In Retrospect: Mark Athitakis on John Updike’s “Roger’s Version”

by Mark Athitakis | Apr-22-2011

In Critical Mass's ongoing "In Retrospect," in which contemporary critics revisit former winners and finalists for the National Book Critics Awards, Mark Athitakis revisits John Updike's Roger's Version, a finalist for the 1986 National Book Critics Circle award in fiction.

I.

Critics almost universally praised John Updike’s Roger’s Version when it was published in 1986. What they couldn’t agree on is what, exactly, they admired in it.

Set in a university college town closely resembling Cambridge, Massachusetts, the novel centers on the intellectual, emotional, and sexual struggles of Roger Lambert, a former minister who's ossified into self-satisfied professordom. His nemesis is Dale Kohler, a graduate student who believes computer science holds the key to locating God. Writing in Newsweek, David Lehman praised Updike's command of the language of the two esoteric disciplines Lambert and Kohler represent: “It's rather thrilling to watch Updike assimilate the new vocabularies of particle physics and computer technology---and then fuse them with the ancient vocabulary of religious belief,” he writes. In the Washington Post, John Calvin Batchelor appreciated the novel’s reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, placing Lambert in the role of Roger Chillingworth---“a perfectly 20th-century beast---boastfully wicked in all directions.” The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani praised it as one of Updike’s finest domestic portraits, writing that as the novel “unfolds, adultery---as well as the attendant emotions of jealousy, guilt and resentment---begins to push the question of religion off center stage, giving Mr. Updike plenty of room to examine, with his usual skill, the patternings and shadows of domestic life in the middle class.”

All of those readings make sense, particularly Lehman's: Among the book’s greatest pleasures is how Updike smoothly embeds dense scientific discussion into his narrative, anticipating the controversy over Intelligent Design more than a decade before it became a mainstream issue. Early on, Updike grants Kohler not only an easy grasp of the points and counterpoints regarding the Big Bang theory, but makes his speech remarkably casual, reflecting a proselytizer’s enthusiasm. Dale lectures Roger on rank-and-file scientists during their first meeting:

“[S]o instead of the many universes we have one big fat universe, so to speak, of which the universe we see, right out there to the quasars at ten billion light-years and beyond, is a tiny, and I mean tiny, fraction, like a Ping-Pong ball in Shea Stadium. And they think religious people stretch the facts. These guys are desperate, the ones aware of the problem. They are squirming.”

The novel's balance of easy tone and jargon-heavy info dumps is echoed in the novel's binary plot conflicts. Roger’s faith is pitted against his erotic urges, played out in a flirtation with his half-sister’s daughter, Verna; Dale’s research is pitted against his erotic urges, played out in an affair with Roger’s wife, Esther; Verna’s lower-class existence (she lives in a housing project as a single mother raising a toddler, Paula) is pitted against her intelligence and the intellectual support she receives from others; not to mention the broader thematic tension between matters of religion and science.

Yet the most curious, persistent, and interesting tension in Roger’s Version largely escaped the notice (or interest) of most critics, despite the fact that it’s plainly stated in the book's title: Roger is telling a version of events, inventing the affair between Dale and Esther as an angry acting-out of his bitterness over the chill in his marriage and Dale’s intellectual project, which he finds “aesthetically and ethically repulsive.” Roger’s Version isn’t just among Updike’s most meticulously researched novels---it’s also one of his most ingenious in terms of style, perspective, and willingness to test narrative reliability. As such, it's a strong counterargument to the notion that Updike was an artful domestic realist who tinkered often with setting but little with structure and perspective.

It turns out, though, that this particular tinkering project has a fairly serious design flaw. As readers, we can get behind the idea that Roger's narcissism prompts him to conjure up an affair---that’s an imaginative feat wholly within anybody's power, even if we can't do it with Updike's skill or his affinity for the rude, naked statement. But it's difficult to turn narcissism into a deep understanding of computer programming, which Updike suggests Roger possesses in the book's late pages. So if it's not a busted narrative, what is it? Maybe a profound joke on deus ex machina---the fact that Roger is suddenly bestowed powers he couldn't naturally possess speaks to the unknowability of God's will. Or perhaps Updike is making a more cynical point, one in keeping with the cynicism of his hero: That proving Roger’s overblown sense of entitlement demands Updike take liberties with his own sense of omnipotence, wildly pulling the strings of others' knowledge and behavior.

To put it another way: What better way to show how arrogant your protagonist is than to arrogantly unsettle the ground rules of realist fiction? And Roger Lambert is unquestionably one of the more arrogant creations in Updike's oeuvre. How dare Lambert? How dare Updike? The answers are essentially the same for both: Pretending to God’s power implicates Roger and Updike in equal proportions.

