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A Mirror; Not a Vision


Every new John Updike novel is an event. With a reputation built on twenty-plus novels and reams of other writing, Updike’s books attract the attention of legions of major writers and critics.

Terrorist, his latest, has not been atypical in that regard.

“Terrorist” (John Updike)

Yet Terrorist is not a typical Updike novel. The typical Updike novel is a study in the personal tragedies of middle-class suburban Americans. His concerns may be with social pathologies and universal longings, but the stories are rooted in the morality and mortality of individuals.

Terrorist is set in a world apart from the suburban bedroom: geographically, across the river from New York City in gritty urban New Jersey, and politically, into an arena where the transgressions are more serious than adultery. And while several perceptive reviewers identify religion, specifically Islam, as a main engine in the development of the story and the terrorist, I think Updike is writing yet again about America, and that what he says about America is more interesting than anything he says about Islam.

We know from the title what the book – plotted as a thriller, another departure for Updike – is about, and we know from the start who the eponymous terrorist is. What we don’t know until the very end is how the plot (pun irresistible) will turn out: Why does the teenager-turned-terrorist follow his path?

Religion is clearly a central force in the make-up of eighteen-year old Ahmad Mulloy, son of a long-absent Egyptian exchange student and the Irish-American mother who has raised him while working as a nurse’s aide. In a mosque located in an inner-city building that also houses a check-cashing store and a nail salon, Ahmad finds reprieve from the typical teenage torments.

Updike takes great care in making this religious milieu authentic, and it is obvious he spent a great deal of time and energy learning about the Quran and Islam. Much that he learned makes it onto the page, and the novel is richer for it. Interestingly, however, there is little consensus about which of his earlier books is the better example of his religious interest as it applies to Terrorist.

Robert Stone, in the New York Times Book Review, points to Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1997) for a religious antecedent; Yvonne Zipp, in the Christian Science Monitor, has in mind In the Beauty of Lilies (1996); and Jonathan Raban, in the New York Review of Books, is reminded of the religious zealot in Roger’s Version (1986).

So religion is familiar ground for Updike, but is it the actuating force in Ahmad‘s story and the central point of Updike‘s story?

Islam, especially the virulent version practiced by the imam who trains Ahmad, is obviously capable of creating terrorists, and Updike does not shy away from that reality in the book or in comments he has made elsewhere. Yet he has also said that he initially “imagined [his terrorist as] a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith.”

However, it is not the imam who is most important to Ahmad embarking on his treachery but his Lebanese-American boss Charlie, who is in league with the imam and his (largely faceless) associates but clearly not an earnest co-religionist. Charlie, it becomes clear, knew of Ahmad and had plans for him well before Ahmad even knew Charlie existed. And Charlie is no religious zealot who believes in the idea of purity that Ahmad so desperately embraces—or, at least, wants to embrace.

It is not clear to me what Charlie wants or who he is. We know he hates America, but is he a foreign agent, an anarcho-nihilist with no larger aim than to inflict some pain on America, or, as Raban suggests as a possibility, an agent provocateur for the CIA?

If Charlie is the bad influence whispering in one of Ahmad’s ears, Jack Levy is the well-intentioned voice in his other. Levy is the overworked—or is he just tired?—guidance counselor who becomes aware of Ahmad only when he is about graduate. Levy, a secular Jew, is chagrined but not surprised that this promising student has escaped any positive guidance by the school system, and he takes extra measures to convince Ahmad to consider college instead of truck-driving school.

I think Updike would have us take Ahmad’s education as a proxy for opportunity in America. High school and college are there for Ahmad–and he’s allowed to ignore publicly available education, too. Yes, that opportunity is not limitless for a young man with Ahmad’s background; yes, we too often let down or even hinder someone who could use a nudge or encouragement or a little direction. Still, American high schools are better than madrassas.

There is another clue that Updike may be consciously telling yet another story about America and that Ahmad’s mother is representative of the country’s nurturing—remember, she’s a nurse’s aide—and its permissiveness.

We know Updike takes character names seriously: It is no accident that his most famous creation, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, has a surname that means “a unit of length equal to one hundred-millionth (10-8) of a centimeter.” That dedication to precision indicates a style that sliced up the suburbs. (“Reality is—chemically, atomically, biologically—a fabric of microscopic accuracies,” Updike once said in an award acceptance speech.)

In Terrorist Updike’s protagonist may well be a conscious echo of Beckett’s Molloy, another novel largely about the title character’s quest—for his mother. Updike’s lead character’s name this time—if it is indeed a conscious choice—is a comment on the plot of the novel, not the style

If Charlie hijacks Ahmad’s faith—there is nothing necessarily violent in what attracted Ahmad to Islam—and uses it to exploit him as an instrument of terror, Jack starts out with good intentions and allows his interest in Ahmad to deliver him into the bed of Ahmad’s half-bohemian mother. No wonder Ahmad is confused. That confusion is amplified by the overtures from a flirty, friendly, horny schoolmate of Ahmad’s who tortures him as only an eighteen-year old virgin can be tormented. Stirred and stimulated by this ripe young woman and left very much to his own devices by his mother, Ahmad falls victim to a pack of men who hijack and exploit his faith.

Like the foreign-born terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and the young men who carried out bombings in London and Madrid, Ahmad is an intelligent middle-class male who adopts a violent version of hatred for the West.

Unlike the Islamic terrorists we’ve known here in the U.S., Ahmad is homegrown. And in that regard, the terrorist most like Ahmad who we have in a novel is Tyler Durden, the doppelgänger of the Narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” Tyler says as part of explanation for his predicament and the mayhem that follows, “I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”

That is a question that has bedeviled many an Updike character, including Ahmad. For Ahmad—for Updike—the answer is probably, “Yes.”

Ahmad’s long-disappeared father is, in his mind, some romanticized ideal of a parent: just as his grasp of Islam is idealized. His present but permissive mother’s quasi-bohemian lifestyle conflicts with the purity (he thinks he) seeks in Islam, and it is her liberality that allows him to nurture a religious ideal that leads him to trouble.

Allowed to make his own choices, Ahmad’s mistakes result from a number of adolescent missteps he would almost certainly not make with another year of maturity behind him. His quest is for some kind of purity he finds in Islam, but it is the most impure character he encounters who exploits his quest. Ahmad’s mother, like America, offers everything but that purity; yet Ahmad would have better for looking in her more pragmatic, if less pure, direction.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 12:36 PM | Permalink

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