BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 3, 2006
By John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 310 pp.
John Updike's new novel, which is about a Muslim teenager tempted to become a suicide bomber, is surely a harbinger: in the next few years, one of the central novelistic subjects will be religious fundamentalism and its relation to Western secular society. Dostoevsky and Conrad will cast large, provoking shadows over the writers who approach the subject. Those two writers, along with Nietzsche, were the great analysts of the "underground," seeking out the psychological and ideological sources of resentment and impotence. The Possessed, The Will to Power, and The Secret Agent still offer the most penetrating evocations of the dialectic of pride and shame; they have proved remarkably prescient. The anarchist professor with a detonator strapped to his waist who wanders the streets of London in The Secret Agent claims that his superiority over the Scotland Yard detective who is seeking him is that such people "depend on life … whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked." This inversion has become the morbid mantra of contemporary suicide bombing.
The novelist is always an imaginative opportunist, and here, it seems, is one area where novelistic explanation might be richer than its sociological or political rivals. The academic and journalistic analysis of terrorism is usually too indulgent of rationality or too indulgent of irrationality: either the terrorist's motives are robustly explicable (the existence of a Jewish state, the American occupation of the lands of the desired Caliphate) or sensationally inexplicable ("but why this young woman with everything to live for set out one morning to commit her dreadful deed will never be properly understood…."). Such work tends to founder precisely on the unimaginable--on the margin of irrational rationality that seems to lurk in the decision to blow up oneself and many others. "My task which I am trying to achieve is … above all, to make you see," Conrad famously wrote. It may be that to see, to picture such a human being, to know how he talks and moves, above all to envisage what he fears and loves, is to go a long way toward the comprehension of his motives.
So the novel should and will be drawn to this subject. And novelists, of course, have their own kind of vanity, whereby the temptation toward negative capability, to inhabit an Iago as easily as an Imogen, is hard to resist. If one can successfully "be" a man or a woman, a CEO or a cabbie, then why not also be a Muslim terrorist?
But John Updike should have run a thousand miles away from this subject--at least as soon as he saw the results on the page. Terrorist portrays an eighteen-year-old American Muslim named Ahmad, who, as the novel begins, is about to graduate from his New Jersey high school. Ahmad "is the product of a red-haired American mother, Irish by extraction, and an Egyptian exchange student whose ancestors had been baked since the time of the Pharaohs in the hot muddy fields of the overflowing Nile." (Ah, those Egyptians. This lofty genealogy is an extraordinary example of airy Orientalism, which, because the sentence combines baking and mud, clumsily manages to imply that the ancestors were somehow baked in mud. Egyptian bog people! Does Updike reread his own prose?) Ahmad has been violently influenced by his imam at the local storefront mosque, one Shaikh Rashid. As we encounter him at the start of the book, Ahmad is already boiling over with anti-American thoughts; we are thus offered no idea of what he was like before meeting the imam, what he was like as, say, a moderately Islamic fifteen-year-old.
What is most striking about this novel is that, despite Updike's massive familiarity with the technical challenges of fiction-writing--this is his twenty-second novel, for goodness sake--he proves himself relatively inept at the essential task of free indirect style, of trying to find an authorial voice for his Muslim schoolboy. He will begin a paragraph in his character's voice, and then, apparently losing any capacity for the necessary ventriloquism, decide utterly to write over his character. Here is Ahmad surveying the desolate downtown of the book's invented city, New Prospect, New Jersey:
To Ahmad's eyes, the bulbous letters of the graffiti, their bloated boasts of gang affiliation, assert an importance to which the perpetrators have pathetically little other claim. Sinking into the morass of Godlessness, lost young men proclaim, by means of defacement, an identity. Some few new boxes of aluminum and blue glass have been erected amid the ruins, sops from the lords of Western capitalism--branches of banks headquartered in California or North Carolina, and outposts of the Zionist- dominated federal government, attempting with welfare enrollment and army recruitment to prevent the impoverished from rioting and looting.
