brian 's Reviews > Roger's Version

Roger's Version by John Updike
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
193310
's review
Feb 25, 2009

really liked it
Recommended for: science people. god people. curious people.

roger’s version concerns a young scientist who believes he can prove the existence of god on his computer. as he puts it,

“…these numbers are the basic physical constants (of the universe), these are the terms of creation...”

recurring patterns in these numbers, the glue of the universe, prove something beyond the mere physical, Dale explains, in hope of receiving a grant from professor of hereticism, Roger Lambert. as laughable as it sounds, his arguments are made convincing as updike is never ready to dismiss or accept creationism, evolution, god, or technology without a knock-down brawl. (one is constantly awed by how much information, knowledge, and wisdom updike manages to pack into his novels)

contrasted against this are the fragile human characters who, as deeply and powerfully as any characters ingmar bergman has given us, suffer greatly in a cold and indifferent universe. and like bergman’s characters they turn to religion and sex and drugs and consumerism and, well, anything, to create chatter where god’s silence prevails.

given how horrible, even in 20th/21st century america, is the human condition, how terrible the burden of existence, updike seems to ask over and over how and why, rather than huddle around the fire for warmth and protection, rather than band together and flee plato’s cave, do we choose to turn away from one another, do we remain alone and content with flickering illusions on a stony wall…

and the way he writes about sex in this novel... as a means to flee rather than to come together; with minds that are infinite and bodies horrifyingly finite, with bodies that shit, sweat, stink, and exist in a perpetual state of decay:

”…Esther’s surprisingly substantial, downward-conical breasts with their bumpy mud-colored nipples, the left one of which has around it a few unnecessary hairs. She likes to thrust her breasts alternatingly into her young lover’s mouth while her wet nether mouth stretches around his prick; with Esther it all becomes a matter of mouths, opening interlocking and contorted like the apertures and intersections of hyperspace, Veronese surfaces graphed in more colors than nature can normally hold and that not even insects can see. Dale feels at times, intertwined with her, caught up in an abnormal geometry, his body distended on a web of warping appetite.”

kind of terrifying, huh?

updike didn’t write a single ‘great’ book, a moby dick or a scarlet letter, that will stand the test of time… but, in my mind, the totality of his body of work represents the post-war 20th century american experience in a way no other writer’s does. from the majesterial smallness of the Rabbit cycle to the ‘post-pill paradise’ of couples, from the 80s middle-class disillusionment and turn to eastern religion of S, to roger’s version’s mix of theology, technology, science, and god… there is, perhaps, no one who depicts with more accuracy and courage how we lived at this/that point in time…

18 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Roger's Version.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-44 of 44) (44 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Michelle (new)

Michelle "...updike seems to ask over and over how and why, rather than huddle around the fire for warmth and protection, rather than band together and flee plato’s cave, do we choose to turn away from one another, do we remain alone and content with the flickering illusions on the stony wall..."

Why, indeed.

Wow, your review makes me want to read Updike.


Manny Just can't understand why I haven't already read this. Thanks! Loved the review.


message 3: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Watkins Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I've never read Updike before but I'd like to read this. Almost sounds like a high-brow potboiler.


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Good Lord, Brian, you are inhaling these things. We need to get you a toddler to slow you down.

I'm glad you liked ROGER'S VERSION as much as I did, and I'm glad you appreciate how seriously Updike takes God. And yes, you're right: the knowledge he has overwhelms once you start to read all of his works. Another stirring passage in this book, for me, is his walk through the down and out neighborhood on his way to his neice's apartment. At first, it struck me as tedious, then it went on so long that I had to ask myself why it was in there? I think the book is addressing that very question. When we become so spiritually bankrupt and invest our lives in consumerism and sex, we end up having neighborhoods like this and people who, living in these neighborhoods, are left behind.


message 5: by Chloe (new)

Chloe "updike didn’t write a single ‘great’ book, a moby dick or a scarlet letter, that will stand the test of time… but, in my mind, the totality of his body of work represents the post-war 20th century american experience in a way no other writer’s does."

