John Updike, upon whom I would bestow grand titles such as, possibly, Greatest Living Writer in English (now that Bellow is dead), has written a topical novel called ‘Terrorist.’ The terrorist of the title is eighteen-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Molloy, the confused and bitter American son of an Irish-American mother and absent Egyptian father.
Ahmad starts the novel as a schoolboy, and then is guided by a malign imam to give up his studies to become a truck driver (ignoring the more wholesome advice of guidance counsellor Jack Levy, a worldly, unbelieving Jew). Before long Ahmad drives his truck into a terrorist plot.
Updike, in his usual present tense, observes acutely and describes intensely. His beautifully rhythmed prose balances psychological analysis and social comment, the internal and the external. His digressions are eloquent and well-placed. Updike criticises in passing the black and white solutions of fundamentalist Christianity and the Black Muslims as well as al-Qa’ida style Islam, and diagnoses as the cause of these fundamentalisms the loss of direction and hollowness of a hedonist, consumerist society. Although Updike doesn’t speak directly. We find his position in the midpoint between his ironising distance from and sympathy for the perspectives of the characters through whom the narrative is focalised. His easy shifts between these perspectives is done professionally. There is a professional’s handling of detail too. For instance, Ahmad feels his beloved Excellency truck is a part of him, and responds badly to the ugly truck he will drive on the day of the ‘operation.’ It looks, like him, dispensable.
But there are flaws. In the second, more plot-driven half of the book the characters have a tendency to collapse into mouth pieces for set opinions. An example is when Ahmad’s unreligious, unintellectual mother pontificates (forgive the pun) about Vatican 2.
Everything falls a little too easily into place. As the novel (and Ahmad’s truck) rushes towards its climax, Hollywood gets a look-in. The book is transformed from psychological and political commentary to thriller, and I’m not sure the transformation works.
For one thing, there is an accumulation of false notes. For his last breakfast the Imam of Ahmad’s mosque, Shaikh Rashid, leaves him a special bread made by Shiites for the mourning day of ashura. A militant Sunni jihadist like Shaikh Rashid would want nothing to do with Shia ‘superstition’ and ‘innovation.’ And another bin Ladenist (the technician) would never have approved of Qaddaffi, even before he changed his tune, or Arafat. These faults reveal a strange laziness in a novel which is otherwise so well researched (the Arabic and Quranic references, though limited by the fundamentalism of the characters, are generally accurate). I suppose Updike assumed that his American audience wouldn’t notice, and this is a shame (on two levels).
More disturbing is the novel’s reliance on sub-Hollywood stereotypes. Ahmad is born and bred in New Jersey, but he’s still an easy target for grooming by sinister Arabs. The exploitation of an innocent has no realist value for understanding anti-US terrorism. The September 11th hijackers were all educated men with their own opinions. In Iraq and Afghanistan gullible youngsters may be convinced by older men to sacrifice themselves, but the imams there wouldn’t be quoting Shakespeare. And I find it hard to believe that a Shakespeare-quoting imam would make such harsh interpretations of the Quran as Shaikh Rashid does.
In “Terrorist” there are a couple of token ‘good’ American Muslims - a CIA operative and a man who thinks Guantanamo Bay and the invasion of Iraq are just wonderful. There are also glimpsed ghetto Muslims, the unlucky inheritors of Islamic culture. Otherwise, it’s the cabal: dark of aspect, in dirty gellabiyas, scheming, sneering. There is no sense that in the range of Muslim (and specifically, Arab American) opinion there are intermediate positions between flag-waving pro-Americanism and explosive puritanical fury.
Ahmad’s racism (he uses the archaic Arabic term zanj to refer to blacks) is not entirely convincing. Neither is his formal eloquence. More fundamentally, his terrorist motivations are supect. A suicide bomber, however much religious vocabulary he may employ, is driven by political anger. The September 11th bombers (I mention them again because the novel is clearly written in the shadow of that day) were Saudis, Lebanese and Egyptians. Despite being comfortably well-off, they had direct experience of Middle Eastern (US-backed) tyranny, and were neighbours to war and occupation. But Ahmad rarely reads the newspaper. So terrorism is to be understood only as a symptom of a religion obsessed with cleansing the unclean and purifying the impure. It’s a pathology of the Arab Muslims, not something arising from societal failures and the horrors of imperialism. In this respect Updike does no better in helping Americans to think about where their empire has led them than does Fox news.
It’s a tribute to Updike that all this doesn’t manage to ruin the book for me. It would have been better if it had avoided the thriller genre, but even so it reminds me of the best philosophical thriller writing, of Graham Greene if not Dostoyevsky. And the final five pages go some way to redeeming the failings. Ahmad’s change of heart comes as he remembers a few of the names of God: “The Beneficent, the Merciful, the Living, the Patient, the Generous, the Perfect, the Light, the Guide. He does not want us to desecrate His creation by willing death. He wills life.”
But there isn’t a happy ending. Even without blood and thunder, the world around Ahmad, in the novel’s last paragraph, is a purposeless hell of consumption and struggle. I felt this wasn’t only Ahmad’s point of view. Something is rotten, that much is apparent, that much is the near-consensus which still doesn’t quite declare itself.