Author: John Updike
Updike, John (2006). Terrorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
PS3571.P4 T44 2006
Date Posted: November 30, 2016
Reviewed by Robert Stone
For some 50 years John Updike has been examining America in his fiction and essays, reflecting upon its art and history, documenting its volatile progressions. In their longings, in their occasional self-discoveries and more usually in their self-deceptions, the characters in his novels and stories have demonstrated the desperation with which people in America have sought to find some equilibrium against the background of headlong change. To ponder Updike’s work in now old-fashioned sociopolitical terms, it might be said that he examines our struggle to maintain a viable center for our inner life while enduring the most revolutionary force in history—American capitalism. According to some accounts, the term “Americanization” was coined in France during the 19th century, and even then there seemed to hover about it a wariness, a prescient caution. Today, nobody abroad and very few people in the United States who invoke “Americanization” mean anything good by it. The word “globalization,” used negatively, has come to serve as a virtual synonym.
How distinctly American “Americanization” actually was, and how American it remains, are open questions. Certainly the United States was the first country to undergo the processes that now go by that name. Probably they came out of the Civil War and its aftermath. In dystopic usage the suggestion was of quick greenbacks primitively acquired by new money, the ruthless subjection of the land and the aboriginal people, and all the confusion and suffering and mess wrought by mines, railroads and factories. The term invokes the transformation of the landscape into unnatural mechanical shapes, of night into day, of speed for its own sake, an irrational passion for novelty at the expense of quality, a worship of gimmickry. Most threateningly for many, “Americanization” also meant a setting aside of the social order in ruthless pursuit of profit, a jury-rigged class system based on money, a rootless and dislocated population, a random disordering of priorities. In fact there are older people who can testify, on the word of their aged forebears, that a great many Americans didn’t much care for what is now known as “Americanization” either and some of them, ironically enough, blamed it on foreign influences.
This pondering of truisms is more germane to an appreciation of John Updike’s new novel, Terrorist, than one might first think. One of the most interesting things about this book is its convergence of imagined views about the way this country is and the way it appears. The views are, variously, those of an American high school boy, half-Irish, half-Egyptian by background, who is intoxicated by Islam; an elderly Lebanese immigrant; that immigrant’s American-born son; and a rather ambiguous Yemeni imam who is the high school boy’s religious teacher.
In one scene, the newly graduated boy and his Lebanese-American boss are talking about American history as they drive past some of the battlefields of the American Revolution. The youth, Ahmad Mulloy, expresses a plaintive regret that the Americans won. If the colonies had been restored to their British obedience, he says, the place might have evolved into “a kind of Canada, a peaceable and sensible country, though infidel.”
“Dream on,” says the boss, who is himself a figure of conflict and intrigue. “There’s too much energy here for peace and sensible.”
The setting on which this parable of our 21st-century condition unfolds is northern New Jersey, that familiar landscape of marshland and industrial slough, supporting the decaying remnants of once prospering immigrant-energized towns. Though it marks the opposite approach to the proud towers of Manhattan, much of it might have served F. Scott Fitzgerald as a model for the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby, where from a billboard on the eastern margin of the city the unseeing eyes of the optician Dr. T. J. Eckleburg overlooked the desperate comings and goings of deluded America 80 years ago. But the great informing image in the sky over Jersey, still so conjurable in memory as to serve as a totem, is the tower of smoke twisting skyward, replacing the elongated dominoes that had lorded like idols over the plain. Sept. 11, 2001, was the day all eyes turned heavenward there, and hundreds of the sons and daughters of New Jersey died. New York, like the city of Ad in the Koran, was struck for its wealth and pride, and it was as though the dark and hateful underside of our own religious traditions had come for us, to the satisfaction of Osama bin Laden and Jerry Falwell.
The invisible but somehow immanent presence of Sept. 11’s inferno over New Jersey serves to remind us that Updike, whose work has never departed too far from his religious concerns, has written about apocalypse before. In his haunting but unresolved novel Toward the End of Time (1997), he presents a war-and crime-ravaged terminal America, its sky blighted by a monstrous second moon—he calls it a torus—that looms over the land as a mockery of grace. The America in which this new story unfolds is not so freakish or surreal, but its moral exhaustion and reprobation are nearly as intense. Come to preside in judgment are not metaphysical forces but an assembly of religiously driven immigrants, certain in their own convictions, which they are convinced equip them to see through the pretensions of their adopted country and set it to rights by slaughter. Terrorist is not mixed with symbolist-surrealism as Toward the End of Time was. Its characters inhabit a real New Jersey, for the most part, and they are credible individuals.
