With the possible exception of his friend Norman Mailer, no living American writer has been more closely watched than John Updike. After eleven novels and thirty books, however, our most prolific and various man of letters remains curiously out of focus and resistant to consensus. According to Joseph Epstein among others, Updike lacks anything much to say and is thus habitually thrown back on “overwriting and sex, and overwriting about sex”; he “simply cannot pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose” (Epstein, pp. 56, 55). * That is the Updike for whom, according to Gilbert Sorrentino, reality appears “a poor drab thing that awaits his gilding” (Macnaughten, p. 78). But on the other side we find a formidable array of critics, most of them English professors, who consider Updike a powerful social chronicler, a master of physical texture and psychological nuance, a profound moralist, a symbolist, a Christian philosopher, in short a living classic whose accession to the Nobel podium is already overdue. Who is kidding whom?
Updike’s residence in limbo is the more surprising because we have a vast body of information and analysis to go on. Despite his vaunted reclusiveness, Updike has republished three books’ worth (over 1700 pages) of essays, reviews, and interviews that exhaustively document his opinions, beliefs, tastes, antecedents, and artistic phases. Seizing on that treasure horde and rejoicing in the availability of a contemporary American author who combines linguistic dexterity with moral seriousness, the critics have thus far produced no fewer than seventeen volumes of exegesis and praise, expounding their hero’s theological affinities and scouring his fictional corpus for myths, parallels, symbols, rituals, pastoral conventions, social reflections, and uplifting homilies. For several recent years we even had a John Updike Newsletter devoted to preserving every scrap of memorabilia relating to that larger-than-life figure whom the editor suggestively dubbed “the Man.”
With so much data at hand, why the blurred image? In part the problem can be traced to mixed signals from Updike. In his autobiographical reflections he sometimes depicts himself as a modernist wordsmith, a down-home avatar of Proust and Joyce who lives for the aesthetic frisson. Elsewhere, though, he plays the religious philosopher, aligning himself with such theological heavyweights as Berdyaev, Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth. In still other passages he turns debonair and implies, in light verse as well as prose, that we should count him among the long-vanished Algonquin wits. But keep reading and sooner or later you will find him insisting that he is merely another “dumb American” harboring the usual lowbrow prejudices. It is largely by chance, if you believe this last Updike, that he works for The New Yorker instead of selling Toyotas in the sticks.
None of this multiplicity would matter if the fiction itself weren’t ambiguous in key respects. Take, for example, the novel that has provoked the most polarized responses, Couples (1968). It has been plausibly represented both as suburban pornography—a sesquipedalian Peyton Place—and as a grave modern parable of the lapse from Edenic innocence, a Christian critique of post-pill licentiousness. There are ample objective grounds for both interpretations.
Uninstructed readers have naturally enough seen the plot of Couples as a neutrally rendered daisy chain of wife swapping leading to what Updike himself has called the “happy ending” (PP, p. 504) of Piet Hanema’s marriage to Foxy Whitman. The academics, on the other hand, have predictably concentrated on the countersacramental patterns and ironic allusions which are indeed there to be unearthed. This double perception has given Updike a splendid free ride; not many authors get to please the horny and the sanctimonious at one stroke. Eventually, however, we must wonder if the novelist was writing from any unified perspective.
But a chronic lack of consistency may itself be understandable in consistent terms. Most of Updike’s novels do revert to a few central, urgently autobiographical preoccupations. It is not that he literally turns his own life history into fiction—though he sometimes does so—but that each of his serious novels gives oblique representation to his longings and discontents. The apparent evolution of those mental states, as they can be inferred from both fictional and nonfictional writings, can help explain why the novels occasionally become confused in both their thematic and their structural features. Though such analysis courts the risk of mistaking artistic license for confession, the risk seems worth taking. On the whole, Updike has tended to be more candid than his euphemistic interpreters have been, and we will see that even his attempts at irony, as the Couples example suggests, point to misgivings about his manifest values.
