once wrote, “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” Coming from this country’s premiere man of letters, best known for his panoramic “Rabbit” tetralogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest—the compendium of which recently made runner-up in the New York Times contest for “Best American Fiction of the Last Twenty-Five Years”), these words might smack of self-satisfied jingoism, yet they grow more ominous the more they're considered.
“A vast conspiracy,” has a foreboding ring to it, suggesting that forces outside our control manipulate how we value and even define happiness. Ask yourself what you want in life and America offers a dizzying array of answers, from the $1 Burger King bacon cheeseburger to a fleeting fifteen-minutes of American Idol fame. We have the inalienable right in our great country to pursue happiness. Yet this Kingdom of Man, with its material wealth and countless temptations, can often seem at odds with the Kingdom of God, with its wholy different value system based on faith, hope, and charity. For a person of faith, finding God in the disorienting labyrinth of modern culture can be difficult, especially with a golden calf around every corner.
In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Christian author admitted that the inner life of a suicide bomber was more comprehensible to her than that of Donald Trump. Updike apparently agrees with Ms. Gordon, or else his latest book would have been about Donald Trump instead of a suicide bomber. , the author’s twenty-second novel, is shockingly forthright in its condemnation of unchecked American consumerism. Consider the following:
Updike's twenty-second novel, is shockingly forthright in its condemnation of unchecked American consumerism.
Devils, these many gaudy packages seemed to be, these towering racks of today’s flimsy fashion, these shelves of chip-power expressed in murderous cartoons prodding the masses to buy, to consume while the world still had resources to consume, to gorge at the trough before death closed greedy mouths forever. In all this wooing of the needy into debt, death was the bottom line, the counter where the diminishing dollars clattered. Hurry, buy now, since the afterlife’s pure and plain joys are an empty fable.
This is bracing stuff, showcasing Updike’s preternatural gift for language and eagle eye for telling details. But the author pulls his punch by delivering his criticisms by way of one Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, an American-born Muslim and terrorist-in-the-making—not someone whose opinion most readers are likely to value.
Updike originally intended to write a novel about a Catholic seminarian who finds the world at odds with his vocation to the priesthood, but switched to an Islamist fundamentalist for a personality-type a bit more hot-off-the-presses. It was an unexpected choice. Updike has never been known for tackling overtly topical subject matter. His métier, for the most part, has been to capture the minutiae of middle-class American life with the microscopic accuracy of a seventeenth century Dutch painter. In novels like Couples, Rabbit, Run, and 2004’s Villages, the epochal events of the age—from the moon landing, Vietnam, and Watergate, to the advent of the Internet—take back seats to intimate scenes of domestic drama: a painful Pennsylvania adolescence in the Centaur, the trauma of a child’s death in Rabbit, Run, and sixties-era wife-swapping in a well-to-do section of New England in the controversial Couples. By confronting the horrors of 9-11 head-on, from the point-of-view of a would-be participant in the event, Terrorist comes as something of a surprise.
John Updike, the seventy-four-year-old bard of the middle-American bedroom, writing about an eighteen-year-old suicide bomber in New Jersey? Maybe it’s not so shocking, after all. A leitmotif of Updike’s work is spiritual longing in the face of a faith-impoverished society. George Caldwell of the Centaur, Piet Hanema of Couples, and Roger Lambert of Roger’s Version are just a few of Updike’s many protagonists fighting spiritual battles on the dispiriting front of secularism.
God is ever present to Updike’s sinned-against as well as sinning heroes, as He is in Updike’s own life. The author has said of his Episcopalian faith, “I just accept the reassurance … I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe.”
This is bracing stuff, showcasing Updike’s preternatural gift for language and eagle eye for telling details.
Updike shares his protagonist’s “thirst for Paradise” in the desert of our culture of death. This aching desire to find God, as in 2003’s biblically titled Seek My Face, reaches a fever pitch in Terrorist when one young man’s desire for salvation takes the form of a jihad. This spiritual longing, however perverted, fascinates Updike, who over the past fifty years has been one of literature’s most astute observers of the changing, and in some ways deteriorating, American landscape. Whether he falls short or side-of-the-mark, his aim is to hit an unsympathetic target: the mind of a terrorist, and to ask the question, how does murder become martyrdom?
“Devils,” the novel begins. “These devils seek to take away my God.” The possessive “my” is significant. To whom does God belong? In this case, to Updike’s antihero: Ahmad, an eighteen-year old high school senior and seeker of the Straight Path. He guards his God like a jealous lover; his fervent faith sets him apart from the “devils” around him—fellow inhabitants of that most decadent of American social institutions, the public high school.
Ahmad is a social pariah, by choice, he imagines, though the reader doubts Ahmad would make diverting company. In his mind, the teachers (“weak Christians and nonobservant Jews”) “make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.” Seeing a gaggle of “bubbly buxom brown girls, Miss Populars,” prompts Ahmad to prophecy, “Some day they will be mothers. Some day soon, the little whores.” Ahmad does not mince his words, even when speaking to one of his only friends, vivacious Joryleen Grant: “You have a good heart, Joryleen, but you’re heading straight for Hell, the lazy way you think.”