This standard-issue anti-Semitism is obviously not Updike's own thought, but an attempt at Ahmad's. Then why not make it sound like Ahmad's? But then, what does Ahmad sound like? Presumably to set him apart from his infidel coevals at school--principally, a nose-studded sluttish African American called Joryleen and her thick-set boyfriend Tylenol--Updike gives Ahmad a formal diction, a "pained stateliness" that is redolent, I suppose, of many hours of Koranic study and deep, intolerant cogitation. The effect is that whenever Ahmad opens his mouth he sounds like a septuagenarian Indian aristocrat. In fact, he sounds a bit like V.S. Naipaul--and late Naipaul at that. When Joryleen invites him to her church, Ahmad attends. Afterward, he thanks her: "You have been gracious to me, and I was curious. It is helpful, up to a point, to know the enemy." Up to a point, eh? He walks Joryleen from the church to her house: "I wish to see you home." And the long perorations are worse. Here Ahmad tells a colleague about his mother:
He tells Charlie, to be honest, "I think recently my mother has suffered one of her romantic sorrows, for the other night she produced a flurry of interest in me, as if remembering that I was still there. But this mood of hers will pass. We have never communicated much. My father's absence stood between us, and then my faith, which I adopted before entering my teen years. She is a warm-natured woman, and were I a hospital patient I would gladly entrust myself to her care, but I think she has as little talent for motherhood as a cat. Cats let the kittens suckle for a time and then treat them as enemies. I am not yet quite grown enough to be my mother's enemy, but I am mature enough to be an object of indifference."
One can understand, then, why Updike, in third-person narration, writes over his character so absolutely: he is icing a hollow cake. Ahmad has no personality, no quiddity as an eighteen-year-old American, so he is Updike's serf, ready for whatever the writer chooses to do with him. In Updikeland, this means lyrical authorial commentary.
Ahmad seems not to listen to music, or use a cell phone, or lust after girls, or go to movies, or read any books. He is simply and only a block of Islamic disgust. When he watches television, he searches it "for traces of God in this infidel society." Ordinary Americans in the street are "devils," who are trying to take his faith from him. American families are rotten: "Even the parents conspire in this, welcoming signs of independence from the child and laughing at disobedience. There is not that bonding love which the Prophet expressed for his daughter Fatimah: Fatimah is a part of my body; whoever hurts her, has hurt me, and whoever hurts me has hurt God." Even Ahmad's mother, long separated from his father, and warmly flirtatious, reeks of the infidel. She begins an affair with Jack Levy, a sixty-three-year-old student counselor at Ahmad's high school. (The affair is utterly improbable, but Updike needs such entanglements to allow his regular ration of sex writing, especially his loving descriptions of the phallus rampant.) As the two adults flirt, so angry Ahmad simmers, but in a nicely lyrical broth:
Ahmad has felt the man approach, and then the presumptuous, poisonous touch on the shoulder. Now he is aware of, too close to his head, the man's belly, its warmth carrying out with it a smell, several smells--a compounded extract of sweat and alcohol, Jewishness and Godlessness, an unclean scent stirred up by the consultation with Ahmad's mother, the embarrassing mother he tries to hide, to keep to himself. The two adult voices had intertwined flirtatiously, disgustingly, two aged infidel animals warming to each other in the other room.
This is preposterous, of course--Jack Levy smells of Jewishness!--but more interesting than its preposterousness is the inept way, again, in that last sentence, that Updike surrenders any pretense that he is capturing Ahmad's own manner of thinking, and just sails off, pleasing himself, wreathed in familiar silks. "Two aged infidel animals": this is Ahmad's thought, one supposes, but because it could not be the boy's language or diction, it cannot function as his thought.
There is an obstruction here, a basic contradiction akin to the famous millipede overcome by lethargy when it discovered it had a thousand legs: Updike's style does not enable his dramatic functioning as a novelist, it actually nullifies it. When Ahmad speaks, he sounds like V.S. Naipaul; but when Ahmad thinks, he sounds like John Updike. Even Updike's attempts to forgo his own lyricism and make Ahmad sound stumblingly prosaic do not really convince. In an important scene, to which we will return, Ahmad is almost seduced by Joryleen. She is naked, lying next to him. "When she laughs, her whole naked body jiggles against his, so he thinks of all those intestines, and stomach and things, packed in: she has all that inside her, and yet also a loving spirit, breathing against the side of his neck, where God is as close as a vein." This might as well be Ipswich.
