The Potomac - Book Review of "Terrorist" by John Updike
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December 2006 - BOOK REVIEW by Sheheryar Badar Sheikh
by John Updike
Knopf, 2006

E.M. Forster defines the novel as a prose fiction of more than 50,000 words. Essential ingredients of a novel, he argues convincingly, are the obvious three: story, plot and characters. Besides these, the best novels are garnished with deserving and appropriate seasonings of rhythm (motifs repeated at perfect intervals), fantasy (which can be steeped in rationality, often confused with reality) and prophecy (only the best books manage this feat: the original proclamation of something, anything, universally human).

If Forster's guidelines had been foremost in Updike's mind, he would not have written Terrorist the way he did. Perhaps he would not have written it at all. Updike is a champion of suburban existential dilemmas—his works are turgid with the adulterous and dog-walking inertia prevalent among the ennui-ridden intelligentsia of the United States' northeastern seaboard. The little "foreign work" he's undertaken in his twenty-two-novel career is limited to the quotable The Coup (1978) and the forgettable Brazil (1994). Besides novels, his oeuvre encompasses books of poems, essays, children's fantasy, a play, and a memoir. Let's not forget to mention that he is widely recognized as the champion of American middle-and-upper class values.

Understandably, expectations ballooned when it was announced the American master would churn out a book titled ominously, Terrorist. There were skeptics who said it could not be done, not by Updike.

They were right.

John Updike should not have written this book. Not because the final product derides extremist factions within Islam, which it does subtly and overtly (though in both cases artlessly); this was overlooked by many reviewers. Not because he hadn't considered the thorough integration of first-generation Muslim Americans in the country's culture and localized counter-cultures—including street language, dress sense, and consumerism. Not because writers shouldn't experiment beyond their established territory—they most certainly should break new ground to remain interested in the craft of creation. None of these reasons would suffice to label this book 'best left unwritten'. Only the reason that, simply put (God forgive Oscar Wilde his peccadilloes, if only for voicing his bon mots), Terrorist is a badly written book.

Consider Terrorist's story. Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is the son of an Irish-American woman and an Egyptian exchange-student, who left them when Ahmad was three years old. At the narrative's beginning, Ahmad is about to graduate from high school in New Prospect, New Jersey, a once-thriving town that now wallows in the memories of its unrealized potential. And then he goes to work for a Lebanese immigrant family, driving a delivery and pickup truck for their furniture shop. A scheme to detonate a bomb surfaces, and Ahmad finds himself behind the wheel of the rigged truck at the designated time, at the designated place.

A novel's second most important propellant, the disarming mechanism which is supposed to quell all fears of it being—God forbid—possibly untrue, is its plot; the facet that answers the reader's querulous "Why?" Most authors nowadays reveal the story and then reveal the plot in alternative layers, in the sequence: "And then… [and backtrack with] becauseand then…". There is the more difficult (in terms of keeping an audience's attention) art of reversing the technique: "Because… [revealing motive beforehand] and then…". Martin Amis has done the latter successfully in "The last days of Muhammad Atta," a fictionalization of the Terrorist recently featured in The New Yorker (and part of Amis's The House of Meetings). In Amis's story—a fictionalized account of the real-world Terrorist Muhammad Atta's last hours—Atta comes across as a man with a severe intention, but not as a flat character.

Updike doesn't fare quite so well. A limp bitterness languishes in the narrator's attempts at omniscience. Ahmad is given a monotonous identity, and a childlike peevishness that leads him to volunteer for the bombing mission. It is as though Updike took the CNN sketch of a Terrorist: America-hater, consumerism-intolerant, marginalized Muslim-American, and added inadaptable muscle and bone to lifeless cells. The result? An android in the vein of Lt. Commander Data with Warf-like, unreasonable menace. From beginning to end, the motivations of Terrorist's protagonist skid back and forth like a lumbering truck on a one-dimensional highway, sometimes following his human impulses, and mostly curbing them with the help of his overzealous religiosity.

