Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Ghost of John Updike and the Boston Bombing

This weekend's capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the brothers believed responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, brings up many questions. Time and investigation will tell whether the brothers were acting alone, had identified future targets, or were supported by means beyond their own.

But the episode also poses an obscure cultural question - will the events of last week and the coming weeks' vindicate one of John Updike's last, and least regarded, novels?

"Terrorist" was published in 2006, five years after the 9/11 attacks. It follows the life of a teenage Muslim American, Ahmad Mulloy, and his high school counselor, Jack Levy, along with a number of other characters in the forgotten American urban landscape of New Prospect, N.J.

The novel came at an interesting juncture in Updike's career. Long regarded as a possible Nobel Prize candidate, Updike's work landed in bookstores with the regularity of the seasons. Novels arrived every two years, in between short story collections, essay collections or poetry. His reputation was unassailable. But there was a feeling, hovering in the background, that Updike's suburbanite guilt-ridden adulterous Christian protagonists, swathed in his characteristically elegant prose, has grown way too precious. There was a feeling that the Master had become too detached from reality.

The first hints of this came after the triumph of "In the Beauty of the Lilies," still my favorite Updike. He followed this up with experimental works, such as "Toward the End of Time," a pseudo-science fiction work, "Gertude and Claudius," giving the backstory of "Hamlet," and "Seek My Face" and "Villages," workmanlike and occasionally perplexing examinations of the art world and the early days of computers. 

Next came assaults from outside. Updike's contemporary, Philip Roth, executed his late career renaissance with his celebrated American trilogy of "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain." And from the right came Tom Wolfe, fresh off "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man In Full." Wolfe, responding to criticism from Updike that his work was not literature, called Updike a "stooge" who had lost touch with his audience - a critique he didn't reserve solely for Updike but for most of the literati.

"Terrorist" is, in some ways, Updike's attempt to answer back. He fills the novel with as much modernity as he can muster - when he wrote the novel, there was still a lingering criticism that American writers had not fully engaged the ramifications of the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror. (Something that still remains largely unattempted.)  And "Terrorist" is many things, but most of its main characters are not suburban middle-class people struggling to contain their hormones. It's possible to see the book as a combination of Roth and Wolfe - engaging American society while registering as many status details as possible.

The criticisms of the novel at the time, as I recall, were that Updike's Muslim, Ahmad, was not credibly rendered. Ahmad's mother, as well as Levy, come off as a stereotypes, as well as the novel's black characters. These criticisms are interesting when one considers that the characters of Roth's "The Human Stain" are almost all stereotypes, but it works. The sense we had at the time was that "Terrorist" didn't work. Taking it off the shelf, it took a few minutes to remember precisely what happened in the book.

The first line of the novel:

"Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God." 

Ahmad thinks of his teachers as weak Christians and nonobservant Jews who "make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint" but whose "shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief." From the opening is established a critique - we see the world through Ahmad's eyes and we see America as a false, hypocritical place full of soul-destroying danger. 

It's also important to remember that 2006 was when the War on Terror began to take on a different shading. President George W. Bush, fresh off re-election, was no longer a unifying leader but was by now mortally wounded politically due to the aftermath of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. To many, we as a nation weren't in a generational global cultural conflict so much as replaying, in a Middle Eastern setting, our nation's continuing angst over Vietnam and presidential power.

That's why Updike's characters often fill "Terrorist" with liberal political critiques that sound more like a writer airing his frustrations than characters stating their views. It is this lapsing voice that is the novel's most frustrating problem. You find yourself admiring Updike's ambition in tackling the story at the same time you wish his execution was more exacting. When Ahmad's planned attack doesn't come off in the end, the reason, meant to be life-affirming and uplifting, instead feels false and unearned.

Ahmad in some ways fits what we know of the actual terrorists who have shown up in the past 20 years in America. Like their godfather, Sayyid Qutb, the 9/11 hijackers were not Islamic hermits who disengaged themselves from American culture. They were part of it - indeed the 9/11 hijackers conducted a meeting in Las Vegas weeks before the attack. It is the freedom of the culture that outraged them, even as they insinuated themselves into it. Ahmad doesn't square with what we know of the Tsarnaev brothers - Dzhokhar had a Twitter account much like any other, commenting on the movies and sports, and he was known to smoke pot. Ahmad's conduct seems naive, sheltered, abnormally sensitive. In this regard, he does not fit the profile - our real-life terrorists, at some crucial point, leave one with the lingering impression that their faith or the ideology is simply an excuse to inflict pain - ruthless, pitiless pain, on a grand scale.

There is an interesting scene involved Ahmad and Joryleen Grant, a black classmate who later becomes a prostitute. She undresses for him, talks to him, teases him, then sings "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." Is Ahmad being tempted by sex, or Christianity, or both and neither? It is this temptation, whatever it may be, which eventually inspires Ahmad to undertake his act of terrorism - in the end, violence is the only response when one succumbs, even in the mind, to temptation. That is the only way the true believer can earn redemption. At least this part seems true to life.

Updike's career will endure largely because of the length and depth of his talent and the character and quality of earlier novels. "Terrorist" is an interesting book, but it suffers in its critique for one reason at least - the reality it depicts wasn't born out later by events. Updike's depiction of the War on Terror has a disquieting moral equivalency between Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and America's reaction about it, and that reads less charitably after an event like the Boston Marathon attack and the city's response. Writing, perhaps with ideas of rendition, waterboarding, warrantless wiretaps and other causes in mind, Updike has one of his characters remark, "An open society is so defenseless. Everything the modern free world has achieved is so fragile."

If anything, the last week's events - senseless tragedy, national sympathy, patient police work, calm civic resolve - affirm that open societies are well-equipped to fight terror with the same freedom that inspires the attacks in the first place. Perhaps one of the flaws of our time is that we collectively expect something darker in our fiction to ring truer, darker even than evil that can strike in the most public places, when all we want to do is run.

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  1. Tracking John Updike's Foot Fetish.
    This is only scratching the surface! Some quotes from six of Updike's fifty odd books.He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.

    1. What are we to make of these appearances of signs in the novels? For one thing, Updike is obviously including them in these fictions as part of his desire to present real slices of life from late twentieth century American society – what it is/was like to live in this time, in this place