Updike’s academic critics are right on at least one key point: his religious position is indispensable to any broad comprehension of his work. Updike has always been a visible Christian, and he is more insistent about theological niceties today than when he started out. The enduring, autobiographically urgent, themes of his work are Christian-existential: a fear (bordering on phobia) of eternal nonbeing; an attempt to reconcile both spiritual and erotic striving with awareness of the implacable heartlessness of the natural world; and a resultant struggle to believe in the grace of personal salvation. If Updike often seeks literary respite from those obsessions—one thinks especially of the Bech books, The Coup, and The Witches of Eastwick—he never escapes them for long.
Over the years, however, Updike’s doctrinal emphasis has grown more eccentric and brittle as the range of his sympathies has contracted. This is what his adoring critics, with few exceptions, would rather not acknowledge. In their zeal to keep him within the pietistic fold, they have generally failed to see that as his career has progressed, he has radically divorced his notion of Christian theology from that of Christian ethics. It is precisely that dissociation, I believe, which accounts for the main dilemmas posed by his most ambitious fiction.
In Updike’s youthful works, righteous belief and righteous conduct marched confidently hand in hand. Witness the caritas of John Hook in The Poorhouse Fair (1959) and of George Caldwell in The Centaur (1963), characters who, it is important to grasp, were modeled on Updike’s grandfather and father, respectively. That conjunction of faith and virtue, however, soon unraveled, with fateful consequences for Updike’s capacity to control his readers’ sympathies.
We can see the new, morally emancipated Updike quite clearly in his credo poem, “Midpoint,” of 1969:
Our Guilt inheres in sheer Existing, so
Forgive yourself your death, and freely flow. Transcendent Goodness makes elastic claims;
The merciful Creator hid His Aims.
What this meant in practice was that Updike would not feel bound by standard notions of sin. Instead, he would seek in sheer experience, and above all in sexual experience, continual reassurance against the terror of nothingness which has haunted him, so he tells us, since his preadolescent years. As he put the matter succinctly in the same poem,
ASS = 1/ANGST.
That is, sex—the more the better—had become Updike’s answer to Kierkegaard, his preferred means of validating his existence through immersion in the tangible.
Needless to say, what Updike had in mind here was not the obligations of the marriage bed. As his fictions repeatedly implied, the seeker’s wife was almost by definition a death bearer who could clip his metaphysical wings and, by entrapping him in bland and benign routine, allow the doomsday clock to tick irreversibly away. Somebody else’s wife, on the other hand, would be another story. Thus Updike wryly recast the ninth (Lutheran) commandment as follows: “Don’t covet Mrs. X; or if you do, / Make sure, before you leap, she covets you” (M, p. 41). Since the time of Couples, that has been pretty much the extent of Updike’s ethical vision.
But no one could imagine that Updike’s leave-taking from his first wife and children in 1974, after twenty-one years together, was effected without remorse. The many stories and novels that dwell upon that trauma tell us that his Christian upbringing and his sense of fair play would not leave him in peace. Nevertheless, we can also gather that he fiercely resisted the condemnatory internalized voice of his Pennsylvania forebears, steeling himself, perhaps like the philandering Tom Marshfield in A Month of Sundays, to register “no distinct guilt but rather a sort of scrabbling restiveness, a sense of events as a field of rubble in which he is empowered to search for some mysterious treasure.”
That struggle, I believe, was directly responsible for the anesthetic tone and the moral inconclusiveness of Updike’s novels about disintegrating marriages—books that stew in a pervasive yet unacknowledged atmosphere of self-reproach. The author made no effort to disguise the unprovoked, perverse quality of his heroes’ yearnings for escape. Readers thus found it hard not to side with the long-suffering wives—Janice in the Rabbit books, Angela in Couples, Ruth in Marry Me—who had to put up with the compulsive Updikean man-child. But at the same time, for obvious reasons, Updike could not afford to register the full asininity of Piet Hanema and Jerry Conant, “heroes” who are routinely unfaithful, maddeningly indecisive and self-absorbed, yet nonetheless religiously priggish.
