Monday, February 2, 2015

John Updike's "Terrorist" (2006): A Review

John Updike's late and to some ill-advised foray into writing about Islamist terrorism is not a part of his career we talk about. I don't even get the sense that 2006's Terrorist has the distinction of being the "justly forgotten" entry in the Updike oeuvre -- something noticeable if only for its absence. It's more the case that people remember the novel exists, but don't incorporate that fact into their understanding of the world. "John Updike wrote a post-9/11 novel about an American high school student who joins Al-Qaeda? Oh yeah, I guess he did." The knowledge is present in one's mind, but somehow unassimilable. That's how I thought about it, anyways. Recent events in the news, however, and the fact that I noticed the book randomly in the library, not only made me finally assimilate it, they also made me decide to read this book that I had never had any intention of reading.

It has to be said at once, to preempt any later disillusionment, that everything bad you thought might happen if John Updike ever wrote a novel about Islamist terrorism, does in fact happen in this novel. There were about three times in reading the book that I got so miserable as to form the intention of putting it down and never returning. The first time came with the opening paragraph. Perhaps inevitably, it features the main character, Ahmad, clucking "Devils!" to himself, as he reflects on the depraved but strangely fascinating dress of the female students at his high school. What else would a future Islamist terrorist be thinking in the opening paragraph of a John Updike novel? If I had assigned you to write the opening of a John Updike novel about Islamist terrorism, would you have turned in anything different? All the worst of Updike is in here and then some, and I won't deny you the evidence as we go on.

I was kept going, however, by the best of Updike, which is also on display in this novel, and which ultimately overwhelms the worst of him in the final pages of the book. I won't say that Terrorist is worth your time in toto. It probably is not. I will say that I still love it, and I still love Updike, in defiance of everything.

But first, as I say, the badness. We've got to face it, and face it squarely, because it is not just incidental to this book. Nor can we brush it away as somehow not the "real" Updike. Because it is the real Updike. It is sui generis Updike badness, badness in a form only Updike could channel in this particular way, and revelatory meanwhile of badnesses one had dimly perceived in the earlier novels but had embarrassedly shunted out of immediate consciousness.

I recall Kurt Vonnegut once made a touching and modest plea in one of his essays. He was referring to his novel Slapstick, which had not been much liked. Vonnegut began by admitting fully that the novel was not very good. But he asked that critics find ways of acknowledging its not-very-goodness that didn't imply that everything else he'd ever written was therefore dreck as well. Hate one book if you want to. But, he was asking, does this one defeat have to negate all the previous successes?

It's a reasonable question and a fair request-- one we should try always to grant. But the reason it is so difficult to grant it -- so difficult not to have criticism of the one shade into criticism of the many-- is that the one bad book in the author's oeuvre is always bad in a way that is so characteristic of that author's tendencies. It takes all the traits that were almost painful and exhausting and embarrassing in the other books, and magnifies them just enough that they take on these effects. The critic turns pink not only at the experience of reading the one bad book, but at the recollection that she had enjoyed all the earlier ones, and hadn't consciously noticed then all the badnesses that have now been magnified into sight. This inspires the unfair retrospective cleansing that Vonnegut is (justly) complaining about.

In Updike, there's never been much doubt about what the traits are that are going to become trouble later on -- the ones that are almost too embarrassing to be tolerated in the earlier works, and that only need a slight nudging upward on the dial to become perfectly awful. Gore Vidal gives the whole list of the sore spots in his "Rabbit's Own Burrow" essay: the cruel stereotyping in Updike's depictions, the political shallowness, the lack of any interest or depth in characters who aren't white Anglo-Saxon male protagonists, the research-mongering and fact-dumping and name-dropping. They were points that I thought were probably true when I first read Vidal's essay, but which didn't diminish the value of the work as much as Vidal insisted. They seemed especially heavy-handed criticisms when applied to 1996's In the Beauty of the Lilies, which remains to my memory an excellent book, if mostly in the first of its four segments.

But having defended that earlier book, now I am in the position of the critic going pink described above. Because Terrorist is bad in exactly the ways Vidal noted, and these negative qualities come close to overwhelming the book's merits.

To begin: meet Ahmad, the high school protagonist with a white single mother and an absent Egyptian father; he is a good student, has a basically close and loving relationship with the one parent still in his life; he has an empathic inner life and behaves sweetly, if rather stiffly, to the people around him; and he inexplicably decides one day after a single conversation with another young person to attempt to murder hundreds of innocent people in the Lincoln Tunnel.