Ahmad’s mother, Terry, is a would-be artist, abandoned by her Egyptian husband and employed as a nurse’s aide in a local hospital. Overworked, unhappy in love and her métier, she has had little time for her highly intelligent, sensitive son who, in the throes of teendom, rejects her. The one person who takes an interest in young Ahmad is his high school counselor, Jack Levy, who visits Ahmad’s house after hours with a stack of college catalogs. Maybe it’s a little hard to believe that weary, burned-out Jack, on the edge of retirement, would put so much effort into the fortunes of this prickly adolescent. Maybe he’s a mite too dedicated to guidance counseling to be true—but nonetheless Updike makes him believable at the outset. Before too long a romance develops between the unhappily married Levy and Terry Mulloy. For Jack it’s an unexpected late-life comfort; for wary, cynical Terry it’s a limited engagement.
Meanwhile, the somewhat ferret-like imam, Shaikh Rashid, has been directing Ahmad’s vocational path toward, of all things, truck driving. He also answers the boy’s questions about faith in a casuistic fashion that bothers young Ahmad, a religiously gifted person whose own faith partakes of an almost Sufi-like mysticism. Ahmad’s religious instruction provides the opportunity for some long discourses on Islam in the modern world, one of the didactic areas of the novel that some readers may not have much patience for. But these dialogues, along with the reflections they provoke in Ahmad, serve Updike’s intentions—the examination of contemporary America exposed to the passions in the non-American world. Updike can clearly imagine his way into the moralizing resentments this country brings forth in the hearts of those who are at once underprivileged and confidently traditional. On the other hand, this story is no supine catalog of self-recrimination. Its tensions are well calibrated and the points of view clearly and at times ironically presented.
Through the imam, Ahmad finds a job with a furniture company owned by Lebanese immigrants. One of their trips to pick up furniture is the scene of the conversation referred to earlier, in the course of which the Lebanese-American proprietor’s son, Charlie, treats Ahmad to further instruction about the American condition and Islam’s alternatives, in the course of which he summarizes George Washington’s campaigns of 1776-77 in so much anecdotal detail that enthusiasts of David McCullough’s recent 1776 will feel Charlie’s read it too. To imagine that he has takes nothing away from the characterization; in fact, it seems right. It also furthers the didactic purposes of Terrorist, which seem to be its primary concern.
The last part of the novel is suspenseful. It brings together a serviceable plot, which leans a little heavily on coincidental connections, a questionable provocation and some broadly motivated acts of heroism. It seems meant as a fable, and any good fable requires some derring-do. The most satisfactory elements in Terrorist are those that remind us that no amount of special pleading can set us free of history, no matter how oblivious and unresponsive to it we may be. And that history, in disposing of empires, admits of no innocents and spares no one.
Reviewed by Rachel Donadio
At a recent conference on faith and reason organized by the PEN American Center, Martin Amis introduced a passage by Joseph Conrad about religious belief. “Or faith,” as Amis qualified it in his gravelly voice, “faith, recently and rather endearingly defined as ‘the desire for the approval of supernatural beings.’ Terribly sweet, that.” At this, the packed audience at Town Hall in Manhattan issued a knowing and slightly complicit laugh, as if to suggest there was a stark choice between faith or reason—and it would take reason.
A century ago, Conrad wrote about terrorism in The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, novels that drew on European political turmoil to address deeper moral questions. Today, some of our most ambitious novelists are struggling to do the same thing—only a vast cultural and linguistic divide separates them from their chosen subjects, men like those who attacked the World Trade Center. In John Updike’s new novel, Terrorist, published this month, Ahmad Mulloy, an Irish-Egyptian high school student from New Jersey, falls under the sway of a radical imam who encourages him to become a suicide terrorist. In April, The New Yorker published an excerpt from Amis’s fictional reckoning with terrorism, which focused on Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian tactical leader of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The two accounts raise questions about how far the Western literary imagination can take us into the minds and motivations of Islamic terrorists. For a writer with no Arabic and a limited understanding of Islam, is literary skill enough? What kind of research is needed? What’s the best way in: focusing on the mind of the terrorist, or the society from which he emerges?
For his part, Updike approached the subject with an awareness of his limitations. “I thought that I could present a sympathetic view of a terrorist, or dramatize or animate the terrorist’s point of view,” he said in a recent telephone interview. But the character “had to be an American. . . . With so many journalists and other novelists on the job, there was no need to try to understand the Saudi or Syrian or Palestinian terrorist. Others can do that better.” To prepare, he consulted the Koran, The 9/11 Commission Report, a few books on suicide terrorism and Islam, and New Jersey Day Trips. (Ahmad becomes a truck driver there.) “I even bought something called ‘The Koran for Dummies,’” Updike said. “I tried to acquaint myself with Arabic and the Arabic of the Koran as it might be handled in lessons, probably not very realistically rendered lessons.” (Ahmad studies Arabic at his local mosque.)
