Sunday, July 27, 2014

Terrorist, by John Updike

If the manuscript for this novel had been submitted anonymously or pseudonymously, it would have perished quietly in the Hamish Hamilton slush-pile. I've read and admired other Updike fiction. For heaven's sake, the man won Pulitzer prizes for two of the Rabbit novels. Terrorist was his last novel, published in 2006, when he was 74. His editor did him a disservice by publishing this book. I think a tactful agreement over cocktails to put this manuscript to rest would have been the best move all round.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy lives with his mother, an Irish-American artist, in New Prospect New Jersey, his Egyptian father having bailed out not long after the baby's birth. Ahmad is 18, a high school senior, and a devout student of the Holy Q'uran, as taught by his somewhat oleaginous Yemeni teacher, Shaikh Rashid.

Ahmad is a compelling character, but in the end, one that just doesn't work. He speaks very stiffly and formally, as if English were not his native tongue. He is unwilling to kill insects that cross his path, yet he agrees to martyr himself in a plot that will kill untold numbers of bystanders. He is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, yet he behaves like an automaton where his religion is concerned.18 year-olds can of course be a bundle of inner conflicts, but Updike's Ahmad is fundamentally inconsistent.

The young man's guidance counselor is Jack Levy, a rumpled, dispirited, faithless and middle-aged Jew. Elizabeth is his middle-aged, obese wife, a faithless Lutheran. These people seem to illustrate, at least in Ahmad's mind, what is wrong with America. Well, some of what's wrong with it. There are, of course, millions of other illustrative infidels.

I know it's a small world, and coincidences abound, but according to Mr. Updike, there are about two degrees of separation from Ahmad, if that. Mr. Levy feels compelled to visit Ahmad's home, simply because he feels the boy is not going to achieve his full potential by learning to drive a truck, which his imam has encouraged in favour of a godless university track. (Can you see where that's heading?) I, personally, have never heard of a guidance counselor who makes house calls, but Levy goes one step further and embarks upon an affair with Ahmad's mother.  Even though he doesn't really think much of her paintings.

Meanwhile, his cuckolded, overweight wife, Elizabeth, talks on the phone with her sister. Hermione is the adoring, almost worshipful assistant to the newly appointed Director of Homeland Security. Frumpy and middle-aged, she is nonetheless a stolid trooper, a female Bill Gannon to the Director's Sgt. Joe Friday.

This allusion to Dragnet is not incidental. Did Updike always write such absurdly stilted dialogue? Hermione's weak-kneed adoration of her superior is laughable:  Neither "his powerful, rueful masseters" nor his "thoroughly masculine but beautifully formed brunette brows" does a thing for this middle-aged, frumpy reader, except make me rue the day I read them.
He turns in his black suit from the radiant window looking over the Ellipse and the Mall, trampled meadows where those sheep the citizenry graze in their jogging suits and polychrome shorts and running shoes configured like space ships in 'thirties comic books. "I'm wondering," he confides to Hermione, "if we should put the Mid-Atlantic region back on the orange level of alert." 
"Sir, begging your pardon," she says, "but I talk with my sister in New Jersey, and I'm not sure the people know what to do different as the levels go up."
The Secretary chews this over a moment, with his powerful, rueful masseters, then asserts, "No, but the authorities do. They up their own levels; they have a whole menu of emergency measures in front of them." Yet even as he utters this reassurance he feels irritation -- she can tell by the way his fine eyes narrow under their thoroughly masculine but beautifully formed brunette brows...
"If this thing in New Jersey blows up, there'll be no sitting on fat-cat boards for me. No speaker's fees. No million-dollar advance on my memoirs." It was the sort of confession a man should make only to his wife.
Hermione is shocked. He has come closer to her but has fallen in her estimation. She tells him a shade tartly, trying to recall this beautiful, selfless public servant to himself, "Mr. Secretary, no man can serve two masters. Mammon is one; it would be presumptuous for me to name the other."
I appreciate what Updike was aiming for. We all want to get inside the heads of those who commit suicidal mass murder in the name of their religion. Unfortunately, his effort turned mostly into a farce. Like Hermione, though, it feels presumptuous of me to judge someone of John Updike's calibre. Could I write a better novel? Quite probably not.  And so, although I do feel that this book was an overall failure, I must give credit where it's due. There are passages that have the classic Updike panache.  This one, describing the changes that the post-9/11 security upgrades imposed, and how those changes affected people of different social strata, is nothing short of brilliant.
To the well-paid professionals who travelled the airways and frequented the newly fortified government buildings, it appears that a dusky underclass has been given tyrannical power. Comfortable lives that even a decade ago moved fluidly through circuits of privilege and assumed access now encounter sticking-points at what seem every step, while maddeningly deliberate guards ponder driver's licenses and boarding passes. Where once a confident manner, a correct suit and tie, and a business card measuring two by three and a half inches had opened doors, the switch is no longer tripped, the door remains closed. How can the fluid, hydraulically responsive workings of capitalism, let alone the commerce of intellectual exchange and the social life of extended families, function through such obdurate thicknesses of precaution? The enemy has achieved his goal: business and recreation in the West are gummed up, exorbitantly so.
I bought a hard-cover copy of Terrorist at a book sale in Kuala Lumpur in 2010 or so. It sat on the shelf in my un-air-conditioned office, and because I'd not yet read it, I packed and shipped it to Phnom Penh when I moved in March 2014. I inadvertently killed my Kindle by rolling over on it while I slept, and until I could replace it, I was limited to reading print. Mind you, I adore print books. I have borderline pornographic fantasies about libraries filled with them.

