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.