The `version' according to Updike

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Roger's Version, by John Updike. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 329 pp. $17.95. A recent photo spread of ``local heroes'' in the New England Monthly shows John Updike clowning around with his hat in an open field. It appears he can make it stand on its brim, then fall onto his head.

What cannot John Updike do? At 54 he's one of America's most ubiquitous men of letters: His short stories, novels, criticism, and poetry just keep coming; reading him has become almost a vocation.

Even as an adaptation of his 11th novel is being filmed, Updike has published his 12th, and its appearance will inevitably focus attention on the substance behind the appearance.

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``Roger's Version'' is, in ways, vintage Updike. Redolent with the sounds and smells of New England -- this time Cambridge and Boston -- it confirms once again Updike as a ``local hero.''.

By a combination of styles, Updike widens the range considerably beyond New England. In page after page of virtuoso writing, Updike treats the bemused reader to two extremes of discourse, medieval Latin and state-of-the-art computerese. Roger's philosophical ruminations involve us in long passages of medieval Latin, sometimes paraphrased, sometimes translated in footnotes. The almost dreamy quality of these passages is often quite moving. There are also pages and pages of advanced computer talk and a few shorter ones explaining math concepts.

It's as though Updike, a master of words, had challenged himself to convert into the flow of his novel the most resistant stuff he could think of, using it both as expression and symbol of the cultural polarities that inform his novel.

The seriousness of the artistic intention is brought into question by the prominence in ``Roger's Version'' of what has become one of Updike's trademarks: pages of closely observed sex. Updike uses this technique to show Roger's obsession not only with carnality but also with philosophical problems based on a perception of the tension and conflict between the mind and the body. However, Updike's X-rated passages become just embarrassing in their excess. . The story revolves around Roger Lambert, who, 14 years before the novel opens, had lost his way, his marriage, and his job as a clergyman when he met and was seduced by Esther, who subsequently became his second wife. Esther, Roger fears, is having an affair with a young computer hacker named Dale. Some of the sexual detail is in fact Roger's imaginings.

Early in the novel Dale comes to Roger, who is now a professor at a divinity school, to discuss the likelihood that the computer could help relieve the theological doubt pictured by so-called ``post-Christian'' writers and which Dale himself experiences in an excruciating way.

Roger meets his match in Verna, the volatile 19-year-old daughter of Roger's half-sister back in Cleveland. Verna lives with her mulatto daughter in a housing project. She piques Roger's social as well as personal ``guilty consciousness''; and she finally occasions his second act of adultery, as well as reflections on the welfare system, abortion, and Roger's aging vanity.

The irony of a Protestant -- Roger is really a materialist -- professor of divinity specializing in early medieval heresies suggests the intellectual scope, or convolution, of ``Roger's Version.'' Roger not only appropriates Tertullian's epistemology (nothing gets to the ``soul'' but by way of the ``flesh'') to justify indulging his carnal appetites, he uses it to combat Dale's pursuit of the ``anthropic principle,'' or the idea that the unique combinations of elements on which material life hinge speak of divine intentions. Dale feels that if he can only discover numerical coincidences in the mathematical patterns at the subatomic level, he will have proved the existence of a cosmic creator.

Roger, whose math is as weak as his faith, quotes Tertullian: ``Credo quia absurdum est: I believe because it is absurd''; and by the end, Roger and the intractible nature of things seem to have gotten the better of Dale both as a person and as a hacker.

In the end, ``Roger's Version'' gets the better of both the reader and, one somehow feels, John Updike himself.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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