But this is what a book looks like after four (4!) years in the tropics with no climate control.

I have a new Kindle Paperwhite now. I may be disappointed in some of the books I'll read on it in the years to come, but at least they'll be crisp black on pristine white.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

King Cophetua and the
Beggar Maid,
Edwin Burne-Jones (1884)

Maurice Bendrix, Greene's protagonist (and, I suspect, his alter-ego) says this book not a love story, but a story about hatred. Bendrix himself is far from loveable. He fell for Sarah, the wife of Henry, his ostensible friend, but she has abruptly ended their affair, leaving him even more bitter. In his angry, dark voice, though, Bendrix narrates what proves to be a complex and profound love story.

None of the loves in this novel is easy -- each is fraught in its own way. Henry and Sarah have a platonic marriage. Bendrix' friendship with Henry is often astonishing in its depth; his passion for Sarah is peppered with mistrust. He learns that Sarah has in fact left him for someone else. The private investigator he hires, Parkis, (who also falls for Sarah in his own humble way) uncovers that Sarah is now trying to find her way in a turbulent relationship with God.

The novel is set in war-time London, and the darkness, punctuated by bomb blasts and murky with fog, is the ideal backdrop -- so little is clear, so much is intense. Bendrix recalls the first time he met Sarah; he had grudgingly accepted an invitation to a party at Henry's house. His cold, anti-social manner failed to put her off. This was perhaps the first time it's failed him; she saw beyond it.
For one thing, she was beautiful, and beautiful women, especially if they are intelligent also, stir some deep feeling of inferiority in me. I don't know whether psychologists have yet named the Cophetua complex, but I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical. All I noticed about her that first time was her beauty and her happiness and her way of touching people with her hands, as though she loved them. I can only recall one thing she said to me, apart from that statement with which she began - 'You do seem to dislike a lot of people.'
Greene devises his interior settings as brilliantly as the drear outside. Rooms can tell us so much about the people who live in them, revealing the best and the worst of character traits.
... when I met Henry it was on Sarah's territory, her haphazard living-room where nothing matched, nothing was period or planned, where everything seemed to belong to that very week because nothing was ever allowed to remain as a token of past taste or past sentiment. Everything was used there; just as in Henry's study I now felt that very little had ever been used. I doubted whether the set of Gibbon had once been opened, and the set of Scott was only there because it had - probably - belonged to his father, like the bronze copy of the Discus Thrower. And yet he was happier in his unused room simply because it was his: his possession. I thought with bitterness and envy: if one possesses a thing securely, one need never use it.
I highlighted the following paragraph not because it was central to the story but because it speaks so aptly about the creative process. Call it a muse, call it a miracle -- flashes of insight just seem to materialise from nothing. Provided, of course, that you sit down at that desk on a regular basis.
So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.
I once read that the opposite of love is not hatred but fear. Greene seems to concur, at least on the point that love and hate can be dangerously similar in appearance.
Hatred seems to operate the same glands as love: it even produces the same actions. If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?
In one of his Easter season sermons, my pastor considered Peter's three denials. This story has always made me miserably uncomfortable. Peter proclaimed to love Jesus and presumably meant it with all his heart, but when pressed, courage failed him. Judas also betrayed Christ -- whether for jealousy, as Greene says, or for silver, who's to say? The difference between them, though, is what they did in their shame:  Judas hung himself. Peter asked forgiveness, and he received it, and that seems to be an essential component of courage and love. Although Bendrix seems unlikely to hang himself in either despair or regret, he doesn't seem open to the idea of mercy -- either earthly or divine.

