The distinguished American critic Alfred Kazin has called John Updike “the Mozart of our technological culture,” the one artist who can turn the wonders of this age of technology into the stuff of fiction. Devotees of Updike will find the sobriquet apropos, recalling perhaps that their literary hero has often subjugated science to art: One need only be reminded that at times even scientific formulas have found their way into Updike’s deft iambics, as in “Midpoint”: “T = 3Nk is much too neat.” This skill with words has also been cause for much complaint, however, from critics who accuse Updike of being merely a stylist, with little substantive to say. Beneath the surface fluidity of his text, some have found only voyeurism in matters of sex and dilettantism in matters of science, politics, and sociology.
Nevertheless, Updike goes on producing novels that make the best-seller list while simultaneously garnering accolades from academic critics. In his fiction some see a fine mind working to reveal the intricacies of man’s reaction to modern concerns over theology and technology. Perhaps the centrality of these issues to the perennial human condition is what makes Updike’s novels continue to draw a wide diversity of audiences and to provoke commentary from a broad range of critics.
In Roger’s Version Updike tackles these two crucial subjects directly. His hero, Roger Lambert, a divinity school professor, is sought out by Dale Kohler, a student in the computer-science department at the same university, and asked to sponsor Kohler in his efforts to get a research grant for a most daring project: a computer-generated program to prove the existence of God. Lambert’s machinations first to dissuade Kohler from pursuing his goal, then to help the graduate student get the money and complete his research, provide one major plot line. The other significant series of activities involves Roger’s reaction to what might be described as a crisis of middle age. First is his growing relationship with his niece, Verna Ekelof, daughter of Roger’s half sister Edna, and now an outcast of the family who has moved East from Cleveland and fortuitously settled in the same town as her uncle, where she lives with her illegitimate mulatto child. Her friendship with Kohler actually sparks the meeting between teacher and student that serves as a catalyst for the plot. Roger’s efforts to befriend his niece lead him to spend considerable time with her, and the savvy Verna takes advantage of her uncle’s ill-hidden sexual fascination with her in several ways.
Roger visits his niece several times in her run-down apartment in a seedy housing project in the city’s undesirable section. There he tries to convince her to better herself through education; succumbs to her overt sexual advances; provides money for her to use in meeting expenses; rescues her from herself and helps get aid for the child whom Verna has abused; and assists her in getting an abortion for a baby that he knows is not his.
At home, Roger tries to keep his family life on an even keel, dealing with a wife fourteen years his junior, who is still attractive and still active in her own right as an artist and a community volunteer. The two alternately dote on and bemoan the condition of their only child, who, though not abnormal, is not the genius Roger certainly hoped that he would be. In a crucial scene early in the novel, Roger brings both Verna and Dale to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. That event sparks the affair between his wife, Esther, and Dale—or at least fires Roger’s imagination to conjure up a supposed affair between Dale and Esther, who conveniently is midway between the two men in age. The third-floor attic in the Lambert home becomes, in Roger’s mind, the locale for this imagined tryst; meanwhile, he conducts his muted but very real liaison with his niece in her upper-floor apartment.
Thematically, the novel is a story of faith and heresy. Specifically, Updike is interested in exploring the character of modern faith. To do so, he has opted to make his main character a professor of divinity, schooled in traditional methods of theological inquiry. Into the hero’s placid and comfortable life comes the enthusiastic and young proselyte, who is certain that he can prove God’s existence through a computer. The irony of the situation is immediately apparent. The advances of science have, for centuries, been perceived as threats to religion. Kohler’s research will change that relationship. Long considered antagonists, now men of religion and...
(The entire section is 1874 words.)