Do you think that maybe there is no way to encapsulate this particular zeitgeist in one book, the way that the "great" books of yesteryear did? That there's just so many different flavors of angst, depression, horror, monotony, and even joy, all evolving at such an unprecedented rapid rate, that it would take a lifetime of merely "good" books to even begin to do it justice?


message 6: by [deleted user] (last edited Mar 13, 2009 03:50PM) (new)

Incidentally, I agree with Logan's point and Brian's point about Updike not writing a single great book and why. And yet, the closest he came to an all-ecompassing vision of the 20th century, an epic that wrestles with God and the multitude of problems in our time, it is in his overlooked masterpiece IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES. What makes that book even more astute is that it confronts two Gods, Yahweh and Hollywood, and how one usurped the other.


message 7: by brian (last edited Feb 25, 2009 08:06PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   i'm not so sure i agree with the 'why' erik.
every generation tends to see their own as the most complex, sophisticated, chaotic, etc... as literature was able to sufficiently describe, say, the industrial revolution (which must've been as big a mindfuck to people then as the vast leaps in technology seem to us now), i see no reason why a sprawling 'loose baggy monster' (to steal james' description of tolstoy's masterpiece) of a book couldn't capture the chaos and spirit of the post-post-modern age. (is that where we now are?)

i simply don't think updike ever set out to do what fitzgerald or delillo did - that is, to write a book that defines one time. but i think he was aware that he was plugging away at it, piece by piece, over the years... y'know?

i went to the Iliad the other day and picked up my next batch of updikes and left behind in the beauty of the lilies. it's a big fucker. scared me. gonna go back there on saturday and pick it up. excited.


message 8: by brian (last edited Feb 25, 2009 10:34PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   NICE.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22391

erik: read the article. toward the end he makes almost the exact same point you made about the walk through the city...


message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

LILIES is a big fucker, Brian, but so are you, so don't be daunted and don't ever forget you're a big fucker; it's diminishing.

And as for the article: all right, so I'm not original, but then I knew I wasn't, and the symbolism of the wretched neighborhood seems pretty obvious. Let me tack something on though, in an attempt at fresh thought. The other really long passage in the book is Roger at the computer, trying to prove God's existence. (Incidentally, this was one of those passages that made me realized John Updike knows everything). I found this passage, like the passage in the wrecked neighborhood, to be another plunge into a modern form of Godlessness: one was physical, and this was intellectual, but they were both plunges into a Godless world wrought from idolatry, the former an idolatry borne of consumerism, the latter an idolatry of intellectualism.


brian   interesting stuff, erik.
i'm gonna pick up lilies this weekend but not gonna start it till i go to nyc in a three weeks (good stuff to read on the plane!)...


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Which Bergman films deal with consumerism? Gunnar Björnstrand goes to Wal-Mart?

Except for the unnecessary hairs, that sex excerpt was kinda hot. This erotica group is really taking its toll on me...

Great review, as always, but let's give Updike a rest, eh?


message 12: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy Let's not. I'm digging it. In fact, Roger's Version just got moved above The Coup at the top of my reading list. Sounds like much more interesting material. I've had my nose in Julian Jaynes and that Chomsky-Foucalt blather, but it's Updike I'll be hunting down at the bookstore this weekend.

Have any of you read Richard Powers? He's got a book -- Plowing the Dark -- which this Updike review brought to mind. There are all these obsessed software engineers toiling day and night in a poorly-lit building somewhere in California on a virtual reality machine, and they're wrestling with what it means to have an imagination, to create, and also with what it means for their relationships with each other. "God" isn't mentioned explicitly, but that's really what it's about, isn't it? No matter how much you inoculate the word with secularism? They want the VR machine to teach them God.

Which is interesting because somehow that's exactly what makes Powers' (and, from what I can tell, Updike's) stories not "science-fiction." Because if it were a guy, or virtual reality researchers trying to create God on a computer, to create a cyber-world to rule in 7 duty cycles with principles of physical law and morality all programmed in, that'd be a science fiction story for sure. Because it isn't universal. But to understand God -- to prove and define his behavior with physical constants and code -- I mean, that's something humans have been doing since we were. Computers are just the latest tool.




message 13: by brian (last edited Mar 13, 2009 07:22AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   isaiah... DFJ told me the EXACT SAME THING!
she's been kicking my ass to read powers for a long time and recently made the updike/powers comparison...
ok. plowing the dark sounds pretty great. i'm convinced. definitely gonna go to the Iliad this week and pick up some stuff.

i believe you're new to pasadena, aren't you? do you know the Iliad? it's in the valley and is the best used bookstore in the area. if you have the time, we'll meet for a beer and i'll show it to you...

yeah. and piss off, gothturd. you can have your obsessions (crap, shit, poo, scat, excrement) and i'll have mine.


message 14: by Jessica (last edited Feb 27, 2009 01:36PM) (new)

Jessica Isaiah, BE CAREFUL. Look at this guy's picture, for crying out loud! This freak from the Internet wants to meet for a beer? Watch out!

