ROGER'S VERSION

A NOVEL

Roger here is Roger Lambert, a grouchy, burnt-out divinity-school professor, a give-no-quarter Karl Barth-ian who one day entertains a visitor in his office: a pale and unprepossessing researcher in the computer facilities of the University. This boy—Dale—has an idea for a grant he'd like funded. By computer analysis, he wants to prove once and for all that God exists. He claims to keep running across significant numbers, sets, relationships—only decipherable to the omnivorous memory of the machine—that lead to some discoverable point upon which God must turn, that simply can't be coincidental. Lambert is less than impressed. The idea seems impious, robbing man of faith, reducing that to an equation. But the ardor of Dale the hacker is splendid, in contrast to Lambert's own ruined religiosity. So strict and punishing is Lambert's disgust at what cinders are left of his faith that someone like Dale is able to utterly flummox him—as well as eventually have an affair with his wife, Esther. In the meantime, Lambert tries to straighten out a slutty half-niece, resulting in a little adultery of his own—as well as offering a lesson in pity and relative evil when the girl mistreats her illegitimate and half-black infant daughter. In a relatively plotless book for Updike, what plot there is—Dale and Esther, Lambert and his niece—seems especially stiff. Maybe it's because so much of the book is spent in long spoken expositions of Dale's computer knowledge—something with which Updike is clearly fascinated. When intellectually fascinated, Updike sometimes becomes entranced (see the section in The Witches of Eastwick where one of the women plays a Bach suite on the cello: meticulously correct technical information becomes a plague on the reader), but the enchantment here is very hard to share: it seems a function of authorial curiosity and play of mind—but it doesn't necessarily claw into any of the characters. What does claw—into Roger Lambert—is a theme Updike has used before but never so explicitly: sex as despair. Using Roger's lecture notes on Tertullian and Barth, Updike gives clear shape here to what his work has been prefiguring for years: "the flesh is man." In a book with so demanding a religious/intellectual theme, this is happily startling and quite ironic. It's only too bad that it couldn't have more fully been shown than said.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 1986

ISBN: 0449912183

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1986

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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