Wednesday, June 07, 2006

John Updike joins the novelists drawn to terrorism like moths to a flame, but most critics aren’t buying his new novel, “Terrorist”

In The New Yorker recently Martin Amis was drawn to Muhammad Atta, a real terrorist. Now John Updike has drawn a portrait of Ahmad, an imaginary terrorist.

You’d think that Updike’s new novel, “Terrorist,” would have been cited in news stories about the recent arrest of the alleged homegrown Canadian Islamic terrorists, or that reporters would have sought to question the author about his views, since the Canadian conspiracy to some degree echoes the situation in “Terrorist.”


Instead, the novel as a cultural institution continues its gradual slouch toward social irrelevance. Of the 687 hits in response to the Google News query “Canadian Islamic terrorists,” not a single one of the stories bothered to quote Updike, despite the obvious news peg.

But if journalists weren’t looking him up, major newspaper critics weren’t exactly looking up to him either. Michiko Kakutani savaged the book in the New York Times.
Unfortunately, the would-be terrorist in this novel turns out to be a completely unbelievable individual: more robot than human being and such a cliché that the reader cannot help suspecting that Mr. Updike found the idea of such a person so incomprehensible that he at some point abandoned any earnest attempt to depict his inner life and settled instead for giving us a static, one-dimensional stereotype.

"Terrorist" possesses none of the metaphysical depth of classic novelistic musings on revolutionaries like "The Secret Agent," "The Possessed" or "The Princess Casamassima," and none of the staccato, sociological brilliance of more recent fictional forays into this territory, like Don DeLillo's "Mao II."
In the Washington Post, Amitav Ghosh is, if anything, even more dismissive. His review is titled “A Jihadist From Jersey: An alienated Muslim high schooler plots to blow up the Holland Tunnel,” and in it he accuses Updike of completely failing in his portrayal of Ahmad, the son of an Egyptian father and an Irish-American mother.
Updike once wrote, "In the strange egalitarian world of the Novel a man must earn our interest by virtue of his . . . authentic sentiments." Authenticity is, to my mind, a tall order for any novelist -- mere plausibility would be enough. But there is nothing plausible about the characters of this book: Only two of them are halfway believable, and they are Jack Levy and Ahmad's Irish-American mother. It is no accident, perhaps, that neither of them is brown.
So, does it make sense for a 74-year-old white male and Christian novelist to try leaping the barriers of age, culture, religion and color that separate him from his imagined terrorist?

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you can’t help but admire the earnest student and dogged researcher who clearly put a lot of work into the enterprise, not to mention the master stylist who tried to bring this all alive as fiction. But on the other hand, isn’t this the kind of hubris and white American male sense of entitlement that is part of the problem, because it’s more about pontificating than listening?

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