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Well written but unpleasant & disturbing
on 1 February 2015
This being an Updike novel, of course it is superbly written. We have all the usual attractions: wonderful observations of everyday life, beautiful prose, and an abundance of wordy descriptive page fillers. However, the first person narrative creates a contrived end result: the characters, including the main one, are inconsistent and shallow, their motivations and actions unsatisfactorily explained - if at all. There are also lots of contradictions, for example there are no individual voices, all characters talk, feel and act on the same lines as the narrator/main character; or, the same person is very perceptive then inexplicably obtuse just a few pages later. Plus, everybody uniformly behaves like Alice in Wonderland, remaining untroubled by what we'd consider to be most shocking and outrageous happenings. This is not only an inevitable consequence of the first person artifice; it is, I think, mostly due to the novelist's failure to construct well-rounded and convincing characters. The overall impression is that Updike despised everyone in this novel - that he just couldn't be bothered with his characters, and obviously focused on his religion vs. science agenda instead. In which case, Updike would have been much better off (and more honest) to just write a book of essays on the subject, Martin Gardner-style.
As it is, the novel is made of two halves: one is on the subject of religion and science and debates whether contemporary science, and computing especially, could provide us with proof of god's existence. There are some excellent and gratifying barbs at creationism. However, whether you're an atheist or a religious believer, I doubt that this book would revolutionize your way of thinking or could sway anyone the other way. It is, however, incredibly erudite and therefore it might constitute well-researched food for thought - unfortunately, it's all rather obsolete today, 30 years after the novel's publication date.
Interwoven with this, we have the other half: the shameful and quickly fizzled-out story of 53 year-old professor of religious studies Roger Lambert and his overwhelming sexual attraction to his 19 year-old niece, the drug and child abuser Verna. At the same time, the professor imagines (in Updike's signature style, namely a profusion of very, very graphic detail. Nauseating, after a while.) his wife's affair with a younger man. We never quite know whether that affair did happen or it was all in the professor's dirty-old-man imagination, and half-way through the novel I stopped caring. To me, this novel, apparently one of the old boy's greatest, was an awful and deeply disturbing read.
Updike was labelled, together with Mailer, as a ''phallocrat'' - nothing more than a penis with a thesaurus, and in Roger's Version this is as obvious as ever. Disappointingly, Updike hasn't moved on from his attitudes, which were already outdated in his 1970s bestseller 'Couples', or 'Marry Me'. If anything, here he is even more hateful of women, considering them nothing but the disgusting sum of their flesh and bodily smells and secretions, even when he (well, professor Lambert, who sounds exactly like every other Updike male character) claims to love or be irresistibly attracted to them. Women are for Updike just bodies, considered exclusively in terms of how useful they can be for quenching the always rampant male sexual desire. Once again, just like in all his major novels, he portrays women as completely heartless mothers; as atheists or non-believers at best; as beings with zero intellectual value, and invariably as sex-mad temptresses. And, again like in most Updike novels, men are rather nasty or at best indifferent fathers; always deeply religious, always preoccupied with haughty intellectual dilemmas, but ultimately just helpless creatures, invariably dumbed-down and controlled by their penises. The sex stuff was, I thought, rather too much and gross, and instead of spicy as no doubt it was intended, I found it all too repetitive and rather boring. I sure hope neither men nor women are really as this writer conceptualizes them.
Other, just as disturbing aspects of this novel are: the completely indifferent attitude to child abuse (no spoiler alert needed; Verna verbally abuses and hits her baby daughter as soon as she appears on the page), and its incredibly pervasive racism. I like to think that there is no way this book would be published today, and I can't quite believe it was deemed OK in the 1980s. All characters are obsessed with race, skin colour, racial differences. I found myself flinching far too many times as I was reading the far too many white supremacist, often cleverly concealed but vicious remarks about black people, several Asian nations, and Jewish people. Nobody is spared; even the poor folk of Cleveland, and generally ALL those in the American countryside, are deemed sub-human. The whole novel feels unhealthily fixated - on race, bodily secretions and smells, hatred towards one's child, ageism (again, of the most venomous sort, ie repeating over and over how the wife, 38 years old, is therefore middle-aged of course, and pathetic in her futile attempts to stall decay and death which are just around the corner for her ... perfectly OK for Lambert himself, 53, to have an incestuous relationship with a 19-year-old, though).
It's been claimed that this novel is a satire, perhaps of the religious intellectual type who is in fact a bitter old geezer, rotten to the core - a closet racist who also hates is wife, despises his son, has no qualms about almost forcing a girl to have an abortion, is titillated by his vivid fantasies of his wife's sexual exploits with another man, and aids his child-beater teenage niece because he wants to have sex with her and thus make up for having wasted the opportunities to have sex with her mother (his half sister) in his youth. Etc, etc. Yes, it could all be satire but I am not convinced. Somehow, the bitter and misogynistic voice seems really to belong to the writer himself, not his character(s).
In the end, superb writing it may be, yet 'Roger's Version' is a difficult and utterly unpleasant read. Persevering with it brought me no satisfaction; I found no gems in it to make it worth my while. I was glad when I finished it and I will most certainly not re-read it. Updike's view of human beings is dark, cruel and fatalistic underneath the ostensibly light tones. The science-versus-religion parts were reasonably interesting but overshadowed by the sheer hatred and the stubborn, old-fashioned, generalized contempt, jumping at me from almost every page. After this, I doubt I can face another Updike book any time soon.