John Updike is one of those authors who, when I read them, I find myself asking the question, "Dudes. Have your children read this?" Another John comes to mind… last name, Irving. These writers seem to be fearless regarding whichever reader's sensitivities they may be over-activating.
And I, for one, admire this.
Here in Roger's Version, published in 1986, Updike is true to form, every character having their demons loosened and running amok, it seems.
In this one, there is an added emphasis on that word "seems" though, because it's written in first-person by what can only be concluded to be a very unreliable narrator, a professor of church history, named Roger Lambert. The majority of the book is an account of stuff he cannot possibly know, for the most part.
You could say that the entire thing revolves around an imagined affair that his wife Esther is having with a young computer whiz kid -- a university student who approaches Roger hoping he can influence the tenured prof into negotiating a grant for him to fund a project wherein he is attempting to prove the existence of God.
Dale, the wannabe theological wunderkind, succeeds in getting the grant -- but at the expense of coming to loggerheads with Professor Lambert concerning the very goal of the project. Roger does not agree that the existence of God should become a proven fact. The reader begins to realize that Lambert's going-to-bat [as it were] for Dale, is a veiled desire to see the kid fail. And meanwhile, Roger concocts an elaborate and detailed affair between Dale and Esther. We are never sure if anything is really taking place as Roger imagines it to be. In a sense, everything within the book is Roger's "version" of it.
Even when he himself develops a lust-filled attraction to his highly promiscuous runaway niece, Verna. She is a mere 19 turning 20. This is the second inner stream of the story. Again, we are never really sure if we are getting an accurate record of what takes place. But if we are, then Roger is entertaining a roomful of demons moreso than everyone else combined, as they are, in his over-active imagination.
It is a well-written, well-conceived book.
I only wish I had read it earlier. As in, 26 years ago, when it was hot off the presses and I myself [in 1987] was entering a four-year course in theology. In and around the blatantly described sex scenes [imagined or not] the book raises a myriad of relevant questions about not only the existence of God, but existence itself. Reading it back then may have helped influence some of my own thoughts on these issues while I wrestled them to the ground for the next two decades.
Then again, I still wrestle them today.