The oddest-looking element in this picture was surely Updike’s and his heroes’ dogged insistence on conservative Protestant theology. His zeal for salvational dogma, it is clear, waxed in direct proportion to his abandonment of sin as a judgmental category. But that development looks less paradoxical if we reflect that orthodoxy can itself be a means of discharging guilt, and doubly so when the favored tenets minimize the importance of virtuous conduct. Indeed, Updike’s whole project of mooting ethical injunctions looks like an overreaction to self-judgment on the single point of adultery. A truly untroubled existentialist would hardly think to take such casuistic pains.
In any case, it is certain that one after another of Updike’s wandering husbands ardently champions Updike’s doctrinal hero, Karl Barth, heaping abuse on the Christian liberals’ retreat from the Cross to charitable works and kindly feelings—the values invariably associated with the deserted or soon-to-be-deserted wife. The more Updike’s characters misbehave, the more stridently they proclaim, with Tom Marshfield in A Month of Sundays, “Ethical passion the hobgoblin of trivial minds. What interests us is not the good but the godly. Not living well but living forever.” We know from many sources that this is precisely Updike’s own most cherished priority.
Updike appears to have taken comfort from Karl Barth, with whatever violence to Barth’s intent, in four mutually reinforcing respects. In the first place, Barth, too, downgraded ethics, though hardly in the spirit of Updike’s libertines. Second, Barth welcomed human imperfections, since without them the Creator and His Creation would be indistinguishable and we mortals would lack a motive to accept our Saviour. Third, Barth characterized God as “Wholly Other” from us and thus as immune to influence by our good deeds. And last, Updike has welcomed what he calls Barth’s “virtually antinomian doctrine of all-inclusive Grace” (AP, p. 274). In Barth, then, Updike has found a means of talking back to a prickly conscience and a set of reasons for believing that, regardless of his conduct, he may yet be counted among the saved.
But this dry account fails to capture the most striking features of Updike’s adaptation of Barthianism, namely, its pugnacity and its grim coldness. As he has Tom Marshfield reveal, “in Barth I heard, at the age of eighteen, the voice my father should have had” (MS, p. 25). The father who was equivocally honored in George Caldwell, in The Centaur, had impressed Updike as a chronic Mr. Nice Guy victim, one who could have used stiffening by what Tom calls Barth’s “wholly masculine, wholly informed, wholly unfrightened prose.” “For fifteen years,” Updike has written of the years when his father was still alive, “I’d watched a normal, good-doing Protestant man suffering in a kind of comic but real way. I think it left me rather angry. There is a lot of anger in my books, really. Their secret ingredient” (PP, p. 500). The chief target of that anger has been “limp-wristed theology” and “androgynous homogenizing liberals” (MS, pp. 13, 203)—the apparently feminine, sympathy-bestowing element that is supposedly anathema to the Barthian outlook.
In his zeal to stifle that tenderness in himself and to deflect the idea of punishment for sin, Updike has come to take morbid satisfaction in God’s imagined indifference to our goings-on. As he said in “Midpoint,”
It little counts in History’s level eye
Just how we copulate, or how we die.
Six million Jews will join the Congolese
King Leopold of Belgium cleared like trees.
A casual reader might take the poet to imply that we forsaken mortals had better care for one another. On the contrary, the context makes clear that we should seize our pleasure where we can, embrace the full horror of “History” as an expression of God’s will, and worship the Power that thus casually torments and crushes us. As Joyce Carol Oates shrewdly observed some years ago, “how odd that the author of Pigeon Feathers should be evolving, before our eyes, into the Mark Twain of The Mysterious Stranger” (Macnaughten, p. 85).
Sometime in the Sixties, then, Updike’s piety begins to sound like that of a village crank. He still avers that the Apostles’ Creed, asserting the Creator’s oneness with the Redeemer, states the essence of his Christianity. But he seems less and less able to put together the God of mass liquidation and the Man of Sorrows; the redemptive end of the bargain evidently strikes him as a wild and ever more desperate uncertainty. The result has been the growth of a belligerent, almost hysterical callousness. At the base of Updike’s supernaturalism we seem to discern not Barth’s vision of general forgiveness, but the logic of the cowering Neanderthal: if I can make my heart as hard as that of the Lightning Hurler, perhaps He will acknowledge me as one of His own and spare me from destruction.
