ROGER'S VERSION by John Updike

ROGER'S VERSION

A Novel
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KIRKUS REVIEW

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. 10th, 1986
ISBN: 0449912183
Page count: 344pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1986




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