Then there is Joryleen, a friend for whom Ahmad nurses a chaste crush and who provides him some anchor back to the notion that not all non-Muslims are such insensate vermin after all (One would have thought that Ahmad's non-Muslim mother might have played such a role in his life -- which makes one ponder again why Updike didn't just write a novel about an all-Muslim family-- would it have been too hard for us blockheaded WASP readers to find such a character "sympathetic" in that case? Is Updike making some unsolicited commentary on the consequences of single-parenthood or of interracial romance? I really and truly hope neither is the explanation, but one wonders...).

Joryleen is black. And because she is black and female and young and has had the misfortune of finding herself in the pages of a John Updike novel, she must be pledged in life to an odious bully named "Tylenol Jones" (hence she is not free fully to explore the affections that bud between her and Ahmad). Eventually she will be tragically pimped out by said boyfriend. Of course.

So much of this is so consistently ridiculous that one suspects a joke is being played, but one is not in on it, and does not understand. Updike is a more thoughtful guy than this, surely. And yet, there's all this written evidence to the contrary.

Ahmad and Joryleen's conversations with one another exceed the bounds of the word "stilted." To call them stilted would be to disgrace that innocuous adjective. Indeed, pretty much all the words that Ahmad expresses in dialogue in this book completely beggar belief. They are press-releases, fatwas, not recognizable human communication. And all of this is in weird contrast, as I say, to the rich and sympathetic inner monologues that Updike lovingly places into Ahmad's mind.

Here is something, for instance, that we are seriously meant to believe one seventeen-year-old said to another in 2006 at an American high school:
 “It makes no difference which President is in. They all want Americans to be selfish and materialistic, to play their part in consumerism. But the human spirit asks for self-denial. It longs to say ‘No’ to the physical world.” 
Joryleen will then respond with some gum-popping banality from Updike's limited repertoire of 2006 high school slang.

Updike will occasionally do this sort of thing in his dialogue and I don't know what to do with it. In A Month of Sundays, for instance, one teenage character utters the following, in reference to his younger brother. "My, my," goes the line, "[....] Listen to the young fellow expostulate." Okay, obviously that cannot be intended as a realistic representation of human speech. It cannot be intended as a realistic representation of how someone might try to represent human speech unrealistically, for purposes of irony. It just makes no kind of sense. But there it is on the page, for us to try to process.

I haven't even mentioned yet the leader of Ahmad's mosque. This last, most wooden character serves as little more than a vehicle for Updike to dump information from the articles and newspapers he read in preparation for the novel. From the lips of this imam -- who ostensibly is the force pulling the strings behind the terrorist operation in which Ahmad will eventually participate -- fall such pearls as these:
"[T]here has been a recent, rather amusing controversy over the scholarly dicta of a German specialist in ancient Middle Eastern tongues, one Christoph Luxenberg, who maintains that many obscurities of the Qur’an disappear if the words are read not as Arabic but as Syriac homonyms."
On this shameless fact-dumping score, Vidal had already called Updike out, and rightly so.

One of the chief burdens of Gore Vidal's complaint against modern American literature in general, in fact, not just against Updike -- a point emphasized many times in his Essays -- is that our country's writers in the second half of the twentieth century have allowed themselves, much to their shame, to be swept along into a larger cultural drift toward "facts," toward the privileging of scientific forms of knowledge over humanistic ones. And if even the novelists aren't willing to defend the value of literary fiction as fiction, as imaginative creation, then one of two things can happen. Either novels will die, or else we'll get an increasing number of fact-loaded tomes that market themselves to readers as a chance to kill two birds with one stone-- you get to load up on history or science, say, with one hand, and have the pleasures of narrative art with the other. "I'm learning a lot, and the story keeps me interested too!"-- this is the kind of utterance that Vidal dreads and hates and wishes to blot from existence. Updike's name-dropping and pointless disquisitions on whatever he'd read in preparation for a given novel, therefore, were bound to provoke his wrath to a special degree.

Since deep in my philistine heart, I have thought something exactly like the "I'm learning!" sentence mentioned above while reading Updike, I was already sensitive on the subject when Vidal brought it up. That probably informed some of the tone of my former post. Writing in a less reactive mood now, however, I see that Vidal is basically right, so much the worse for philistine me. The justice of his criticism becomes especially obvious in Terrorist. The fact-dropping there is particularly jarring and poorly integrated. The characters speak either as authorial stand-ins; or, if they are Ahmad in one of his more didactic moods, they sound like the scripted clichés of an al-Qaeda warning video, which is perhaps exactly where Updike picked up some of these lines. One gets the sense from the novel that he had been watching too much TV news each day before getting out the typewriter.

Which brings me to the novel's politics. Gore Vidal writes: "At times, reading Updike's political and cultural musings, one has the sense that there is no received opinion that [he] does not hold with passion." It's not entirely easy to disagree with such a verdict, much as one wants to. So many characters here talk in press clippings, in warmed-over, half-remembered shavings off the editorial pages.