No wonder, then, that in Couples Piet Hanema’s spiritual unease is resolved as soon as the divine arsonist, in a novelistically callow move on Updike’s part, has incinerated Tarbox’s church of mere Sunday fellowship. When “the supernatural proclaimed itself” in the conflagration, “Piet wondered at the lightness in his own heart, gratitude for having been shown something beyond him, beyond all blaming.” The link between raw heavenly force and blamelessness is crucial: a God who is Himself so unruly surely couldn’t be bothered peering into bedrooms in search of straying husbands.
Updike’s-none-too convincing efforts toward guilt management eventually entailed stylistic and structural corollaries that were as far-reaching as the thematic ones. The immediacy of his early manner had been buoyed by a near-pantheistic sense of “a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest…seem to affirm” (AP, p. 186). The writer, then, could be construed benignly as “a middleman between the ideal world and this” (PP, p. 499), one who would strive for prose effects that Henry Bech once called “a tightness perhaps equivalent to the terribly tight knit of reality.” In works like Rabbit, Run (1960), The Centaur (1963), and Of the Farm (1965), that affinity for sheer texture was itself a kind of redemptiveness, a promise that even the most ordinary small-town experience could blossom into plenitude. But by 1969, as Updike’s anxiety over salvation was becoming more clamorous, he already looked with nostalgia toward the “primitive rapport I lately lack” (M, p. 43). Both the inherent goodness of experience and Updike’s communality of outlook with his readers now seemed dubious.
After the Sixties, therefore, Updike began experimenting with a cooler, more sardonic artistic strategy, filling his novels with Nabokovian guessing games. Now the main idea was to keep his readers off balance, leaving them unsure whether they weren’t being cast as the victims of a practical joke. Consider, for example, the factual discrepancies in Colonel Ellelloû’s narration of The Coup (1978)—should we believe a word he tells us?—or the three alternative endings to Marry Me (1976), in which realism suddenly collapses into perspectivism as the author skips away. These private and somewhat defiant high jinks were remote from that earnest mode of mimesis-cum-symbols which once sent the second-echelon New Critics into full and apparently permanent mobilization.
Along with the turn toward mannerism came other significant changes in subject and emphasis. In some cases the questing husband gave way to a more cynical protagonist—Tom Marshfield, Colonel Ellelloû—whose conduct was utterly unrestrained and whose first-person narrative rushed along with manic afflatus. Yet most of the opinions voiced by such figures remained manifestly Updike’s own. Thus he began giving us a combination of rant and facetiousness, with the latter serving as a kind of alibi for the former. That is, by making his hero a virtual madman and then casting doubt on the veracity of the narrative, Updike could let fly with all the dour and spiteful reflections that had found no outlet, or perhaps no need for it, in his early works.
Perhaps the most striking change in the Seventies, however, was a new hardedged, biologically literal apprehension of sex. Throughout most of the previous decade, sexual and religious aspiration had still been a single blur for Updike. But nobody’s adolescence can last forever. A writer whose inclination has been to confuse a damp crotch with a burning bush is likely to wake up some years later and wonder what he could possibly have had in mind. The post-Couples Updike has finally understood that hormones are great weavers of illusion—and he seems resentful of the fact. Though he writes incisively about the ironies of desire, he is also susceptible to revealing outbursts of misogyny.
The key text here is Updike’s most unguarded book, A Month of Sundays (1975). For Tom Marshfield, the eternal feminine comes down to this: “My wife, ma femme, this cunt indentured to me. Sad to say, lib-lubbers.” The sentiment, it will be protested, belongs only to the protagonist, not to the author. Yet that same truculent synecdoche, “cunt,” has always been Updike’s preferred term for his own erotic grail, and we hear his voice behind Marshfield’s more temperate remark, “I wonder, truly, if ‘love’…is not a reifying rather than de-reifying process, and ‘sex object’ not the summit of homage.” To conceive of a wife as an indentured cunt is merely the obverse side of such “homage.”
