Picks and Pans Review: Roger's Version

updated 09/29/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John Updike

To read this novel is to endure brightly colored clouds of anguish. Some of them are generated by the kaleidoscopic language Updike uses. His main character, Roger Lambert, is a dispirited divinity professor at a New England university, specializing in the study of Christian heretics. He is beset by a tired, unfaithful wife, a niece who has an illegitimate infant daughter and survives on welfare, a dim-witted teenage son and a zealous graduate student intent on using computer technology to prove the existence of God. Lambert is 53 and too conscious of the fact that "the flares of ambition and desire that had lit my way when I was younger and had given my life the drama of fiction or of a symbol-laden dream had been chemical devices, illusions with which the flesh and its percolating brain had lured me along." The surges of dissatisfaction provoked by this novel come from the thought that Updike has come so tantalizingly close to a monumental piece of fiction, one that stirs the most elemental questions about the nature of the universe right in with mundane details of daily life—the Big Bang and Cyndi Lauper records, all under one roof. But too often that amalgamation comes to a screaming halt because the details of Updike's plot seem so foolishly strained. Lambert, for instance, works himself up into a pathetic lust over the niece. It allows Updike to do something he does wonderfully—ruminate about the uncontrollable addiction of men to women—but it also diffuses the tone of the book, drains it of its wisdom. Then, too, there are long, detailed discussions of computer technology and of quotes from Christian philosophers, in Latin. Both inevitably will seem like Greek to most people, and there is indeed a little Greek too for the truly masochistic. If this isn't the definitive work, it might have been; however, it is a superior novel. The aggressiveness of Updike's imagination is often a marvel, and he still has few peers in his use of language. Here, for example, is Lambert explaining why he opposes an attempt to prove the existence of God: "Facts are boring. Facts are inert, impersonal. A God Who is a mere fact will just sit there on the table with all the other facts: we can take Him or leave Him. The way it is, we are always in motion toward the God Who flees, the Deus absconditus; He by His apparent absence is always with us." (Knopf, $17.95)

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