Ultimately, it's not possible to separate the politics of this novel from its tendency to caricature. It caricatures both ideas and whole groups of people. We've already met the boyfriend, for one-- "Tylenol Jones." We are told: "His mother [...] saw the name in a television commercial for a painkiller and liked the sound of it." Yes, Updike, we got it. There is plenty more of this, not limited to cruel depictions of black or Muslim people. We also encounter, for one, a female English instructor at Ahmad's school: "lean, square-jawed, a fitness freak, she wears her graying hair in an old-fashioned pageboy, the bangs cut level with her eyebrows." Updike tells us shortly thereafter, lest the point was too subtle for detection, that she "lives with another woman."

I hate to fall into the bad habit of thinking that writers can only write convincingly and sympathetically about their own background, sexual orientation, and cultural milieu, but Updike here has given us nothing to justify any hopes to the contrary. It turns out that his ideas about what black teenagers are like, about what lesbian women are like, etc. have just as little value as the naysayers would have expected.

To return once more to Vidal's essay, he castigated Updike most earnestly for his lack of "empathy" as an author. It's a strangely pious charge to see coming from Gore Vidal, I have to say, and the virtue in question is not one that I think is particularly well reflected in Vidal's own output, to the very limited extent I have read it. Still, it seems a valid charge, for all that. Seldom as much as in this novel has Updike's complete inability to write convincingly about anyone other than middle-aged men experiencing a faith crisis been so painfully evident.

And yet, if Updike really has such a contempt for and lack of curiosity about kinds of people different from himself, one has to wonder why he wrote this book at all-- this book that takes as its subject the quintessentially non-Updikean world of Islamist terrorism. As soon as I've posed the question, however, a dark suspicion occurs to me. Perhaps this is just more evidence of Updike's degeneration into "newsiness" in his later books -- a further erosion of his resistance, far too weak and forbearing to start with, to the more platitudinous bents of American culture. (Lillies ends with a poorly-disguised version of Waco and David Koresh, after all -- a scene on which Gore Vidal managed to ping a lot of successful satiric hits.) The novels become then a vehicle for Updike's worst cultural bromides.

Such an explanation is unnecessarily cruel, however, and ultimately fails to account for a lot of the novel's content. After all, Updike could have written a very different kind of "newsy" book on this subject. He could have cranked out a panicky bestseller that grossly exaggerated the competence and ubiquity of Islamist terrorism, and I'm sure it would have done very well.

But he's given us something very different. Most of this short book is devoted to the usual Updike themes-- mortality, the crisis of faith, fact-dumping -- and very little of it, really, to Ahmad's involvement with a terrorist cell. In fact, Ahmad is portrayed as a good-natured kid, albeit one prone to riding a lot of high horses. He is also portrayed, less convincingly, as someone who decides to become a homicidal Jihadist simply because someone asks him to, in the course of what is otherwise one of the dullest conversations in the book.

Apart from this jarring turn-around and the plot points it tiresomely sets into motion, this book is not really about terrorism. There is really no other character involved in Ahmad's terrorist activities, at least not any who is a character, in the full sense. We've already met the imam, for instance. Charlie, the guy who suggests to Ahmad his ultimate destructive course of action, is yet another Updike mouthpiece/ fact-dumper. He informs us about a lot of local New Jersey history, the career of George Washington, and some details from the War for Independence. Somewhere in this very same discourse comes his suggestion to Ahmad that he really ought to help murder hundreds of innocent people by caving in the Lincoln Tunnel.

I think, then, that Updike's aim in choosing this subject matter must have been the more noble one of trying to humanize people who become involved in terrorist activities, to show us the fact that they are in fact people. In the process, however, he tends to make Ahmad so sympathetic, earnest, and kind-hearted that the character's complete inability later on to consciously process any compunction about the fact that he is planning a crime against humanity becomes simply a laughable non-sequitor.