A Month of Sundays also extends this defiant mood to both politics and religion. Indeed, what Marshfield has to say about theology sounds like a coda to his view of women: “Away with personhood! Mop up spilt religion! Let us have it in its original stony jars or not at all!” In his eyes, liberal Christianity and liberalism generally have become synonymous with a sexless, maudlin, meddlesome empathy that would ensnare us within the “random grid” of the material world. Our task instead must be to fly that world.
As preparation, Marshfield advocates a militant political quietism, a “vigorously pro-Caesar” stance: “Somewhere Barth says, ‘What shall the Christian in society do but attend to what God does.’ What God does in the world is Caesar.” Only by full acquiescence in established power, in other words, can the salvation-minded Christian ready himself for “a way out of the crush of matter and time.” The citation of the seemingly infallible Barth makes it clear, as usual, that the sentiments expressed come with Updike’s imprimatur.
In a memorable phrase, Updike once told us that he regards his novels as “crystallizations of visceral hopefulness” (PP, p. 13). “I think a writer can portray a victim,” he told Frank Gado in an interview,”without forgetting that there is a primitive star…that keeps him running after something.” But some of Updike’s recent spokesmen-heroes appear to have been running from everything except their hobbies and their hobbyhorses. His sensibility, it appears, has appreciably calcified, leaving him at once morally obtuse, politically inflexible, and crabbedly protective of beliefs that boil down to me-first salvationism. And lest we conclude that those were passing symptoms from a time of crisis, along comes Roger’s Version, the coldest and most self-conscious of all his novels, to reinforce the picture.
If Roger’s Version has been bewildering many readers, it is puzzling partly by design; as we will see, it is an elaborately cunning work whose secret coherence is meant to be perceptible only to the initiated. In that sense it constitutes a further instance of that dry and slightly sadistic manner that Updike cultivated after the Sixties. But there is much else about Roger’s Version that appears blocked and self-defeating. Its broadest theme is the threat of chaos—mental, cosmic, sexual, sociopolitical—and its underlying impulse is to fend off that threat by any available means, from aesthetic trickery to dogmatizing to hostile suspicion of the unwashed.
The most conspicuous feature of Roger’s Version is a protracted, abstruse theological dispute between two Christians who both invoke science in their support. Roger Lambert, a fifty-three-year-old ex-minister and current divinity professor, holds the approved Updikean belief in a “Wholly Other” God—one whose very remoteness permits us to accept an impersonal materialistic understanding of this world below. In opposition, Dale Kohler, a twenty-eight-year-old computer jockey, fancies that he sees God’s engineering in the Big Bang and in the statistically implausible aftermath that culminated in human consciousness. The debate is labored and stilted, but it can be skimmed; we know that Roger the Barthian has got to win.
Thus Updike administers yet another fictional drubbing to the windmills of facile and erroneous religion. The only novelty in this regard is that the enemy is not a Unitarian do-gooder but a rapt young Jesus freak who feels the immanence of God in nature and, not coincidentally, is good in bed—specifically with the protagonist-narrator’s wife. Before the novel is over he will have been not just silenced but shattered in spirit. We can surmise, then, that resentment of enthusiasm, in both the religious and the sexual implications of that term, connects the two plots of Roger’s Version and brings them to a single vindictive end.
In Updike’s and Roger’s judgment, the trouble with Dale’s natural theology is that it all but abolishes the gap between God’s mind and our own. Updike requires the physical universe to be utterly, penitentially, inhospitable to our “anthropic” longings, so that we will have no recourse but to make an otherworldly commitment. It would be unthinkable, besides, to turn God into a kind of contractor who has left vulgar fingerprints on his handiwork for all to see. Thus Dale’s arguments, stuffed awkwardly full of scientific detail that Updike has borrowed (with acknowledgment) from popular treatises, exist to be defeated. And they are knocked over quite easily by a double-team assault: Roger takes care of the heresy, and then a scientist-neighbor, Myron Kriegman, shows how infantile it is to insert the idea of God into every lacuna in our current knowledge.
