On Roger’s Version

At Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, I have a long piece on John Updike‘s 1986 novel, Roger’s Version. This essay is part of NBCC’s occasional series “In Retrospect,” which looks back at finalists and winners of its annual awards. Roger’s Version was a finalist for the NBCC’s annual award in fiction, but didn’t win the prize; that honor went to Peter Taylor‘s A Summons to Memphis, a book I don’t know. (It took the Pulitzer Prize in fiction that year as well.)

The gist of my essay is that while many reviewers of Roger’s Version understood (and admired) the novel as just the latest in a string of Updike’s studies of sex in the suburbs–though with an unusual amount of research into theology and computer science applied to it—it’s a trickier book than that. The book takes a few metafictional turns, some fairly obvious but a few willfully obscure. It can be hard to read Updike’s intentions there: He either was careful not to draw too much notice to his experimenting, wanted to test the reader’s attentiveness, or both. Regardless, it’s a book that rewards close reading, so this was my attempt to walk through some of the book’s inner workings. A few grafs from the introduction:

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.

This piece has been in the drawer for a while. I wrote an early draft of it about two years ago at the request of a website that was soliciting long essays on contemporary novels. Shortly after I filed the piece I was told the site was shutting down. (I don’t believe this was a cause-and-effect thing, though an anxious writer always wonders….) In any event, thanks to the 1986-7 board of the NBCC for making Roger’s Version a fiction finalist—not just because it honored a good novel, but also, more selfishly, because it gave me a chance to give the piece a home.

8 thoughts on “On Roger’s Version

  1. So on one hand, you fall in line with the conventional schematic bullshit (“The novel’s balance of easy tone and jargon-heavy info dumps is echoed in the novel’s binary plot conflict”), yet you claim a smug superiority for noticing something that “largely escaped the notice (or interest) of most critics.” Obviously, this ignorant statement comes from your typical lack of critical vigor.

    David Lodge, The New York Times Book Review (which you quote from): “The title of the novel suggests that there might be other, very different versions of the story, and a number of clues seem planted in the text warning us not to trust him.”

    Marianne Dougherty, Scripps Howard News Service: “This is, after all, Roger’s version of the events.”

    Michael Schumacher, The Milwaukee Journal: “The novel’s title suggests that this will be only Lambert’s account, and all actions are indeed filtered and interpreted through Roger’s perspective.”

    And that’s just from bouncing around for about two minutes. Could you have spared two minutes of your time to confirm your gut instinct? Or were you so caught up in ascribing arrogance to character and novelist that you were incapable of observing your own?

    Your laughable invocation of Updike’s quote about plot suggests very strongly that you missed the man’s point. It’s very clear that he is remarking upon the difficulties of reconciling the inherently plotless manner in which we live with the exigencies of narrative. “I’m not sure if people live plots the way they used to.” That a master like Updike, one who was very much about capturing the most precise details, is copping to the straitjacket is a sure sign that he was still learning. You ascribe far too much preplanned motive to the man, just as you demonstrated your profound misunderstanding of the craft of fiction writing in your damnation of Chabon in December.

    The world doesn’t need any more of this kind of schematic criticism, Mark. Do the world a favor and become an accountant. Either that or demonstrate some passion and fluidity in these “essays.” Of course, one can’t expect anything close to this from an essentially humorless man who can never confess that he’s wrong.

  2. “an essentially humorless man who can never confess that he’s wrong.”

    When irony and bitter jealousy mix it’s never pretty.

    I hope, Mark, you continue to ignore the rantings of Mr. Champion. Readers have long caught on to his methods – substituting rambling attacks on others for any meaningful contribution to the conversation himself. He’ll wander off, when he fails to generate the controversy he keeps hoping will give him the credentials and recognition he craves.


    1. It is no small delight to see Mr. Champion display his erudition — or what must, I suppose, suffice to pass for it — by calling upon someone to desist from the ad hominem fallacy, and then providing a citation to denounce the specious use of the term “ad hominem,” when the person he presumes to correct was not, in fact, committing the ad hominem fallacy.