As in Hanif Kureishi’s prescient short story from the mid-90’s, My Son the Fanatic, Updike’s Ahmad sees Islam as an alternative to a sex-crazed culture. Other characters sympathize with him, albeit in complicated ways. “The crazy Arabs are right,” Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor says while in bed with Ahmad’s mother, with whom he’s having an affair. “Hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen to the lyrics of these rock and rap stars.”
The suburban adulterers in the bedroom are characteristic Updike, just as Amis’s fictional portrait of Mohamed Atta comes off as pure Amis. The New Yorker excerpt opens with a quotation from The 9/11 Commission Report: “No physical, documentary or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why Atta and [Abdulaziz] Omari drove to Portland, Me., from Boston on the morning of Sept. 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of Sept. 11.” Amis finds the explanation in the repression of various appetites. He imagines Atta as constipated, his digestive system a stand-in for a deeper existential blockage. “Atta was not religious; he was not even especially political. He had allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his generation. To unite ferocity and rectitude in a single word: nothing could compete with that,” Amis writes. “If you took away all the rubbish about faith, then fundamentalism suited his character, and with an almost sinister precision. For example, the attitude toward women: the blend of extreme hostility and extreme wariness he found highly congenial.”
Some writers in the Islamic world say they’re wary of Western fictional treatments of Islamic terrorism. “I find them speculative, sometimes dangerous,” the Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra wrote in an e-mail message. “It’s hard for a Westerner to get to the bottom of things. He’s forced to dwell on the networks, the operations and motivations of terrorist organizations and to ignore the essential: the mentality, the fundamentalist philosophy.” Khadra’s new novel, The Attack, is the story of an Israeli-Arab doctor trying to understand how his wife became a suicide terrorist. Khadra is the nom de plume of Mohammed Moulesshoul, a former Algerian Army officer. He said he spent eight years fighting against Algeria’s Islamist opposition and sees fundamentalism as “an extremely violent way of expressing one’s identity, one’s ferocious need to exist. Hatred against the West is only a catalyzing pretext, a way of rallying the kamikazes around a utopian ideal”—establishing a caliphate from Indonesia to Morocco.
Islamism can feed on a broader malaise. “It’s more a general oppressiveness of the culture,” the Iranian-American novelist Nahid Rachlin said in a recent interview. Angry young men in Islamic countries are contending not just with sexual repression, she said, but with oppressive governments, a bleak economy, “the general frustrations of daily life.” In her novels Foreigner (1979) and the just published Jumping Over Fire, Rachlin, who has lived in the United States since the 70s, writes about people caught between two cultures. In Foreigner, set in Iran on the brink of the Islamic revolution, an Iranian woman who has been living somewhat joylessly in Boston with her American husband returns to Tehran for a visit and decides to stay. In spare prose, Rachlin explores the unresolved tensions between the familiar cultural and religious restrictions of Iran and the anxious-making freedom of the West.
For the most part, “Arab writers are dealing with the conditions and situations that lead young people to consider violent reactions,” according to Marilyn Booth, a translator of Arabic and professor of comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She cited the Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat’s Disciples of Passion (1993), a novel about the Lebanese Civil War, in which a brief cameo of a suicide bomber “helps to fill in the alienation and utter craziness of the war,” and the Iraqi novelist Muhsin al-Ramli’s Scattered Crumbs (2000), set in an Iraqi village during the Iran-Iraq war. Such novels “are not so likely to focus on the end result”—a terrorist attack—“that is perhaps more of interest to Western audiences,” Booth said. “Arab authors (and audiences) are more likely to focus on process, and the resulting picture isn’t going to resemble a front-page news story in an American newspaper.”
Newspaper reporting, however, forms the basis for a notable recent American novel about Islamic terrorism, Lorraine Adams’s Harbor (2004), about a group of Algerian illegal immigrants in Boston who become somewhat unwittingly enmeshed in a possible terrorist plot. A former investigative reporter for The Washington Post, Adams covered the federal investigation into a group of Algerians accused of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport in 1999, and had access to hours of phone calls recorded by the F.B.I. “I got to hear the conversations that these men had with one another when no one’s listening, when they’re not talking to infidel white woman Lorraine Adams,” she said. In Harbor, the main factor in the young men’s lives is economic hardship and hopelessness, not religion. Adams conducted extensive interviews with a jailed suspect. “He was a believer in certain ways,” she said, but his beliefs “started to waver” when she questioned him.
It may take some time for the novelistic accounts to eclipse the journalistic ones. “We’re all a little slow maybe to wrap our minds around this fundamental new factor in American life, and in Western life really,” Updike said. “These are deep waters that have us all kind of puzzling.”
 Robert Stone, “Updike’s Other America,” in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (June 18, 2006). Downloaded November 30, 2016. Robert Stone’s recent novel is Bay of Souls (2003). His book, a memoir titled Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, was published in 2007
 Kean, Thomas H. (2004) and Lee Hamilton, compliers. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. Also includes recommendations designed to guard against future attacks. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office