Updike has spoken of his desire to treat Islam "sympathetically" in his new novel; and he has been praised, if a little wanly, for differing from "other novelists looking over their shoulders at 9/11." Unlike them, says John Leonard in New York, "Updike isn't writing from the victim's point of view." There is no reason to doubt Updike's intention. If sympathy brings understanding, let us have sympathy. But who would desire Updike's kind of sympathy? Wanting to dignify his hero, Updike drastically overcompensates and turns his schoolboy into a stiff stereotype--he's a bigot, Updike seems to be saying, but rather a stately bigot, for all that. How can it be sympathetic to a religion to present, as its exemplar, such a solemn robot?
Again, one is struck by the peculiar clumsiness on Updike's part. He surely knows that what makes Conrad's anarchists poignant and Dostoevsky's revolutionaries profound are the contradictions of their resentments. They long for a place in the society that they plan to destroy, and their destruction is related to their longing. Underground impotence, for Dostoevsky, is a hatred almost indistinguishable from love: this is his great insight, which is still helpful for anyone trying to analyze modern religious and ideological alienation. For a contemporary novelist, the way to animate these contradictions would be to evoke an American Muslim who sounded just like his secular friends, who indeed had secular friends (unlike the anchoritic Ahmad), who shared their taste in music and films, or was at least tempted by their music and films. Such a character would then be interesting in proportion to his resistance to a pressure--the great pressurizing blandishments of American postmodernity. All this should be obvious to a novelist on his second, let alone his twenty-second, novel. Equally, such a writer would surely know that the way to close down such authenticity, to freeze the novel in the colorless gas of the inauthentic, would be to make the Islamic young man an absurdly one-dimensional, furious solitary who has already rejected as an "infidel" everyone from the president to his mother.
Until the last pages of the book, when Ahmad must decide whether or not to bomb the Lincoln Tunnel, this young man is never seen engaging in any kind of internal struggle at all. So he has no real relation to American society. He seems attracted to Joryleen, but we are not told of any previous attraction, even furtive, to anyone else. Ahmad seems to have moved through his teens in hormonal quarantine. (How remarkable, for instance, that Updike, of all novelists, never courts the possibility of Ahmad masturbating.) Updike has done his research, and he has inky fingers to show for it: the Koran is quoted, sometimes in phonetically rendered Arabic. But again, because we first meet Ahmad after his conversion to radical Islam, we have no sense of how the Koran lived inside him before the great awakening. Edifying suras are solemnly quoted, but as a kind of religious logo, as blocks of dogma only. Moments of skepticism, of doubt, are promptly quashed as infidel ideas.
Perhaps this is indeed what the mind of a radical Muslim terrorist looks like, but it makes for a peculiar inversion of the very notion of fiction: Updike's "sympathy" has resulted in a figure who would not be out of place in a work of Islamic propaganda. The inevitable corrugations of religious existence in secular society, the awkward ungleaming lumpiness, the comic obstacles, the shabby paradoxes--all these are missing. Everything is too straightforwardly fanatical, too unsubtle. When an older colleague says to Ahmad that he is surprised that he is not going on to university, Updike has Ahmad think: "more education, he feared, might take away his God." Again, this is how someone might think in a novel--or in a thriller, more exactly--but is it how Ahmad might think in real life?
If one is able explicitly to think "more education might take away my God," then, by definition, one is already too educated, too aware. One is not uneducated. It is precisely Ahmad's uneducatedness, his unspoken or unvoiced fears and anxieties, that most elude Updike's earnestly foraging fingers. There is nothing in this rather simple, humorless book like the comic scene in the recent Palestinian film Paradise Now in which the two suicide bombers stand in front of the video camera to make their last statements: the men, looking forlorn and unsophisticated and boxily ill-suited, woodenly mouth their triumphalist sentiments, but are forced to stop and start again because the camera breaks down. Ahmad is wooden all right; but Updike, unlike the Palestinian film-maker, cannot see it.