I like Richard Powers. I've been meaning to read his computer stuff but haven't so far -- I'm pretty sure he was a computer science guy before he was a writer? This thing I love and have to bring up every time Powers's name's mentioned is from the Salon guide to authors, and is along the lines of writers are supposed to write what they know, and Richard Powers knows everything. The books of his I've read are totally flawed, but also completely impressive and great.

Hey, we should all read one together! And it should be one of the computer ones, since we only mostly know each other in cyberreality!


message 15: by trivialchemy (last edited Feb 26, 2009 08:41PM) (new)

trivialchemy The books of his I've read are totally flawed, but also completely impressive and great.

Goddamn you're good. That's exactly how I feel. Plowing the Dark, for example. It's good, no doubt; but it's also deeply flawed. If you look at my non-review, I only gave it three stars. But in some very fundamental way, I forgive Powers his flaws -- for his sheer ambition and his scope -- and it is only the miniature Isaiah-shaped objectivist in the back of my head pulling all the little levers that insists I give three stars due to some vague set of literary criteria that I learned in freshman english.

And maybe the real reason I forgive Powers is that his flaws are my flaws. He gets caught up in his words and what he's saying and even the most wordlusty and convolution-hungry among us want to say, give it a rest, man! Show some restraint!

Because, Powers, he's somehow like the anti-Hemingway. And it always bothered me anyway: that Hemingway's prose could show so much self-restraint. His divorce from embellishment (in his language, I mean) was almost inhuman. And then you get The Echo Maker which was, really, technically, Powers' better book. But it felt restrained somehow, despite its brilliance, and a part of me actually missed the three-star Powers for the way he would so shamelessly have at it.

And Brian -- yes I'm new enough, and that sounds awesome. I've been getting my bookie kicks from Old Town's Borders, which is kind of like chugging a six-pack of bud light when what you really want is a bottle of wine and conversation with friends. And as a bonus, a plan for beer and books is clearly making Jessica jealous, which everyone brave enough to wear a pink shirt knows is the best way to make a woman stick around.


message 16: by brian (last edited Feb 26, 2009 11:25PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   dfj dfj dfj.
at the risk of just putting too much of my personal life out there to the rabble...
after an american idol party (* and **) of nachos and a lot lot lot of tequila... i am, um, shitfaced.

and what happens? i get a phone call from DFJ that she has a connection to some free morrissey tickets at webster hall. d'ya know what this means? webster hall is, like, tiny. like, real small. like, friends of mine have played there. and we're gonna see morrissey there. i win.

so dfj: let it go for one night and let all my sexual energy that would otherwise be flung straight at your beautiful self be hurled at this god-like man (and let's hope he reciprocates):


[image error]


oh, you can handle it for a night.

yeah, isaiah, let's get a beer and raise hell in a used book store. let dfj*** be jealous. she's moving out here in may. savor it, woman. anticipation is always better than the real thing, yeah?


* they totally fucked up with kicking out megan.
** that's right: american idol. you got a problem?
*** i love this woman


message 17: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Brian, re Webster Hall: my friend called me a fag hag then said we'd get drink tickets.

I told her I don't know if that's such a great idea.




(You know that's kind of an old picture of Morrissey, right?)


message 18: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I feel like the thing about Powers is that he'd a total genius who doesn't seem to have a real grasp of human interaction. He is like a semi-Asperger's writer's writer, bless his heart. I know what you mean about The Echo Maker seeming restrained. I haven't actually read much of his stuff.... I'm gonna, though!


message 19: by Pinky (last edited Feb 27, 2009 07:21AM) (new)

Pinky Jessica wrote: "I feel like the thing about Powers is that he'd a total genius who doesn't seem to have a real grasp of human interaction. He is like a semi-Asperger's writer's writer, bless his heart...."

You guys are in so many ways so dead-on about Powers--both Jessica and Isaiah nail the flawed outsized excellence of his work. And his difficulty with the people, as opposed to his enormous compassion for the human. (I heard a rumor about how he works -- lying in his bed, the words projected onto a screen facing him on the wall. Inside the machine...)

I also absolutely agree that the recent Echo is strangely the most polished and least engaging of 'em. But I think--this may be semantic wiggling--Plowing is less about God than about representation. How do we represent the world, and why? (This may, in fact, be exactly the same as Isaiah's point about trying to know God. But I'm no theologian. [They don't know nothing about my soul.*:])

What I love about his books is that they're not just novels about ideas -- ideas are the protagonists, more vivid--and alive--than the people in the narrative. Representation in Plowing, literature and consciousness in Galatea 2.2, and--my favorite, the amazing Gain *** which tries to be a novel with a corporation as a central character. And it works! And it sort of falls on its face. And I love it.