II. 

The most perceptive contemporary review of Roger’s Version was written by the novelist David Lodge, who seemed slightly aghast at what Updike was up to---to the point where he dedicated some space in his review attempting to deny it. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, he noticed the games Updike played in the novel, but was so thrown by them that he doubted Updike’s intentions:

“If Mr. Updike were a novelist given to metafictional tricks, we might suspect him of holding up a mirror to the reader's credulity, by making his character claim the same freedom to invent that we grant the novelist. But everything we know about Mr. Updike suggests that he shares the modern sense of factuality and believes that fiction should create the illusion of it. Otherwise, why take all that trouble to get the scientific discourse right?”

The answer to that particular question, at least, is simple: Getting the discourse right deepens the reader's understanding of the intensity of Roger’s nearly pathological obsession with Dale, his wife, and how science threatens his fading faith.

Roger tends to voice little but contempt for Dale when speaking out loud to his colleagues, family, and even directly to Dale himself. But his interior narration exposes his urge to detach from his own existence and connect to Dale’s. After all, Dale is young while Roger is middle aged; Dale is passionate in his faith while Roger can approach religion only clinically. Dale is unavoidable to Roger, thanks to a family connection---he’s a friend of Verna’s who’s concerned about her living situation. And Roger has a reason to look elsewhere for emotional sustenance---he admits early on that he is succumbing to a grimness that comes along with a settled life with Esther, his second wife. “I have a dark side,” Roger tells the reader. “I know, a sullen temper, an uprising of bile that clouds my vision and turns my tongue heavy and ugly.”

The first sense of how eagerly Roger wishes to attach his unsettled self to Dale comes shortly after their first conversation, when Roger imagines himself literally walking in Dale’s shoes: “I was disconcerted by a strange unwilled vision: I foresaw Dale’s as well,” Roger writes, then proceeds to “see” Dale making his way out of the divinity school building, chatting with the receptionist and fantasizing that she might admire his success in finding God in the computer years in the future. At this early moment in the story Roger’s vision is out of his control (the vision is “unwilled”) and pretty much desexualized, but that will change in both cases over the course of the novel. His imagination will grow more precise as well.

Updike blurs the line between fact and fantasy teasingly: Early on, Updike focuses on particular words to introduce the question of the reality of Roger’s imagination, to hint that his fantasies could be fact. One instance of this involves a bit of baby talk. As Roger leaves the office, he imagines Dale's path:

“Perhaps Dale is not heading home but is going to visit my disreputable niece, Verna, in the prisonlike project where she and her eighteen-month-old daughter live… Verna’s female tot, light brown in color, wobbles forward on darling little knobby-kneed legs and points at Dale, repeating the syllable ‘Da.’ She does this until Verna screams, ‘That’s not Da, damn you!’ and reaches down and with matter-of-fact brutality swats the child.”

Not long after, when Roger visits Verna and her daughter, Paula, for the first time, his vision is partly confirmed: The girl “was pointing at me and crowing an almost-word that was ‘Baa’ or ‘Daa.’”  A page later, as if to settle the matter, the girl says, “Da. Da-da.” By the novel’s end, Verna’s capacity for matter-of-fact brutality will be confirmed as well.

III. 

In the opening paragraph of the second part’s third chapter, Updike embeds a parenthetical within a parenthetical within a parenthetical, followed by the smirking line: “Follow, you who can.”

That joke is a small signal of the gamesmanship that he’s engaging in, but its smallness is crucial---by not drawing too much attention to the story's metafictional qualities, Updike attaches a degree of realism to the affair between Dale and Esther that will consume much of the book’s second half. (Indeed, much of Esther’s characterization is buried within Roger’s imagining of her---she's largely a fiction within a fiction.) So his fantasy of Dale and Esther's affair only slyly emerges. After attempting to coach Verna for the GED, Roger winds up flirting with her instead; from there, he muses on Tertullian’s commentaries about the soul and the body, but his mind drifts into his first vision of Dale and Esther together, the Latin of theology morphing into Latin names of genitalia as he envisions Esther preparing to give Dale a blow job:

“Weary of translating, I closed my eyes. I pictured a white shaft: tense, pure, with dim blue broad veins and darker thinner purple ones and a pink-mauve head like the head of mushroom set by the Creator upon a swollen stem nearly as thick as itself, just the merest little lip or rounded eaves, the corona glandis, overhanging the bluish stretched semi-epiderm where pagan foreskin once was, and a drop of transparent nectar in the little wide-awake slit of an eye at its velvety suffused tip.”