Terrorist is a sort of Islamicized re-writing of Roger's Version, a much better Updike novel that appeared twenty years ago. In that book, a young graduate student and computer geek challenges a weary middle-aged professor of divinity to a contest: the student is convinced that he can use computer programs to prove the existence of God, but the professor, the Roger of the title, thinks this is literalist blasphemy. The novel is much consumed with questions of faith and doubt, and some of this back-and-forth between the young literalist and the seasoned scholar is brilliantly achieved. Updike drapes these lofty religious questions--like a surplice over a naked porn star--over his worldly plot, which is of course sex-absorbed: the student begins an affair with Roger's wife (hey, some anal sex!), while Roger gets involved, if timorously, with Verna, the sluttish daughter of his half-sister. (She likes to say obliging things like "If that's really the hang-up, I could just blow you.")
Terrorist promotes a similar kind of sexual musical chairs. Jack Levy, the weary middle-aged student counselor, interviews Ahmad about his future, and becomes interested in the student, because, although obviously bright, he wants only to be a heavy-goods truck driver. In the interests of professional curiosity, Jack, who has the misfortune to be married to an obese woman, visits Ahmad's flirty forty-year-old single mother, a nurse's aide and part-time painter, and they begin an affair. Who wouldn't?
Meanwhile Ahmad begins working as a driver for a local furniture company owned by the Chehab family. Charlie Chehab, his colleague in the truck, is a robust, genial Lebanese-American with an affection for George Washington; he is by a long way the best-drawn character in the book. He is as fierce a radical Muslim and anti-Westerner as Ahmad, except that his interests seem to be entirely political, not religious. One of the novel's few subtleties concerns the way in which Ahmad and Charlie, though united in anti-Americanism, tend to talk past each other; in particular Ahmad's religious fervor almost always makes Charlie uncomfortable.
Unlike the bombers of September 11, Ahmad has not enrolled as a truck driver in order to kill people. But he is slowly maneuvered by Charlie and by his imam into the inevitable: an assignment. He must drive his truck into the Lincoln Tunnel and detonate his explosives. The last third of the novel charts his morbid grooming--meetings with shadowy contacts, oblique messages, tender leave-taking of his mother, and the like. There is one important encounter left, arranged by Charlie, who decides that Ahmad needs to lose his virginity before he dies. Charlie asks a prostitute to meet Ahmad at the furniture store, after hours. And who should that prostitute be but Joryleen, the sexy black schoolmate! Like Verna in Roger's Version--like almost any woman in any Updike novel--Joryleen has an uncanny capacity for fellatio: "Just let me take him into my mouth…. That's no sin in the old Koran."
Ahmad is shy, religiously prim, and keeps his trousers on. But Joryleen's black magic causes Ahmad to come in his pants, and he experiences "a convulsive transformation, a vaulting inversion of his knotted self like, perhaps, that which occurs when the soul passes at death into Paradise." The scene is silly. It is significant mainly because it appears to inaugurate Ahmad's religious wavering, the process by which his murderous fundamentalism unravels. Thirty pages later, he will watch a beetle on its back, and, refraining from killing one of God's creatures, gently right it, in a moment that "partake[s] of the eternal." We sense, at this juncture, that Ahmad will probably not go through with his murderous plan; and indeed the novel ends with Ahmad, now implausibly accompanied by Jack Levy (this book is more in love with coincidences than an English bedroom farce), driving through the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan. Gazing around at the thousands of New Yorkers on the streets, Ahmad thinks of them as "insects," dwarfed by the huge buildings. "These devils, Ahmad thinks, have taken away my God."
That is the last line of Updike's novel, and an impressively decisive one at that, but it drags a problematic wake. It is not at all clear that Ahmad has lost his faith, or is in the process of losing his faith. So what does he mean when he says that these devils have taken away his God? He has lost his desire to murder these American insects, but there is no evidence that he has lost his desire to obey God. If Updike truly means that Ahmad's faith itself is beginning to waver, then his novel has drastically failed to evoke that skeptical momentum: we have been given barely the slightest hint of a wrestle, on Ahmad's part, with a doubting idea. Indeed, one of the great weaknesses of the novel, despite its research-rich investment in Koranic quotation, is how fundamentally untheological it is, how uninterested it is in religious ideas and images. (In this regard, it is the poor cousin of Roger's Version, which maintained a lively theological dialogism.) All Updike presents is the encounter with Joryleen, the decision to spare the life of the beetle, and the apparently consequent decision to spare the lives of the insect-like Americans in the tunnel. So this last line comes to seem like a bellow of bravado on Updike's part, apparently keen to end his book on a fat note. It has not earned its fatal fortissimo.