In a negative way, the novel’s decisive verdict against a trackable God leaves clear sailing for a Barthian God of “Revelation and Redemption.” Yet it is only through rhetorical sleight of hand that Updike can intimate where we must turn for solace once we have registered the full impact of scientific materialism. A God of Revelation and Redemption is of course far more “anthropic” than the Creator of Equations envisioned by Dale Kohler. Barth maintained that the very notion of a first cause was meaningless without Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture, and his account of Creation as a covenant with the unborn to secure general salvation through the Cross was, to put it mildly, prescientific in spirit.
In concentrating all our attention on the faultiness of Dale’s humanistic line, Updike is employing the same stratagem as Barth himself was charged with using by an anti-Barthian in A Month of Sundays: “It’s atheism. Barth beheads all the liberal, synthesizing theologians with it, and then at the last minute whips away the ‘a’ and says, ‘Presto! Theism!“‘ That Updike can see through such a parlor trick and yet be reduced to practicing it himself strikes me as a sign of gravely eroded confidence.
A similar combination of self-doubt and cornered assertiveness shines through the author’s presentation of Roger Lambert. To be sure, Updike seems to place considerable distance between himself and this leering cynic, pedant, pornography addict, and schemer. In his later fiction, however, we have observed that extreme denigration of a narrator can supply the requisite “cover” for authorial ventriloquism. Such is plainly the case here. Moreover, in a broader sense the whole of Roger’s Version is “Roger-like.” That is, the novel treats its readers much as Roger himself might wish to do, discharging upon us an unrelieved dose of mean opinion, fussy learning, prurience, and manipulation.
Roger’s “sullen temper” and chronic “uprising of bile,” just like Tom Marshfield’s in A Month of Sundays, allow him to voice Updike’s own long-familiar views on every topic from hypocritical campus protest and knee-jerk feminism to the spinelessness of nondenominational Christianity. Indeed, he even goes so far as to paraphrase Updike’s poetic assertion of God’s indifference to gassed Jews and starving Africans. The effect of this mixed portrait—bad character but “correct” ideas—is less ironical than it is emotionally confused, as if Updike were at once mortified by his nearness to this “cold, play-it-safe bastard” and driven to keep venting grievances through him.
Prominent among those grievances is sexual disillusionment. In Roger Lambert, it could be said, we pay a visit to the grave of Updike’s early hedonism. Fourteen years earlier, Roger has risked all for love, losing his ministry by divorcing one wife so as to marry the sexual athlete Esther. But by now, sex appears to him merely as “a grand surprise nature has cooked up for us, love with its accelerated pulse rate and its drastic overestimation of the love object, its rhythmic build-up and discharge; but then that’s it, there isn’t another such treat life can offer, unless you count contract bridge and death.”
As that sentence illustrates, the jaded Roger can be brilliantly mordant. He is hardly in peak condition, however, for the inevitable Updikean round of musical beds. His wife Esther, we immediately learn, has long since become sexually as well as conversationally bored with him. Though he assures us that he lusts after Verna, the sluttish daughter of his half-sister, he is notably timorous in comparison with the young man who is daily, strenuously cuckolding him. Despite Updike’s perfunctory effort to award Roger an epiphany on Verna’s mattress—we are halfheartedly asked to believe that one fumbling act of “incest, adultery, and child abuse” somehow gives him an intimation of God’s existence—Roger at fifty-three has lost his sexual nerve.
But even a dud can have a dirty mind. Our hero’s remaining libido is largely channeled into picturing what his juniors—his own wife Esther and Dale Kohler—are up to. Thus, tellingly for a student of Updike’s once Lawrentian love ethic, it is proxy sex between the still-vigorous that transfixes both hero and author in this work. And we as readers are conscripted to be its captive audience.