The finery of the sentence obscures its key verb: pictured, which locates the scene wholly in Roger's imagination. Indeed, it's stage-managed: The scene owes a little to the pornography that Roger happily admits he consumes, and Dale’s orgasm arrives “as if in slow motion on a pornographic film.” The scene is also a comedy---a riff on how Roger’s theological bluster cloaks his sexual insecurity. The punchline arrives shortly after Dale and Esther finish, as Dale says, “I feel him watching us, somehow.” And Esther validates Roger’s motivation for conjuring their affair: “He needs to manipulate people, and when he had a church that’s what the people asked for.”

Roger’s vision, however true to reality, barrels straight into his insecurities, revealing his desperate efforts to undercut both Dale’s pure religious spirit and Esther’s faithfulness. In having Dale and Esther speak to each other about Roger’s shortcomings, Updike shows how incapable Roger is in admitting them to himself; he can only express them at a distance, through two people he dislikes. And ultimately he'll use his reveries to refuse to admit to any shortcomings at all. Roger is eager to reduce Dale and Esther as he fantasizes about them---“I wondered what moral sensations he felt, fucking my little Esther”---and Roger’s meetings with Dale after the sex scene intensifies the parrying between truth and fantasy. Roger applies a guilty demeanor to Dale’s activities as he attacks his research efforts and rejects his notions of faith; even an empathetic moment is described as Roger “vomitiously brimming with that detestible stuff agape.”  When Dale mentions that Verna has passed a portion of the GED exam, Roger hastily rushes to confirm it as an exposure of the truth of the affair:

“She passed the English part of her exam.”

“Yes, I know.”

“You do? How? She just told me herself over the phone the other day.”

“Esther told me.” Esther again. Verna had told Dale, Dale Esther, Esther me.

 He didn’t flinch.

We never discover how Esther learns that Verna has passed the English exam, but Dale needn't have been the middleman; because Esther works at a day-care center where she minds Paula during the day, Roger’s wife could just as easily heard the news directly from Verna as she comes to pick up her daughter. Updike can obscure the affair’s unreality by having Roger buy into it so deeply in his real-world interactions.

In time, Roger’s versioning of events leaves him increasingly unsettled, quite nearly delusional. And his willingness to believe that his wife is having an affair with Dale gives him, in his mind, license to intensify his relationship with Verna. Learning that she’s pregnant again, he bluntly tells her to have an abortion; he then contemptuously wonders if the father is black, then asks if Dale is the father. Another fantasy ensues, and again the signal that it’s a fantasy is tucked into a sentence instead of clearly announced. (“The strip, they fuck. But first---wait, willing words!---they kiss.” (Emphasis mine.) Roger degrades his own faith into a cheap throwaway item (symbolized by the cheap plastic cross hanging in Dale’s apartment), and Dale is made into a whimpering, self-flagellating lover; later, Roger will imagine Dale at Verna’s confessing his love for her; in the fantasy, Verna dismisses him as a “non-person” and tells him to “spare me the sermon.”

How far gone is Roger? The next time he sees Dale, he figures that his acne has cleared up somehow because of Esther’s sexual favors. When Esther attempts to interest him in sex, he pushes her away, accusing her of being the purveyor of “filthy tricks.”

IV.

"Magnificent obsessions don’t thrive in the worldly, cozy atmosphere of Updike’s fiction; they’re undercut by his ubiquitous mild irony," George Scialabba wrote in a middling review of Roger's Version that appeared in the Boston Phoenix when the novel came out. That's a fair point to the extent that the novel is a domestic drama that raises questions of faith and technology without straining too hard to resolve them. But in the realm of human obsession, Updike is deliberately uncozy, and the strongest proof of that is in the novel's fourth act.

Before that point, Roger’s reveries deal in matters with which he obviously has experience: religious history, Esther and Verna, sex. In the fourth and penultimate section, Roger is revealed to be an expert in the computer science that Dale is exploring in his efforts to find God. His omniscience is no longer a simple fever dream and product of rage; he acquires a true omniscience, becoming not just a godlike conjurer of Dale and Esther’s affair but somebody who’s mastered FORTRAN to boot. Roger’s tone in this section is a sort of smug humility, reflecting a command of a lingo he couldn’t possibly have studied, but with a confession that he can’t see everything (a disclosure made, yet again, parenthetically):

“His idea (as I, on the other side of the sciences/humanties divide, intuit it) has the simplicity of desperation: given that the three-dimensional primitives accumulated in this computer memory sufficiently represent the array of created things, by crashing them together---using one set of phantom polyhedral to clip another with its defined edge-planes---he is giving God the opportunity to insert His version of the shape, the talisman, beneath all forms.”