Still, Ahmad has clearly suffered some kind of drastic loss of confidence, and it is clear that his paradisal orgasm with Joryleen had a great deal to do with it. So sex saved the innocent drivers of the Lincoln Tunnel! Significantly, in Roger's Version, sex is likewise used as the great theological slayer of theology, the mother of all theologies. As Verna bends willingly over Roger's member (a more apt title for the novel, surely), Roger reflects on the "ambiguity" of their coupled bodies: "Verna's plump and naked arms had snaked out from beneath the covers and she was pulling at my maligned undershorts, trying in clumsy sorrowful fashion to undress me, while her uncovered breasts slewed about on her chest. At her attack, the delicious flutter of ambiguity beat its wings, necessarily two, through all my suddenly feminized being. Not either/or but both/and lies at the heart of the cosmos." Reclining post-coitally, Roger realizes that he has fallen into adultery, but that this fallenness proves God's distance from us:
Lying there with Verna, gazing upward, I saw how much majesty resides in our continuing to love and honor God even as He inflicts blows upon us--as much as resides in the silence He maintains so that we may enjoy and explore our human freedom. This was my proof of His existence, I saw--the distance to the impalpable ceiling, the immense distance measuring our abasement. So great a fall proves great heights.
This is Updike's gospel. Sex is both the earthiest of activities, the most human, and the most touched by divinity: not either/or, but both/and. We can have it all. We can rut like rabbits and pray like priests; our rutting is priestly. Theology sacralizes sex, while sex humanizes theology. In this way sex manages at once to rid us of our religious hang-ups, to abolish theology, and also to rid us of our secular hang-ups; it manages to make us theological, to divinize us; it is the perfect spiritual exercise, the soul's supreme therapy. There is certainly a sense of having it both ways in Updike's sexology, and a sense that this supposed "ambiguity" may just be a wishful ambivalence, or less kindly, an incoherence, the consequence of the writer's unmasterable need to bring theology into the matter of sex at all.
This kind of incoherence hovers around Ahmad's sexual encounter. In orgasm, he feels he might have had an experience akin to entering paradise. And nothing is quite right for Ahmad, theologically speaking, after this moment. Nothing is certain again. But Updike at once makes too little and too much of the encounter: too little, because he refrains from systematically extending the implications of the encounter toward an actual loss of faith on Ahmad's part (at no time does Ahmad reflect on the theological implications of his lapse with Joryleen); and too much because, as usual in Updike, sex is so wildly, so predictably, central. Ahmad spends his time railing at the sex obsession of American society, sternly lecturing young Joryleen about the importance of modesty and chastity; but of course there are few things in American culture that better prove the accuracy of at least this part of the Islamist critique of the hedonistic West than the sex-obsessed novels of John Updike, and in particular a novel about a terrorist that seems to suggest that the theological rot sets in after a sexual encounter. Did one not know, at the start of Terrorist, that sex would both wind up and unravel the plot? Did one not know that sex would be theology?
Is it not also interesting that two novels about two different religions can drive so easily on the same sexual chassis? This might just tell us something about the pan-theological nature of sex: Roger and Ahmad will feel similar things in different beds with different women. But it might also tell us something about the pan-theological vision of John Updike, in which Roger and Ahmad really pray to the same God, who is non-denominational.
Updike is acclaimed as an unfashionably Christian novelist, and much commentary, taking its cue from the author himself, dutifully trots out his interest in Barth and Kierkegaard--but there is a way in which Updike is a pagan celebrant rather than a religious explorer. His impulse is mystically broad rather than theologically exact. He is not especially interested in questions of faith or doubt, because aesthetics can always be wheeled in to solve such questions: the world is uncomplicatedly God's, and it exists to be lyrically praised. This has not always been a weakness in his long and varied career. It licenses what is best in his writing--his strong will to thank God for His creation by attending carefully to all its surfaces, from fridges to vaginas. But it is a weakness in a novel that is striving to capture the lineaments of a specific variety of Islamic mind. It is the otherness of Islamicism that is missing in this book. Despite all the Koranic homework, there is a sense that what is alien in Islam to a Westerner remains alien to John Updike. What he has discovered, yet again, is merely the generalized fluid of God-plus-sex that has run throughout all his novels.