Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Updike's God Between the Lines: Roger's Version

Penguin Australia's edition, cover
In John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, an evangelical computer programmer named Dale Kohler looks for God’s hand in the intelligent design of the universe.   His lover Esther, who has never cared about God, begins to ask about God during a lull in one of their acrobatic trysts. Esther’s husband Roger Lambert, who narrates this updated version of The Scarlet Letter, once preached, but now works the “quality control” end of the “religion business,” no longer in “distribution”(66).  If God’s existence were a proven fact, he wouldn’t be interested, explaining,  “Facts are inert, impersonal….  A God Who is a mere fact will just sit there on the table with all the other facts:  we can take Him or leave Him” (235).  Roger himself is “inert” and “impersonal” when the novel begins.  The fact that he becomes deeply involved in the world around him is a clearer demonstration of God’s hand than Dale ever gets from his computations.

Analyzing his own reactions to Dale, Roger finds strong negatives, such as “physical repugnance,” and “envy of [Dale’s] faith,” but also “a grateful inkling that [Dale] was injecting a new element into my life, my stale and studious arrangements”(95).  Except to invite Dale to Thanksgiving, everything Roger does in the first half of the book is done after considerable urging by someone else.   It’s Dale who connects Roger to his estranged niece Verna, a sluttish teenaged mother in the projects.  While Roger feels concern for Verna and for her infant daughter Paula, who bears her mother’s rage, his feeble response is to hand over some spare cash.  It’s Dale’s initiative to get Verna to study for a GED, drawing Roger in as English tutor. 

Roger also feels for Dale “an odd and sinister empathy.”  This echoes Hawthorne’s observation near the end of The Scarlet Letter that Roger Chillingworth’s hatred is not far different from love, manifested alike in constant awareness of its object.  Roger Lambert elaborates:

[Dale] kept inviting my mind out of its tracks to follow him on his own paths through the city.  He had mentioned, for instance, that he worked weekends in a lumberyard, and I had merely to think of this fact and the holy smell of fresh-cut spruce was in my nostrils, and the rough-smooth weight of newly planed and end-stained two-by-fours was thrusting against my palms, with a palpable threat of splinters (95).

As in this short example, Roger puts more energy and imagination in his vicarious accounts of Dale’s experiences than he puts into his own life.  These include a walk from the neighborhood of college professors to the blighted neighborhood around the projects, and a midnight panorama of the city viewed from a floor high up in the university “Cube,” its computer building. 

Other strong scenes read like play scripts from the actors’ points of view, as Updike gives us elliptical repartee with the subtext filled in and the dramatic buildup of the scene highlighted as expertly as any director could make it.  These scenes are the fraught Thanksgiving Dinner, laced with hints that Esther and Dale are seducing each other; a questioning of Dale about his thesis by a panel of distinctive, if not distinguished, Divinity School faculty;  and a cocktail party at which Dale meets his match. 

It’s that strong empathy – expressed in miraculously acute prose -- that gives the book its strength to move and amuse us, and it seems by the end to have given Roger some motivation and courage to act on behalf of others.   Families are reconstituted; caring for the baby Paula helps even Roger’s forlorn pre-teen son to mature. 

And more change is coming:  Esther is pregnant, though Roger, I, and all the critics I’ve read have missed this point.  My friend Susan Rouse picked up on the hints:  Esther declined to use birth control with Dale, claiming to be too old, and Roger notices that she’s having trouble sleeping, she’s restless, and she’s gaining after years of strict weight-watching.

For those of us who love Updike’s work, we know that this is the second of three “versions” of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  Pastor Dimmesdale’s version came first ( “Dimmesdale” translated to "Marshfield," serial womanizing pastor in A Month Of Sundays), and the wife’s version last (S.).  So this is aptly called Roger’s version.

But the title may also suggest Gospel, good news for modern man,  a theology professor’s allusion to the Bible’s Revised Standard Version.  A Latin scholar like Roger might acknowledge the relevance of the etymology of vers, “to turn.”  This is the story of a cold, self-absorbed theologian whose life turns outward, just a little, through engagement with others.  The whole story is wrapped inside a debate about whether, or how, God is involved in our world.  The answer, in the end, is gospel, good news, relatively speaking.

(Reflections on Roger’s Version by John Updike, Ballantine paperback edition, 1986.)

Note: Interested in Updike and God?  Check out my mash up of Updike writings with the Book of Common Prayer:  http://smootpage.blogspot.com/2013/05/a-liturgy-from-selected-writings-of.html

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