*since Brian allows footnotes, I apologize to my theologian friends for this dis, which is actually just a shout-out to Wilco.**


**and if one is going to show off in this manner, one better get the quote right.

***also be sure to check hyperlinks, as the GR book-link function sent interested parties to Dan Brown's Deception Point, which is only similar in that it seems to have been written without any clarity about how humans live.


message 20: by Chris (new)

Chris Jessica -- I think you're spot-on about Powers possibly being on the autism spectrum. I couldn't make it through more than 100 pages of The Echo Maker. It felt like it was written by a robot who was doing his best to portray real human interaction but couldn't quite do it because he is, you know, a robot.

Reading good fiction helps me to learn more about the human condition and it helps me to become a better person. Powers may know everything there is to know about stuff, but I don't read fiction to learn more stuff.


message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

I heard that with THE ECHO MAKER, Powers actually recited the book into one of those computers that transcribes what you say.

I liked GAIN deeply but felt that the corporate portion of the novel was too lacking in any humanity--just a long, satirical joke. I felt that THE ECHO MAKER was his most successful book, that is, he was able to mesh the science he's always thinking about into story that is full of heart, and one in which the science was actually relevant. Sometimes it just doesn't work for me, and with GOLDBUG he overwhelmed me: way too much fucking brilliance. Ease up, Dick, and just tell me what happened. But relevant to what you guys are talking about, I thought with GALATEA 2.2, he nailed it, that is, the story could feel very unfeeling and inhuman, but then it would break through with incredible humanity which, I think, meshed perfectly with the whole idea of creating love through a computer. I've always felt like Powers' entire thing isn't about the technology; it's about can we find human love within not only our technological world but also our perception of the world, which is becoming increasingly influenced by knowledge and technological knowledge. In that way, Isaiah's comparison to ROGER'S VERSION is quite apt. Roger wanted to find God through technology. Powers seems to want to find humanity through, and despite, technology. I think I've just gotten to where I make as much sense as the drunken Brian, so I'll shut up.


message 22: by Pinky (new)

Pinky I think that's brilliant, Erik. Keep talking. And/or drinking.


message 23: by [deleted user] (new)

(You know that's kind of an old picture of Morrissey, right?)

Exactly what I was thinking. 'Cause I was jealous!


message 24: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I feel like all this humanity and love is coming at me right now through the computer.


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

Feel it, Jessica. Trust it. It's real.


message 26: by trivialchemy (last edited Mar 13, 2009 07:22AM) (new)

trivialchemy I really dig where everyone went with this.

When I suggested that the protagonists of Plowing the Dark were using the VR machine to teach themselves about God, I definitely don't think I meant the Abrahamic big-man-in-the-sky (which y'all graciously seem to have picked up on). My snide aside about 'secularization' of the term was meant to be a signpost excusing me from using the word 'God' as a placeholder for anything ineffable about human experience and being.

And then, man, Erik and Mike y'all really nailed my half-idea down. I do think for Powers that technology is a perceptual bridge -- one that he would have link the external world of human interactivity and affect with the absolute world of numbers and rules. It's as though Powers believes that by using technology as a lens, he can anchor in his consciousness 'being human' with the celerity with which he might perceive computer code. Or, in the words Mike might use, the technology's operativity is a representation, a screen-projection, of the meaning of being human itself.

In this sense, the exegetical enterprise of Powers (or the function of his texts) is equivalent to the striving of the protagonist in Roger's Version. At their most naked, they are both trying to illuminate with source code the darkness of being.

And then this is where I think it gets really interesting. Because what this implies is that Jessica's suggestion that Powers is on the autism spectrum is a statement partially equivalent to the foregoing. At a very fundamental level, maybe Powers doesn't understand human interaction at all. He sits there in his bed with this projection on his wall and that computer microphone he talks into, and what he's building is this giant metaphor for what he thinks human interaction might be, in the only semiotic system that he understands. And we are drawn in by this fumbling effort, this grand and flawed enterprise, because none of us can truly understand humanity either. Too much of what it means to be human is unspoken -- it can not be said.

