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In Updike's Defense

January 25, 1987

John Updike's latest novel, "Roger's Version" (Knopf) has attracted quite a bit of critical attention--in the Los Angeles Times (The Book Review, Sept. 14, 1986) and elsewhere. Literary critics have variously stressed the "darkness" or pessimism of the book or criticized Updike's facility as a "glosser." What these critics miss, however, is a striking parallelism between Roger's version of his own story and scientists' views on cosmology or the origin of life.

In minute detail and yet on the basis of very few "experimental" clues, Roger describes the origins of his wife Esther's (Hester?) affair with Dale (Dimsdale?). Many of the current cosmological models (or theories on the origin of life) describe the evolution of the universe through its first few seconds in similarly minute detail and on the basis of just as scant empirical evidence.

Dale, doubly an intruder, sees in the "fine tuning" required by "inflationary" cosmology to make the theory agree with scientific facts (or similar aspects of the theory of the origin of life) an opening for a deistic approach to science. He (like some scientists) forgets that probability concepts do not apply to single events (like the universe) and that no matter how improbable, an event that has already occurred requires no miracle to explain it.

A reading of "Roger's Version" may show some scientists that their reasoning is on as shaky a basis as Dale's. There is a dangerous tendency in science not to search for improbable effects, effects not predicted by the commonly accepted theories. The excuse given is that if you lose a penny on a dark street, the place to look for it is under the street light since chances of finding it in the dark are nil. As a survivor of both the Holocaust and involuntary youthful indoctrination with Dialectical Materialism, I find it hard to believe in an "all-knowing God" or an "all-explaining, ultimate" scientific system, and thus cannot accept this excuse.

Is Updike willing to look for the penny where the penny is, in the dark? I think so, and I hope that in a sequel to this book (which itself is a sequel to "A Month of Sundays"), which may well be called "Dale's Version," he will tell us the story from another angle. For these reasons, I believe that Updike has produced, in "Roger's Version," the Bildungsroman of the second half of this century.


Professor of Physics

UC Irvine

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