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.  

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