Ahmad is portrayed as having a rich, Updikean mental life, full of sincere doubt, the hunger for a bedrock of faith. He ponders over what he perceives as logical holes or moral confusions in the fundamentalist doctrine he is being fed by the imam -- he doubts the justice of eternal punishment. He questions in this and many ways just how merciful is The Merciful. Here's one episode that transpires between him and his teacher:
“This past week the imam showed a short temper with his pupil in a discussion of a verse from the third sura: Let not the infidels deem that the length of days we give them is good for them! We only give them length of days that they may increase their sins! and a shameful chastisement shall be their lot. Ahmad dared ask his teacher if there wasn’t something sadistic in the taunt, and in the many verses like it. He ventured, ‘Shouldn’t God’s purpose, as enunciated by the Prophet, be to convert the infidels? In any case, shouldn’t He show them mercy, not gloat over their pain?’
The imam presented half a face, the lower half being hidden by a trimmed beard flecked with gray.[.... He] asked, ‘The cockroaches that slither out from the baseboard and from beneath the sink—do you pity them? The flies that buzz around the food on the table, walking on it with the dirty feet that have just danced on feces and carrion—do you pity them?'
Ahmad did, in truth, pity them, being fascinated by the vast insect population teeming at the feet of godlike men, but, knowing that any qualifications or signs of further argument would anger his teacher, responded, ‘No.’"
Something tells me that people who are already thinking in such a nuanced dialectical manner, and who are aware to such an extent of their own empathic feelings, are not the same people who commit terrorist attacks. That isn't to say that Updike's project of rendering humanized depictions of people who engage in terrible violence is misguided -- only that he carries it off rather poorly. I suspect a large part of the reason people engage willingly in atrocities against innocent people is precisely that they have not developed the kind of self-aware and self-doubting emotional life Ahmad seems to possess. They have not learned to recognize distinctions between anger that is inwardly felt, and anger that must be outwardly expressed -- they have not separated out the idea that they feel angry, from the thought that the world has behaved so as to make them feel that way. To Updike's point, they are human, all too human. But it is precisely in their emotional incompleteness and the horrible things it leads them to do that they show their tormented humanity.

Updike may think that because he can write so well about religion-- and he certainly can do that -- he should be able to write likewise about religious violence. But these two -- I still hold out the hope -- are not the same thing. Despairing Barthian theology professors at New England divinity schools -- a more typical and felicitous subject for Updike -- and extremists plotting the deaths of hundreds in the name of God, are not, let us agree, the same kettle of fish. If they start to sound like one another in a novel, we probably have a failure of realism on our hands.

The best episodes in Terrorist, unsurprisingly, are the ones that place Updike on the most familiar Updikean ground. I mentioned above that Updike can't seem to write convincingly about anyone other than middle aged men having crises of faith, but the postscript to that is that he can write about this latter sort of person extremely well. And fortunately, we have just such a specimen in Terrorist: Jack Levy, Ahmad's guidance counselor at school. His inner life is very much worth reading about. Updike admirers will be reminded of why they had any affection for this author to start with. Such affections may have deserted them upon encountering the name "Tylenol Jones."

And so is Ahmad's inner life worth reading about, if one suspends judgment of its realism, and if one forgets for a moment the brokenness of his transition from loving son and basically decent guy to enthusiastic near - mass murderer. Ahmad may sound in his inner ramblings like a Barthian theology professor, but Updike writes so well about Barthian theology professors that for long stretches of the book one doesn't mind.

And then there is the book's ending, in which Ahmad experiences a transformation in his faith and his relation to the world that is ingeniously described and beautifully rendered, and which makes up, as I say, for everything that came before it. I won't try to give it all away. I will just say that Ahmad loses his faith by gaining it, he comes to cherish life by despairing of it. By reaching the outer limit of contempt for human life and for our vain insular strivings, he comes at the same moment to pity it and to see his participation in it as well. At last, human life must be meaningless, except that life is the other theater we know of in which to have a concept of meaning.

That's not exactly it, though, and I won't attempt to reproduce it here any further because I'll just end up quoting the book's whole finish. Suffice it to say that Ahmad's loss of faith restored my faith in Updike, and made me remember why I was reading this at times graceless product.

The book's final passages take on an extra degree of poignancy too, given how late this book came in Updike's career; he passed away only three years later. In light of this knowledge, Terrorist seems at first the kind of embarrassment that people forgive the aged -- a crotchety squib that most readers just politely declined to take much note of or remember. But I don't think anyone could see it that way who had read through to the concluding lines. It seems to me now, rather, that there are passages in the book that stand as near-perfect parting messages from a beloved writer -- one I certainly love, at any rate -- who was close to the end of his own powers but had not yet reached it. Updike suggests in this book that there may not be answers to the problems of futility, of faith, of meaning that form the real core of every book he wrote (once they are stripped of the platitudes and the lectures); but he suggests that the questions themselves are a kind of answer; that our apparently deepest hatred of life and doubts as to its meaning are still a kind of affirmation of it, a jealous guard of it, even.

Gore Vidal had a far more sophisticated interest in politics, and in the world outside his own mind, than Updike did. It enabled him to spot everything that is superficial and ridiculous and embarrassing in the other author, and he sends all this up quite nicely. But there is nothing I have seen in any of Vidal's writing to suggest he could have understood what Updike was trying to say in his best passages, even had he tried to do so. If all Updike can really write about well is his own mind and his own doubts -- and there's good reason to think this is so-- he writes about these so well and so honestly, that it justifies a flawed career. It even justifies Terrorist.

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