In the past, Updike has sometimes been unjustly charged with pornographic writing. His furtive adulterous couples have usually felt themselves inconvenienced in pathetic, even comic, ways that interrupt the effect of literary masturbation. But Roger’s depictions of Esther and Dale constitute pornography proper, the close-up representation of sex without reference to the mind and heart, without antecedents or consequences:
I pictured a white shaft: tense, pure, with dim blue broad veins and darker thinner purple ones and a pink-mauve head like the head of a mushroom set by the Creator upon a swollen stem nearly as thick as itself, just the merest little lip or rounded eaves, the corona glandis, overhanging the bluish stretched semi-epiderm where pagan foreskin once was, and a drop of transparent nectar in the little wide-awake slit of an eye at its velvety suffused tip. Esther’s studious rapt face descends, huge as in a motion picture, to drink the bitter nectar and then to slide her lips as far down the shaft as they will go, again and again….
Huge as in a motion picture: we scarcely know whether we are supposed to read the scene or to rent it.
If Roger is merely imagining such Vermeer-like tableaux, they can be accepted as contributions to the portrayal of his twisted mind. Note, for example, the affectlessness of that description and its characteristically ironic flourishes of religious reference and pedantry. But Updike wants his hero to be not only prurient but accurately so. In a reckless stroke which jeopardizes the novel’s pretensions to aesthetic coherence, he has Roger lay claim to a special gothic power, a telepathic faculty of distant viewing.
Without effort, it seems, Roger can scroll off before his inner eye not only Dale’s adulterous trysts with Esther but also Dale’s exotic computer calculations within an unfamiliar building and even the childhood memories that Esther recalls as she arrives at Dale’s apartment. Is this X-ray vision authentic? We are given hints that would lead us to think so. But in that case Updike has sabotaged the verisimilitude so carefully established in every other element of his story. The effect is as if that plodder Harry Angstrom were to take up with one of the Eastwick witches and thenceforth devote himself to causing thunderstorms through incantation.
There is, however, a hidden reason for this anomalous deviation into “romance.” Roger’s Version is among other things a cryptic attempt to reproduce The Scarlet Letter in modern terms. Thus Roger (Chillingworth) must be made to spy on Esther/Hester and (Dimmes)dale. Even though Updike appears to be misreading Hawthorne here—the original Roger was not visionary but merely astute at drawing inferences—we can at least grant that Updike is not mixing genres through inadvertence.
Once we have been alerted to the Scarlet Letter parallel, much that appears odd about Roger’s Version does begin to make sense. The novel’s title refers in part to Chillingworth’s perspective on his cuckoldry, and Updike has seeded clues to the ur-drama throughout his text. Thus The Scarlet Letter is evoked in Roger’s “odd and sinister empathy” and “secret bond” with Dale, in the red-haired Esther’s secular and sensual disposition, in the custody issue over Verna’s nature child Paula (Pearl), in Roger’s perverse taunting of both Esther and Dale with hints of what he knows, in Dale’s “inner worm” of remorse, in his nocturnal “self-mortification,” even in his catching sight of a possibly divine sign—the pattern of a hand on a computer screen—whose real import may be that he is losing hold of reality. We see, too, that Roger Redux shares his prototype’s strategy of forestalling a confession by his “friend and enemy” so as to keep “the wound…festering.”
Given all these points of sameness, the differences constitute Updike’s wry commentary on both The Scarlet Letter and our own altered times. He impishly hints, for example, that if Arthur Dimmesdale had had free sexual access to Hester, he would have found himself overmatched and finally broken by her appetites. In the age of Dr. Ruth, Updike appears to say, a Roger Chillingworth could get his revenge simply by letting matters run their course.
Such implications supply a kind of privileged entertainment for readers who notice them. Yet we must ask whether Updike has really saved his novel from emotional torpor by turning it into a cryptogram. The superimposition of one story on another exemplifies that general shift toward superciliousness found in his novels since the Seventies. Indeed, A Month of Sundays was itself a burlesque of The Scarlet Letter, complete with characters named Professor Chillingworth and Ms. Prynne. Roger’s Version works its Hawthornian magic with a steadier and subtler hand, but the same doubt persists: how can we reconcile the joking spirit of the narrative with the Barthian gravity of the message? The strand of allegory, undetectable by most readers and thus of dubious novelistic value, only reinforces the impression that Updike no longer feels at home in the here and now.
