In my younger days I used to look forward eagerly to the next John Updike novel, until he became little more than an upscale pornographer. I haven’t read anything he has written in years, and this one looks supremely missable — unless one wants an insight into how wealthy postmodern Americans view with careful, studied generosity and understanding the mujahedin who have vowed to destroy their comforts. Updike may indeed be the harbinger of a new radical chic that focuses not on the Black Panther Leonard Bernstein celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s memorable piece, but on the mujahedin.
“In ‘Terrorist,’ a Cautious Novelist Takes On a New Fear,” from the New Duranty Times (aka New York Times), with thanks to David:
John Updike’s 22nd novel, “Terrorist,” about a Muslim in a city that is much like Paterson, N.J., will go on sale next week.
For his new novel, “Terrorist,” however, he ventured onto the Web to research bomb detonators. He was fairly certain, he remarked recently during an interview in Boston, that the only detonator he could recall “” the one that Gary Cooper plunges in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” “” must be out of date, but he was also reassured to discover, as he put it, that “the Internet doesn’t like you to learn too much about explosives.”…
And he hired a car and a driver to take him around some of the seedier neighborhoods in Paterson, N.J., and to show him some churches and storefronts that had been converted into mosques. “He did his best, but I think I puzzled him as a tour customer,” Mr. Updike said.
“Terrorist,” which comes out from Alfred A. Knopf next week, is set in Paterson “” or, rather, in a slightly smaller, tidier version of the city, called New Prospect “” and is about just what the title says. Its protagonist is an 18-year-old named Ahmad, the son of a hippie-ish American mother and an Egyptian exchange student, now absent, who embraces Islam and is eventually recruited to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel.
The new novel is Mr. Updike’s 22nd and in some ways a departure….Originally, though, he imagined the protagonist as a young Christian, an extension of the troubled teenage character in his early story “Pigeon Feathers,” who comes to feel betrayed by a clergyman. “I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith,” he said. “The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world.”
When Mr. Updike switched the protagonist’s religion to Islam, he explained, it was because he “thought he had something to say from the standpoint of a terrorist.”
He went on: “I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody’s trying to see it from that point of view. I guess I have stuck my neck out here in a number of ways, but that’s what writers are for, maybe.”
And we do need to understand this. We do not need to sympathize with it.
He laughed and added: “I sometimes think, ‘Why did I do this?’ I’m delving into what can be a very sore subject for some people. But when those shadows would cross my mind, I’d say, ‘They can’t ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist.’ ”
Ahmad is lovable, or at least appealing; he’s in many ways the most moral and thoughtful character in the entire book, and he gains in vividness from being pictured in that familiar Updikean setting, the American high school….
When he was in high school, Mr. Updike added, his own head was “in The New Yorker instead of the Koran,” and so while working on “Terrorist” he again picked up that religious text, a book he first read when learning how to impersonate Colonel EllelloÃ», the narrator of Mr. Updike’s 1978 novel, “The Coup.”
“A lot of the Koran does not speak very eloquently to a Westerner,” he said. “Much of it is either legalistic or opaquely poetic. There’s a lot of hellfire “” descriptions of making unbelievers drink molten metal occur more than once. It’s not a fuzzy, lovable book, although in the very next verse there can be something quite generous.”
“Terrorist” even includes some Koran passages in Arabic transliteration; Shady Nasser, a graduate student, helped Mr. Updike on those sections. “My conscience was pricked by the notion that I was putting into the book something that I can’t pronounce,” he said, but he added: “Arabic is very twisting, very beautiful. The call to prayer is quite haunting; it almost makes you a believer on the spot. My feeling was, ‘This is God’s language, and the fact that you don’t understand it means you don’t know enough about God.’ “
If Updike really means that, he should convert to Islam. But of course a hallmark of his set is that they never quite mean what they say.
For all its theological concerns, “Terrorist” is also an authentic Updike novel, and, thankfully, includes some sheet-rumpled, love-flushed sex scenes between Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, and Jack Levy, a guidance counselor at the high school.
Ah. So it will not be all that much of a departure after all — it is starting to sound like a standard Updike novel.
“I was happy “” because there was so much shaky ground in the writing of this novel “” when Jack began to hit on Terry Mulloy,” Mr. Updike said. “I felt I was in a scene I could handle. That little romance was very real “” to me, at least. I liked those two because they’re normal, godless, cynical but amiable modern people.”
Which, of course, describes Updike himself, and his audience, to a T: normal, godless, cynical and amiable. Such people believe they are being broadminded and generous when they paint sympathetic, loving portraits of terrorists. In fact, of course, they’re just being suicidal.