Ahmad’s hackneyed phrases might be evidence of the lazy way Updike thinks. Ahmad can seem at times more like a cardboard Middle-Eastern villain than an eighteen-year old American. After Joryleen invites him to her church, he answers, “You have been gracious to me, and I was curious. It is helpful, up to a point, to know the enemy.” Ahmad’s clipped, precise English suggests a latecomer to the language; an odd effect considering Ahmad is American-born.
If Ahmad can seem cartoonish, it only highlights the difficulty of Updike’s position. In trying to emulate the voice of an angry young man whose disdain and disgust for Western society eventually builds to a militant hatred, Updike must in some ways adopt Ahmad’s single-mindedness to his own prose. Ahmad’s reduced vision of the world sees people only as devils, as threats to his salvation—the world is fallen and the innocent are never innocent. “I look around me,” he says, “and I see slaves—slaves to drugs, slaves to fads, slaves to television, slaves to sports heroes that don’t know they exist, slaves to the unholy, meaningless opinions of others.” Slaves and devils occupy Ahmad’s field of vision, never people.
It is easy to dismiss Ahmad’s point-of-view as narrow, uncompromising fundamentalism at its most extreme. Updike tries to get to the heart of Ahmad’s extremism, to understand or at least recognize the strange alchemy that produces a suicidal soldier of God. In many ways Terrorist is a book about an intensely religious young man struggling to discern his life’s vocation. Significantly, Ahmad is a homegrown terrorist, born-and-bred in America. His inner city New Jersey upbringing seems to feed his hatred for American culture, which he views as one long siren song tempting him away from the Straight Path. When Ahmad’s spiritual instructor warns him against distractions from Allah, Ahmad confesses “But the entire world is such a distraction.”
Updike profiles his terrorist convincingly: Ahmad is a disaffected teen on the cusp of adulthood living in a grimy section of New Jersey. His future is unclear, his devotion to Islam complete, his father gone, his hatred for Western culture growing, and his imam promising him ample reward in the Afterlife if he undertakes a jihad. For most of the narrative, Ahmad exists at the intersection of faith and fanaticism, needing only a nudge to make him embrace suicide as a spiritual act: “Ahmad knows he must have a future, but it seems insubstantial to him, and repels his interest. The only guidance, says the third sura, is the guidance of Allah.”
Ahmad can seem more like a cardboard Middle-Eastern villain than an eighteen-year old American.
The guidance of Allah is not Ahmad’s only guidance, however. Shaik Rashid, a Muslim cleric and Ahmad’s spiritual instructor, is the one who eventually gives Ahmad the final nudge. He teaches the Qu’ran to Ahmad, his last remaining pupil, at a decrepit mosque situated above a nail salon and a check-cashing, facility. He's a cold, vaguely indolent instructor who seems more interested in the semantics of the holy text than its message. The reader can’t help but shudder when he suggests Ahmad take up truck driving instead of going to college.
Shaik Rashid’s foil is Jack Levy, Central High’s world-weary guidance counselor. He's a misanthropic, nonobservant Jew filled with existential dread—almost as much of a caricature of the modern, secular Jew as Ahmad is a caricature of religious fundamentalism. Levy, like Ahmad, wonders about the path he's on: “In the world’s dark forest he had missed the right path. But was there any right path? Or was being alive in itself the mistake?” Despite Levy’s long-term gloom, he spots college potential in Ahmad. He can even sympathize, up to a point, with Ahmad’s anti-Americanism. Levy admits to Ahmad’s mom that maybe “the crazy Arabs are right—hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen to the lyrics of these rock and rap stars—just kids themselves, with smart agents.” But Levy’s answer is to try and guide Ahmad down modern America’s “Straight Path”: college, career, and respectability. He never takes Ahmad’s faith seriously. He seems to feel deep down that Ahmad could not possibly take his faith seriously. In allegorical terms (and Updike’s philosophy-infused dialogue invites the reading), Levy is Reason and Ahmad is Faith. It is no coincidence that when the time comes for Ahmad to carry out his mission, Levy ends up sitting next to him in the truck.
These father-figures serve as surrogates to Ahmad’s own absentee father, an Egyptian, who decamped when Ahmad was three, leaving him to the care of his Irish-American mother, Teresa Mulloy. She's a nurse’s aide and hobbyist painter, a spirited woman whose earthy sensuality attracts Levy and embarrasses her son. She admits to being mystified by Ahmad’s religious fervor, having “dropped out of the Catholic package when she was sixteen,” but intuits what draws him to faith: “It’s saying yes to life,” she tells Levy, “You have to trust that there’s a purpose or you’ll sink. When I paint I just have to believe that beauty will emerge.”
Beauty, however, doesn't emerge from Ahmad’s vision of life and faith. His devotion is pure, but cold. When he visits a Christian church, invited by a girl on whom he harbors a guilty crush, he feels repulsed by the Incarnation, by God made man: “To worship a God known to have died—the very idea affects Ahmad like an elusive stench, a stoppage in the plumbing, a dead rodent in the walls.” God is both close to Ahmad, as close as the vein in his neck, and faraway, unattainable. In Christian terms, when God became man he valorized the worth and dignity of every living human being. For Ahmad, God is so far superior to man that Ahmad must “become the surviving lone instrument of the All-Merciful, the Perfect” in order to shake the infidels of their disbelieving malaise.
