems might 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 boisterous and caught up in his own genius to incur much sympathy; Roger is too cold, too calculating, and too detached to inspire much emotion; the rest are merely 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 does succeed in being at once both fascinating and frustrating.
Those with little patience for theological debate may find this all a bit much, but Updike has managed to produce another mature work for those willing to take on a challenge.