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John Updike

London: Hamish Hamilton, 2006
$24,95; 310 pp. ISBN—13: 978-0-241-14355-1


Reviewed by Sylvie Mathé



In the new world that was born on 9/11, the place of fiction is yet to be ascertained. The shadow of catastrophe that extends from the vanished "looming towers," to quote Lawrence Wright's title in his study of "Al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11" (New York: Knopf, 2006) seems to split the experience of the world into a “before” and an “after.” As for “during,” it is an uncertain territory that few writers of fiction have dared venture to explore so far, and in those rare cases within the brevity of the short story form: Updike in his "Varieties of Religious Experience" (The Atlantic Monthly, November 2002)—the title of which rings with echoes of William James's reflections on individual religious experiences—and more recently Martin Amis in his troubling short story "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" (The New Yorker, April 24, 2006). Five years after the event, its aftermath is only beginning to be belatedly registered in fiction—as though a safe buffering of time were necessary to look backward as well as forward. Jay McInerney's The Good Life (2006), which focuses on the radical changes brought about by the shattering of the twin towers in the life of Corrine and Russell, his two heroes from Brightness Falls (1992), Ian McEwan's Saturday (2005), a day in the life of a London neurosurgeon, which reflects on the human condition in the West following 9/11 as well as on the power of literature, or Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), in which the nine-year old son of a victim of the crashing of the World Trade Centre embarks on a quest to build life out of death, are the first vistas opened onto the world “after” and the first soundings of the reverberations of the event in a society left numb and dumb by the disaster.

John Updike's Terrorist  (2006) is another such venture into the post 9/11 fiction, and an unlikely one, at first sight, for the novelist's twenty-second novel, a far cry from what constitutes his favourite terrain, Middle America. In Terrorist, the spokesman of mainstream America turns to the story of an Arab-American teenager who graduates from his New Jersey high school to become a Jihad operative, involved in a plot to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel. Yet, in spite of the oddity of the focus, the familiar Updike ingredients are there—faith, sex, death, high school, coming of age, the dereliction of America—, in a highly familiar setting as well—Paterson, New Jersey, thinly disguised as the fictional town of New Prospect, the heartland of American idealism turned to urban wasteland. The New Jersey saga of In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) that similarly began in Paterson and ended in the blasting fire of a Waco-like massacre, is thus carried into the XXIst century, unless it be an updated version of Philip Roth's Newark American Pastoral (1997) and of its days of wrath and fanatical terrorism. 

Indeed Terrorist traces the story of an Arab-American high school senior from New Prospect, Ahmad Ashmawi Mulloy, born from a short-lived marriage between an Irish-American hippyish non-conformist woman's lib type and an Egyptian exchange student who failed to realize his dream in America. Ahmad turned to his father's faith, Islam, when he was eleven and, under the influence of a Yemeni imam, Shaikh Rashid, who runs a storefront mosque and teaches him the Koran, he opts out of the college track to become a truck driver. Obsessed with the infidel ways of his country, Ahmad seeks to find the Straight Path and live in harmony with his Islamic faith. Neither Jack Levy, the elderly Jewish high-school guidance counsellor, who tries to convince him to apply to college, nor Joryleen Grant, his attractive black classmate who deploys her charms to get him to respond to her advances, succeed in diverting him from his religious calling. Hired, through the intervention of his imam, by a recently immigrated Lebanese family who own a furniture store, he soon finds himself involved in a terrorist plot to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel and readies himself to become a martyr of Jihad. But as the Koran says, "Of those who plot, God is the best."

In a New York Times interview with Charles McGrath (May 31, 2006), Updike reveals that he originally conceived his protagonist as a young Christian, an extension of one of his recurring adolescent personae, David Kern from "Pigeon Feathers" (1962), who feels betrayed by a clergyman in his religious quest and whose action of killing pigeons at the end of the story restores in him the faith in immortality which had been shaken by visions of death: "I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith. The XXIst century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world." This image of devils seeking to take away God will open—"Devils,Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God" [3]—and symmetrically close the pages of Terrorist—"These devils, Ahmad thinks, have taken away my God" [310]. But the seminarian is replaced by a young devout Muslim, whose learning of the teachings of the Koran sustains him in his pursuit of the Straight Path and gives meaning to a life he sees as otherwise sullied by the materialism and corruption of American culture.