Never balanced, Terrorist teeters over a void, and repeatedly falls into feeble attempts at understanding Ahmad, a character that an author with more insight might have saved. It is maybe too late in life for the septuagenarian Updike to real-ize Ahmad's specific story or his unique angst. The hollow shell that Ahmad becomes in Updike's hands does the leonine Updike serious discredit. It is in passages that do not concern Ahmad, or are only peripherally connected to him that Updike shows his glitter. His commentary on suburban culture is lacquered in authoritative commentary. Sentences become poignant instantly, once they leave the medieval language attributed to Ahmad. The first sentence from the novel reads, (author's italics): "Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God." This jars a little, but merely begins a series of the character's linguistic impediments. At one point Ahmad says, "I seek to walk the Straight Path… in this country, it is not easy. There are too many paths, too much selling of many useless things." Ahmad's global political views are blanket statements, as are most teenagers', but they are worded much more awkwardly: "The United States might have become a kind of Canada, a peaceable and sensible country, though infidel." Even in ordinary things, Ahmad finds difficulty expressing anything simply. Take for example a line belonging in a badly subtitled Arabic movie: "I do not desire uncleanness." Did Updike follow around a fresh-off-the-boat Seven-Eleven immigrant employee for research into an American-born, American-speaking Muslim's jargon? One wonders.

Other characters who figure largely include Ahmad's mother, Terry; his guidance counselor Jack Levy (by default attracted to Terry—poor Updike, he never could resist attaching middle-aged people at the hip); Joryleen Grant, a roundish, "seductive black classmate", plays Ahmad's love-interest, from whom he is separated for a large chunk of the novel, then serendipitously reunited at the most predictable twist in history since Sherlock Holmes's reprisal. These thicker-than-Ahmad, but still-flat cardboards serve as microphones of American secularity, each trying in his or her way to keep Ahmad from, figuratively and literally, blasting away his future.

At the other end of the tug-of-war is the Lebanese furniture businessman's son, 'Charlie' Chehab, the fully American-ized Muslim who sets Ahmad up in several ways. Ahmad's Quranic instructor and local mosque's imam, Shaikh Rashid, is a colorful character only because he is portrayed as a mysterious entity. Ahmad's cultivated hatred for consumerism and his teenage angst are attributed mainly to his Shaikh's teachings, but there are also passages in which the Shaikh talks romantically and exotically of the Islamic version of heaven. He is seen opening the student's vision to encompass alternate interpretations of the Quran (72 virgins being 72 raisins according to some).

Updike's research is impeccable. His narrator is thoroughly adept in the Quran's structure and quotes it frequently, almost always relevantly. Throughout the novel, he shows Ahmad's actions and/or thoughts reflecting some verses. But Updike irreparably damages the narrative by overdoing the scriptural quotes in a novel that attempts to promote secular philosophy over religion. And he does not use the quotes in a truly representative manner, either. Nearly all of the quotes he uses propel the punitive image of the Islamic God, and not the loving and forgiving sides. There are plenty of each kind, if one looks at the translations Updike used.

Which is another fault with Terrorist. The book's two epigraphs are unsuitable, not for their content, but for their overarching threat to the structure of the novel. One of the epigraphs is a quote from the Bible, the only quote from Christian and Judaic scripture. And it is in contemporary translation (meaning no thee's and thou's), whereas the Quranic translations are all from Old English (lots of lofty thee's and thou's). The juxtaposition is unwarranted and extinguishes the hopes for an understanding illumination.

The inconsistencies of Terrorist glare at first read, and the shallowness of the book prevents a reread. And they cast a shadow over the master author's motives. If Updike wanted to debate, with a fictionally realized argument, whether militant Islam is a dated concept, he has produced an essay of doubtful merit. If Updike wanted to produce a novel that treats its characters with humanity and reserves heavy-handed judgment, he succeeds in his own head alone. Terrorist is a trite work that John Updike should not have written, even if he was only attempting to fulfill the minimum criterion of a novel: 50,000 words of prose fiction.


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