      It has often been said that Mr. Champion’s very surname mocks his own inadequacy. Quite; but perhaps that mockery is insufficient? Is that why Mr. Champion himself feels the urge to underscore it? Has he some inner prompting that obliges him to advertise the tireless and indeed quite athletic vigor of his incompetence?

      He need not bother. No observer may doubt a thing so evident.

  3. Mr. Champion,

    While your comments were boorish and insulting, they did not constitute an ad hominem attack, and it was for this reason I didn’t accuse you of doing so. Congratulating Mr. Athitakis for not stooping to your level of discourse is not a comment on the merits of your thesis. It speaks only to the juvenile manner in which you express it.

  4. If we accept, for the sake of argument, that “Jonathan”‘s comments (here and elsewhere) are a form of living, then we also need to acknowledge that such perfected fantasy adumbrations of himself on websites, Facebook pages, and blogs also have as their corollary, trailing behind them, the inadvertent revenants of his far from ideal life.

  5. If we may judge by this, the most recent ejaculation revealing of his wounded and indeed festering egotism, it would appear that Mr. Champion has, once again, been pleasuring himself with the thesaurus.

    This most unwholesome habit may yet induce — not the growth of hair upon surfaces where of the epidermis where hair does not, in the higher primates, normally grow, or at least not only that effect — but ocular damage.

    I warn him of this with all due urgency. Weakening of his eyesight would, one dares say, oblige Mr. Champion to retain an amaneusis, not only to transcribe the incessant outpouring of egregious impertinences; but even for that incessant Self-Googling, without which distraction he might well suffer the torments of the damned from the inescapable awareness of his own deficiencies.

    For this is a danger with which Mr. Champion must ever reckon. The man’s very surname mocks his inadequacy.

    As for the effect upon his state of mind of such incessant pounding (I mean of the keyboard, but not, perhaps, of it alone) one ought perhaps to let only a certified alienist presume to judge.

    But it was commonly said in my day that a man so given to self-delight — to the solitary pleasure of sating that fierce hunger of vanity raging within him, despite his singular lack of accomplishments, to say nothing of character — such a man, prone to indulge such vices, was said destined to grow feeble minded, irritable, and at least half mad.

    Some may account this the superstition of an earlier age, unsubstantiated by contemporary researches of the aesculpian fraternity. But the example of Mr. Champion, in his present condition, is solemn testimony to the contrary, and it seems to me a matter of time before degeneration advances to the point that it will require mitigation, if not remedy, at the hands of practitioners of the medical arts.

    Certainly it is the case that the specimens that he has deposited so regularly in the blogo-sphere for lo! these many years would suggest that some man of science must pursue rigorous scrutiny of the cumulative and altogether baleful effects of cyber-onanistic practices.

    Mr. Champion has permitted himself to indulge in this behavior for so long now — and with so little chance of evincing even the simulacrum of dignity — that his case may be altogether beyond treatment. But through timely intervention we may yet prevent this hideous fate to some other pitiful soul, perhaps being born even now. Won’t someone please think of the children?

  6. It must be sufficiently clear that I meant to say, but failed to type, that — in the interest of human decency, and of a public digital commons free of the melancholy spectacle of glint-eyed vagrants screeching to imaginary tormentors about how “rigorous” and “courageous” and “passionate” they are, thereby explaining why their tormentors persecute them so — we must hope that the men and women of our learned academies may soon apply themselves to finding the means to restrain those compulsive self-aggrandizing and self-pleasuring behaviors that have reduced Mr. Champion to such a condition of grievous extremity, thereby to “prevent this hideous fate from happening to some other pitiful soul….”

    Tears of anguished compassion for the poor wretch did so blind me, for a passing instant, that I quite failed to incorporate, or perhaps rather one should say intercalate, the words just indicated in bold.

    One weeps at the sight of an abjected fool, or fights to keep from weeping; for though the fool himself may feign joy, or shriek and gibber like a gibbon intoxicated by his own foul vapours, this is all but a show. His only feast is offal and gall, and he knows — who could doubt it? — that respect is one thing to which he has long since forfeited any claim. His condition is irrevocable. Time is not on his side.

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