Switching the protagonist's religion to Islam, Updike thus endeavoured to penetrate the mind of an Islamic believer turned terrorist:

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.

Updike chose to present the standpoint of a would-be Islamist terrorist and to enter the mind of "the other" in order to set down not a hateful portrait, but on the contrary a "sympathetic," even a "loving" one. Unlike Martin Amis, whose imaginative recreation of the last days of Muhammad Atta exposes a man ravaged by hatred and disgust, intent on destruction and self-destruction, Updike's portrait of Ahmad Ashmawi Mulloy aims, in the author's words, at "understanding, or at least imagining the other side": "to write a novel from the side of empathy, if I may say," 1 in this case, that of young Ahmad, soon rebaptized "Madman" by the son of his Lebanese employer who will get him involved in the terrorist Jihad cell.

Updike's reading of the Koran, his abundant quotations, his extensive research into the suras that would appeal to a solitary American Muslim teenager in search of a God and a meaning to his life, permeate the plot and give substance to his crossing of the mirror, his borrowing of the voice of the other. Yet empathy, somehow, is not enough. The quality of ventriloquism does not convey the feel of religious experience, if experience be, as William James argues, the core and backbone of religious life, so that the spectre of didacticism shows through: mouthing the words will not morph into breathing the faith. Granted the unfamiliar angle was a challenge, a way perhaps for the novelist to reinvent himself as he has been prone to do throughout his career with variable success, but Updike seems to have overreached this time: for what Terrorist lacks most is authenticity.

For all its suspense, the novel reads as a fable or a cautionary tale that will not quite take off. We may be close to Rabbit's territory but a long way from the gripping hold that Rabbit had on his creator as well as his readers. However much research went into the fashioning of the plot, the inner thoughts of its protagonist or the rehearsing of the call to Jihad, the result is unconvincing. Both the psychology and the plot feel strained: Ahmad's mind reads like a textbook cliché, and the coincidences in the plot—bringing together Ahmad, the young Muslim, Teresa Mulloy, his Irish-American mother, Jack Levy, his elderly Jewish high-school counsellor who becomes her lover, and the latter's sister-in-law who happens to work for the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security—are too numerous and far-fetched to suspend disbelief.

What is perhaps more surprising, coming from a writer whose agility in prose shines through practically every page of his work, is the artificiality of the language he wrought for his teenage voice: Ahmad thinks and speaks in some kind of archaic version of the English language, formal and foreign-sounding at best, stilted and implausible at worst. Not only is the syntax oddly literary, shunning contractions for instance, but the vocabulary and rhythm seem to mimic the many suras that are quoted and commented in the novel: for instance, "I of course do not hate all Americans. But the American way is the way of infidels. It is headed for a terrible doom" [39]; "I thirst for paradise" [106]; "Infidels do not know how to die" [174] etc. Such language, improbable as it sounds coming from a New Jersey teen, is too laden with the message of Islam it is meant to be the vehicle of to become the expressive tool of characterization, illuminating the life of the spirit, that Updike is usually so apt at creating.

The sad truth is that, in Terrorist, Updike's empathy does not carry him quite far enough to become the voice and suffering, etymologically speaking, of his teenage protagonist. The result weighs not only on the artistic but also on the ideological  bearing of the novel: the argument for terrorism moves from stereotype to sheer confusion, if only because one of its major proponents, other than the ambiguous Yemeni imam who has become a surrogate father for the youth, turns out to be, against all odds, an undercover CIA agent. This ultimate twist in the plot does not seem to register in its full consequences on the would-be terrorist's mind. As the ending comes to belie the novel's title, his loss of nerves at the decisive juncture in the Lincoln Tunnel owes as much to the rhetorical gifts of his old Jewish high-school counsellor—not only agnostic but haunted by a death-wish—as to a last minute reflex of, and conversion to life, even it mean a faithless future for Ahmad. The devils' victory is a murky one, no doubt, a Pyrrhic one as well.



A longer version of this essay appeared in the John Updike Special Issue of the Greek review Ombrella, "What Writers Are For," Ombrella 76 (March-May 2007) 61-66.

1. Le Monde, Interview with Lila Azam Zanganeh (January 5, 2007) 12. back



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