Updike isn't averse to metafictional tricks, as David Lodge suggests; to the contrary, he’s embraced them to the point that he's willing to call the very integrity of one of his characters into question. And in terms of the plot, it's to a purpose: Roger’s now white-hot contempt, evoked in his vision of a despairing Dale at the keyboard, is an effective lead-in to the scenes that follow, which return Roger to his best moral instincts.

Roger is ultimately pushed out of the fantasies that drive his cruelty toward Esther and Dale not by either one of them---and certainly not within himself---but with Paula, the baby whom Esther considers filthy but whom Roger develops an easy attachment. Roger learns that Verna has injured Paula to the point that she needs to be taken to the hospital. In a panic, Verna accuses Roger of ruining her life: “First you all make me kill that one baby and now you’re going to take this one from me!” But in truth, his support of Verna is calm and assured---he’s lost his faith, but he’s in his comfort zone.

“I like it,” she said, “when you talk about God.”

 “I gave it up years ago.”

“Because of Esther?”

“She was an effect, not a cause.”

“You sound very natural when you talk about these crazy things.”

“I was much admired, actually, in my pulpit days.”

The temperature shifts; his engagement in religion rises just as his interest in technology fades. Eventually, he and Esther will welcome Paula into their home. Yet any sense that the moment amounts to a total revival of his faith, however, is eradicated by the sexual connection Roger and Verna have that night. Ironically, he recalls this vaguely, without the intense precision that characterized his fantasies involving Dale and Esther: “What followed is less distinct in my refractory mind than my flexible wife’s many pictured infidelities with Dale.” The imagined sex scenes consume many of the novel's pages; his fling with Verna is over in a paragraph.

The fifth and final section of the book marks the end of Dale’s computerized pursuit of the ineffable, and the end of Roger’s fantasy life---his capacity for moral support proven with Paula, he can return to a life fully in reality. He is back home, living cozily with Esther, who is perhaps pregnant. But he’s not letting go of his omniscient vision entirely: “In the two weeks since Paula has become a part-time tenant, the lovers’ attic trysts have fallen off,” he notes. And he still revels in his tryst with Verna, taking pleasure in telling Dale how she is without disclosing that they had sex. He’s lost his viciousness, but not the haughtiness that provoked his fantasies in the first place.

Updike has one more twist, though. At their last meeting, Verna discloses that Dale has been having an affair with an older woman:

“[H]e’s been having an affair with some older woman, somebody married who I guess is a pretty hot ticket…. [H]e got into the sort of stuff they used to do, and I must say she sounds like she went all out. Up the ass and everything. Like she wanted to drive him crazy. She lives in this really big expensive house, Dale said. Somewhere in your neighborhood, I got the impression.”

Does this verify the affair between Dale and Esther? Certainly there was no reason why Dale couldn’t have been having an affair with a different older woman---or why Dale wasn’t any more skilled at inventing fantasies than Roger has been throughout the novel. Regardless, Verna's disclosure serves as yet another punchline about reality and perception---albeit this time at Dale's expense, to Roger's comfort.

V.

In his New York Times review, Lodge reads Roger’s final conversation with Verna as proof of the reality of the affair---and, hence, proof of Roger’s Version's inherent realism. That conclusion is questionable, but it does have one important defender: John Updike. In a 1986 interview with the Washington Post, Updike described the Esther-Dale affair as a simple fact within the novel, not an act of metafiction:

"Yes, I saw it as upbeat in a downbeat sort of way," Updike says of the ending. "Esther's affair with Dale ... has run its course, and Roger's brief contact with Verna has in some way liberated him. As he drives down the empty street with Scarlatti playing he is happy, the first time in the book where he is happy.

"And the wife going off to church ... as a churchgoer myself I take that as a good thing. At least it rounds off a certain episode." He pauses. "I don't know what you're supposed to do with plot anymore," he says, sounding tired. "I'm not sure if people live plots the way they used to. For me a plot is merely that the book begins with some sort of tensions, and by the end of the book at least that particular tension has been resolved, and some new ring of social order can be drawn around the new situation."

It’s strange to see Updike utter the sentence, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with plot anymore.” In the years following Roger’s Version, he would produce ten more novels and five more original short-story collections. He certainly found more plots, and he would also try on others’ stylistic approaches, from the epistolary structure of S. (1988), the attempt at magical realism in Brazil (1994). But his frustration with what to do with plot may have something to do with the fact that he had just finished a novel that aggressively upended his previous approaches to it. He had reconsidered his stylistic tics, researched unfamiliar territory, and, in finding a way to represent the connections between our spiritual and earthbound lives, did something for which he isn't often credited: experimented.





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