Ahmad never questions how doing God’s will necessarily includes murdering hundreds or thousands of other people.
Though Updike’s fatalistic title reveals Ahmad’s future, he's careful not to condescend to Ahmad’s faith along the journey. The following passage, for example, lovingly evokes the mysterious beauty of a personal relationship with God through prayer:
Ahmad himself loves prayer, the sensation of pouring the silent voice in his head into a silence waiting at his side, an invisible extension of himself into a dimension purer than the three dimensions of this world.
But is Ahmad’s faith alone what drives him to become the eponymous “Terrorist”? Or does he comply out of a misguided desire to please, to be accepted by two father-substitutes: his imam and God? Does he really believe he's doing God’s will? These questions remain unanswered by the text. Unfortunately, there is little shading to Ahmad; Updike’s modeling is shallow. Ahmad never questions, for example, how doing God’s will necessarily includes murdering hundreds, maybe thousands of other people. Ahmad’s transition from a polite, obsequious, and well-mannered young adult (sensitive, if a bit antagonistic) in the early part of the novel to the steely, single-minded “instrument of God” in the latter half is too abrupt to be convincing, much less satisfying.
Ultimately, Ahmad seems less than the sum of his parts. His measured speech, mixed heritage, and religious zeal are more like surface ornaments than elements of a fully fleshed-out character. All the pieces are there, but they don’t quite fit together. Why does Ahmad become a terrorist? The central issue of the book remains unresolved. Updike goes to great lengths to describe American decadence, but there’s a link missing in the chain of causality. The very fact that Ahmad is Muslim seems the most compelling reason he takes up his jihad, when he is otherwise so pliant and polite.
What is Updike expressing about the nature of faith when the most faithful, thoughtful, and sensitive character in his book ends up a terrorist? Updike doesn't offer any alternative. He doesn't ever suggest that someone can be a healthy and happy part of society and also be a practicing Muslim (or Christian, for that matter). Levy’s “let’s all just get along” relativism is the only thing shored up against Ahmad’s white-hot rage and religious zeal. Faith and Reason are never reconciled—in Updike’s equation, faith equals fundamentalism and doubt equals humanity. And he only occasionally allows Ahmad moments of self-doubt, as in this instance: “Was his own faith, he had asked himself at times, an adolescent vanity, a way of distinguishing himself from all those doomed others…the rest of the lost, the already dead, at Central High?” These moments of inwardness, of self-reflection, are too fleeting.
Part of the discomfiture the reader feels might be due to Updike’s distinctive literary style. He doesn't traffic in the abstract. His prose paints the shimmering surface of everyday life with the lovingly detailed attention of Vermeer or Van Eyck. It’s not the right tone for Ahmad, whose extremism blinds him to grace; his head remains so high in the clouds that other people are virtually meaningless to him. Updike is too sensual a writer for this insensate character; he awkwardly forces Ahmad to see things in an Updikean way: in intense close-up, in enlarged detail. One especially schizophrenic sentence highlights the jarring split between author and protagonist. Updike, through Ahmad, describes high school as a “hellish castle, where the boys bully and hurt for sheer pleasure and the infidel girls wear skintight hiphuggers almost low enough—less than a finger’s breadth, he has estimated—to release into view the topmost fringe of their pubic curls.” The “hellish castle” sounds like Ahmad. The “topmost fringe of their pubic curls” sounds like vintage Updike.
Despite Updike’s ultimate failure to sculpt his titular protagonist fully in the round, Terrorist remains an important post 9-11 literary monument.
Despite Updike’s ultimate failure to sculpt his titular protagonist fully in the round, Terrorist remains an important post 9-11 literary monument—another part of the larger, ongoing project of coming-to-terms with that dark day. Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), hailed by many critics as the first great post 9-11 novel, ended by skirting the issue— terrorism became a backdrop to intimate scenes of domestic threat. McEwan’s more successful response to 9-11 appeared in an essay in The Guardian, which included this lovely insight on terrorism and compassion:
If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.
Ironically, then, it is Updike, not McEwan, who obeys McEwan’s exhortation to imagine ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of those we do not understand. Updike’s attempt to enter the mind of a terrorist is a form of Christian humanism, an exploration of the deeper undercurrents of religious fanaticism by concentrating on one person’s spiritual journey. It is an ambitious undertaking, and measuring how far Updike falls short only emphasizes how daunting his task was: to adopt the voice of a zealous fundamentalist and try to understand him from the inside out without condoning or romanticizing his acts.
Updike gives Ahmad the benefit of the doubt, in other words—something Ahmad does not do for the disbelieving “devils” all around him. If imagination equals compassion, then works of art like this novel are essentially moral in nature: they provide invaluable insight into the hearts and minds of those we do not fully understand, but whom Christ has commanded us to love.