Inevitably, that discomfort bears social as well as philosophical and aesthetic implications. Just as Roger’s Version retreats from metaphysical anxiety into dogma and from the risk of uncontrolled experience into mirror games and magic, so it conjures a menacing picture of contemporary American life and withdraws toward a petty, fearful exclusivism. In an inconspicuous but unrelenting way, the book manages to cast malevolent suspicion on every group that strikes the author as potentially disruptive.
The action of Roger’s Version spreads across a Boston-like city whose slums and upper-middle-class enclaves are drastically, perhaps terminally, disconnected. The threat of criminal black incursion hangs like smog over the Lamberts’ tidy home on Malvin Lane (another, too cute, reference to a Hawthornian Roger), and the protagonist’s involvement with the ghetto-dwelling Verna brings the black menace psychologically closer. Beyond Roger’s academic dignity, what is threatened is the once-smug WASP mentality which, like Roger himself, has lost “whole octaves of passion” and now appears helpless to cope not only with technically apt Asians and “grounded” Jews unhobbled by the Puritan legacy, but also with that supposedly violent, licentious, imperfectly quarantined black race which, Roger vilely thinks, “travels from cradle to grave at the expense of the state, like the aristocrats of old.”
Is this Updike’s own considered opinion? Nothing in the novel could persuade us otherwise. Roger’s Version is not just the author’s Scarlet Letter but his Heart of Darkness as well. The “messy depths” that Roger encounters on the black side of town, suggesting a “random human energy too fierce to contain in any structure,” are at once an emblem of his inner condition, a counterpart to the untamably alien physical universe, and a reminder of the socioeconomic chaos that goes unrecognized by most Americans, who prefer to live “inside Reagan’s placid, uncluttered head as inside a giant bubble.” Updike implies that his propertied white readers had better wake up—not, however, to social injustice, but to the fact that their homes, jobs, and persons cannot be indefinitely safeguarded against the covetous have-nots.
Unfortunately, this show of class-based misanthropy cannot be dismissed as a passing aberration. A general ill will toward the marginal has informed Updike’s outlook at least since the time of Rabbit Redux (1971) and probably much earlier. Remember, he has always given fair warning that he is “not necessarily advanced over Harry Angstrom” (PP, p. 508). Some of the low remarks that his protagonists toss off about spoiled youth, loud and ugly Jews, freeloading, animalistic blacks, butch feminists, degenerate hippies, and whining peaceniks find counterparts in cartoonlike figures who pass through his works, from the demonic Skeeter and the spaced-out Jill in Rabbit Redux to the pudgy, obnoxious Myron Kriegman in Roger’s Version and the ghetto girls whom Roger must hurry past, “fat, with fat Afros and fat rubber-dark rounded arms and fat false pink pearls.” We could almost mistake these outsiders for the damned—those, that is, who will not be golfing with Updike in the great country club in the sky.
As we noted at the outset, there are many Updikes—more than enough to keep us guessing which if any of them is primary. Oddly, however, the best candidate for that role goes largely unrecognized, so poorly does he gibe either with the wordly satirist of the Bech stories, the genially urbane New Yorker essayist, the light versifier, the Red Sox fan, or the critics’ sacramental sage. Only through sporadic outburts can we make out that other figure—morbid and curmudgeonly, starved for a missing grace, playing an unfunny hide-and-seek with his readers, reluctant to confide his anguish yet driven to express both a lurking nihilism and a doctrinal obsession that barely keeps that nihilism at bay. If Updike has often preferred to dwell in the sunny outskirts of his mind, perhaps the reason may be found in a certain bleakness at the center.
December 4, 1986
Parenthetical page citations will refer to the following works: Joseph Epstein, “John Updike: Promises, Promises,” Commentary (January 1983), pp. 54–58; Frank Gado, ed., A Conversation with John Updike (The I dol, 1971); William R. Macnaughten, ed., Critical Essays on John Updike (G.K. Hall, 1982); and the following books by Updike, cited by abbreviation: AP = Assorted Prose (Knopf, 1974); M = Midpoint and Other Poems (Knopf, 1969); MS = A Month of Sundays (Knopf, 1975); PP = Picked-up Pieces (Knopf, 1975). ↩