The private detective manages to pilfer Sarah's diary, and he presents it to Bendrix, who is stunned to realise that Sarah is fighting her own battle with what it means to give and receive love, both earthly and divine.
All today Maurice has been sweet to me. He tells me often that he has never loved another woman so much. He thinks that by saying it often, he will make me believe it. But I believe it simply because I love him in exactly the same way. If I stopped loving him, I would cease to believe in his love. If I loved God, then I would believe in His love for me. It's not enough to need it We have to love first, and I don't know how. But I need it, how I need it.
Bendrix also discovers that Sarah has been consulting a 'rationalist' -- an atheist who delivers impassioned monologues in the park about the fallacy of religious belief. She wants him to convince her that she is deluded. She records in her diary that his certainty has the opposite effect upon her. I think Richard Dawkins has a similar effect on many people -- his vitriolic atheism is no more reasonable than fundamentalist religious views. Rigid, narrow views tend to be fragile and unbalanced.  I admire the fact that Sarah is wrestling with her beliefs and faith throughout the book; Greene never allows her staunch confidence.
I had gone to him to rid me of a superstition, but every time I went his fanaticism fixed the superstition deeper.
After Sarah's death, Henry wants to cremate his late wife's remains, but a priest turns up and asks him to reconsider and to give her instead a proper Catholic burial. Bendrix now seethes with anger at his rival, refusing to admit that He has won.
"Oh no, Henry. She didn't believe in anything, any more than you or me." I wanted her burnt up, I wanted to be able to say, Resurrect that body if you can. My jealousy had not finished, like Henry's, with her death. It was as if she were alive still, in the company of a lover she had preferred to me. How I wished I could send Parkis after her to interrupt their eternity.
Bendrix returns to the tangled braid of love, hate and fear. Sarah had made a leap of faith, of love. The apostle Peter had failed his beloved teacher miserably, but then he did the same. And Maurice Bendrix?
What I chiefly felt was less hate than fear. For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you [Sarah] - with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell - can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it's not so difficult to be a saint. It's something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won't leap.

Friday, July 4, 2014


There comes a point in one's life when one realises that big dreams, glowing aspirations and hard work will only go so far. For me, reading Zadie Smith's review of J. G. Ballard's Crash in this morning's Guardian was just the latest reminder that I am never going to be a literary lion.

This review is the sort of thing I have in mind when I sit down to write every entry, but my posts end up on the kittenish end of the spectrum.   

It opens with Ms. Smith's account of her disastrous meeting with Mr. Ballard aboard a boat full of inebriated English writers, many of whom were pitching plastic chairs into the Thames. My only connection to fine literature is that my late veterinarian-father used to treat Allan Ginsberg's farm animals. 

Smith takes a broad overview of all Ballard's fiction, noting that his gift is to reveal the monstrous in the quotidian: "And Ballard was in the business of taking what seems 'natural' – what seems normal, familiar and rational – and revealing its psychopathology." In the case of Crash, it's our love of cars that becomes pornographic. She goes on to pull in other futuristic and dystopian fiction, noting that Ballard's novel is more subtle, dispassionately crafted with his "medic's eye".  She observes the novel's fine details, but she also places it in the larger universe.

I'll read this review several more times.  If I stare at the lion long enough, carefully enough, maybe -- just maybe -- I can pick up pick up some hints on how she roars.