04 December 2011

Roger's Version

If you have on your personal bucket list the thought that you should read one novel by John Updike before you die, what one should that be?

The Rabbit series is over-rated.

The best single Updike, in my opinion, is Roger's Version.

Amazon's "most helpful" review, by someone calling himself "Outside Looking In," captures a nice moment from the book. The protagonist, Roger Lambert, is thinking about ancient Jews and contemporary Protestants.

"How did those Israelites get their hooks into us so deeply, sticking us with their frightful black Bible and it imprecations while their modern descendants treat the matter as a family joke, filling their own lives with violin music and clear-eyed, Godless science? L'Chaim! Compared with the Jews we protestants do indeed dwell in the valley of death."

In essence, Lambert is a Barthian. His "rascally pet" as he says at one point, is the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). What he most admires in Barth is the utter Otherness of Barth's God, the rejection of even an "analogic" relationship between God's Being and our own being. God is essentially a hidden God.

Updike pits this Barthianism against the seemingly more naive views of a younger man,  Dale, who believes that contemporary physics is making God visible, and who believes he can complete that uncovering of God through computer science.

Lambert helps Dale get the grant for his project, but in subtler ways undermines both that project and Dale's faith.

As to the reviewers, David Wisehart thinks the book "both fascinating and frustrating."

David Lodge, writing in The New York Times, speaks of its "richness and viruosity," and says he finished it with "renewed respect for one of the most intelligent and resourceful of contemporary novelists."

Mark Athitakis, writing for Critical Mass, admires the way Updike "smoothly embeds dense scientific discussion into his narrative, anticipating the controversy over Intelligent Design more than a decade before it became a mainstream issue."

Not everyone liked it, though.  In The New York Review of Books, Frederick Crews spoke of "the growth of a belligerent, almost hysterical callousness" in Updike's career generally, which he sees as epitomized here.

I don't see what Crews thinks he sees.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.