And so to watch Powers struggle from the ground up to construct this representation of human interaction in this elaborate and dazzling medium of network servers and neuroscience, to metaphorize what we can barely understand ourselves, is intoxicating.


message 27: by brian (last edited Feb 27, 2009 12:03PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   nice post, isaiah.
nice posts, everyone.
shit, i'm excited to read Powers. jessica's been hammering away at this one for a while... i'm stupid for not listening earlier!

what book(s) should i start with? echo maker? gain? goldbug? galatea? something else? help!


message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

[In this sense, the exegetical enterprise of Powers (or the function of his texts) is equivalent to the striving of the protagonist in Roger's Version. At their most naked, they are both trying to illuminate with source code the darkness of being.:]

That nails it, Isaiah. And that's exactly what the protagonist in Galatea 2.2 is trying to do, a protagonist who, I might add, seems the most like Powers of any he's written. Meanwhile, I just wish I had enough fucking brainpower to figure out how to italicize in these posts. Since I don't, I had to use those dumpy brackets to highlight Isaiah's words. Brian, anything but GOLDBUG, but that's just my opinion. I'm partial to GALATEA and ECHO MAKER, but GAIN ain't bad, either.



message 29: by [deleted user] (new)

[In this sense, the exegetical enterprise of Powers (or the function of his texts) is equivalent to the striving of the protagonist in Roger's Version. At their most naked, they are both trying to illuminate with source code the darkness of being.:]

That nails it, Isaiah. And that's exactly what the protagonist in Galatea 2.2 is trying to do, a protagonist who, I might add, seems the most like Powers of any he's written. Meanwhile, I just wish I had enough fucking brainpower to figure out how to italicize in these posts. Since I don't, I had to use those dumpy brackets to highlight Isaiah's words. Brian, anything but GOLDBUG, but that's just my opinion. I'm partial to GALATEA and ECHO MAKER, but GAIN ain't bad, either.



message 30: by brian (last edited Feb 27, 2009 12:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   erik, here's how to italicize:

follow the below, but put an "i" in the brackets rather than the "x":

goldbug

if you do that, goldbug becomes goldbug!

yeah, isaiah, the sentence -- "At their most naked, they are both trying to illuminate with source code the darkness of being."-- is great.

echo maker sounds amazing from its description, but isaiah claims it to be one of his more tame works? maybe i'll pick up echo maker and galatea and tear through both of 'em.


message 31: by trivialchemy (last edited Mar 13, 2009 07:22AM) (new)

trivialchemy Brian, maybe "tame" is the wrong word? I liked Echo Maker, it's a good novel. I would call it the more restrained but the more accessible of the two I've read. Plowing the Dark is much more indulgent, and you could easily get fed up with it and quit if it didn't jibe. From Erik's comments, it sounds to me like Galatea might be the real winner. In fact, after this bad ass discussion, I want to pick it up along with Roger's Version.


message 32: by [deleted user] (new)

just practicing


message 33: by brian (last edited Feb 27, 2009 01:00PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   dfj and tambo. still beautiful:

[image error]


message 34: by Jessica (last edited Feb 27, 2009 01:34PM) (new)

Jessica Brian -- and everyone! -- wait for me to finish Executioner's Song and read Galatea 2.0 with me!!! FUN!

I can lend you The Echo Maker or The Time of Our Singing, which I really loved but am not sure you would. I've also got Two Farmers on the Way to a Dance, which no one's mentioned and which I started but couldn't really get into, and abandoned. I think that's his first. Anyone got an opinion on it?

Isaiah, I really like what you said about Powers trying to find the code and all that! It is kind of like his novels are efforts to write a program explaining human interaction, which totally explains why they're so awesome but never entirely work.....


message 35: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Er, make that Three Farmers....


message 36: by [deleted user] (new)

Yeah, I did Three Farmers and found it an unfulfilling slog. Had it been my first Powers, I might not have returned to him. Incidentally, you've all no doubt noticed my newfound italicizing skills.. You make me a better person, BG. You make me whole.


message 37: by brian (last edited Feb 27, 2009 01:46PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   ah! you forgot to close the brackets, erik!


message 38: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy Erik, please leave it like that, it's hilarious. It's like a guy bragging about how expensive his pants were with his fly unzipped.

Jessica, I'd like to write a program explaining how to spell my name...


brian   oh shit!
isaiah just bitch-slapped both of y'all...


message 40: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Oops. Sorry! I'm usually really careful about stuff like that, but I guess I wasn't paying attention. What're you doing walking around with all those vowels, anyway?

I'll use my personal technological prowess to fix it.


message 42: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I know this is kind of off-topic, but when I was in college I read the whole entire Gertrude Stein book and then wrote a paper thinking it was The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas.

It was pretty embarrassing when I got the marked paper back.


message 43: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy This is currently my favorite Goodreads thread, in spite of the interspersed Morrisey headshots. You people are sofa king good!

And please, if you missed it, make sure you rewind to see Mike's third footnote in #19. Hilarity will ensue.


brian   thanks isaiah!

[image error]





back to top