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The Spider and the Wasp 

John Updike and his Terrorist

Wednesday, May 31 2006

In Terrorist, a novel whose title will either roll eyes or raise eyebrows, John Updike seeks to crack open one of the hardest shells available to the New England writer: the mind of the young, angry, resentful Muslim. To meet this literary challenge, Updike concocts Ahmad, a teenage Molotov cocktail of mixed races (Irish mother, absent Egyptian father), mixed feelings of hatred and tentative love for America, and mixed allegiances to both his high school and his mosque, in dreary New Prospect, New Jersey.

The freckled and soft-spoken boy finds religion on his own, without any prodding from nosy imams, and abandons all the friends and trappings of his suburban life, instead choosing the sole company of God — “closer to him than his neck vein,” a Koranic expression Updike often repeats. The narrator indicates without much subtlety that Allah just might be the father figure Ahmad lacks, a sentiment that betrays the shapeless concept of God as understood by Muslims. After high school, Ahmad settles, despite his considerable smarts and vocabulary, for the sober profession of truck driver, working for Lebanese furniture vendors in what can only spell out a totally Arab recipe for terror and disaster. Citing Koranic verses for “evidence,” Updike finds the possibility of violent “jihad” (not the kind that means “inner struggle”) imprinted in Islam’s DNA. But the character treatment of Ahmad is by no means one-sided: Updike emphasizes that the teenager comes to terrorism passively, spurred by the mosque’s light-eyed Yemeni sheik Rashid, a disciple of Islam more interested in the poetry than the moral message of the Koran. Ultimately, Updike places much of the blame for Ahmad’s seduction into violence on the blight of his surroundings — bleak apartment buildings, depressing racial and religious tensions and, most of all, the absence of anything or anyone with integrity to latch on to.

The darkness of the book lifts occasionally: when Ahmad perceives God in the sacredness of ordinary life, or in the emotive singing of a Christian black girl (Joryleen, perhaps the only object of Ahmad’s affection) or, finally, when his Jewish guidance counselor builds a secular bridge into Ahmad’s conscience. Yet, for the average Updike reader, it will be hard not to glimpse Muslim friends and neighbors with renewed suspicion after reading the novel. Whatever the beauties of this book — Updike’s phrasing is sometimes intimidatingly perfect in the way it penetrates to the heart of elusive matters — Terrorist is sustained on the premise that 9/11 was a characteristic, and not exceptional, Muslim event.

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Updike spoke to the Weekly by phone from his Massachusetts home.

L.A. WEEKLY:Given your distance from the subject matter, research must have played an important role in the creation of this book. What were your sources?

JOHN UPDIKE: Mr. Shady Nasser, a grad student at Harvard they found for me, was my Arabic consultant. My own research, which could, of course, have been more: I read the Koran in a couple of translations, even got a book called The Koran for Dummies. The 9/11 Commission gives you kind of a feeling for the personalities of those terrorists, and I’ve read several books on Islam — Islam Today and a book called The Shahids, about suicide bombing. It goes back a fairly long way, I discovered.

The story of Jonah is often mentioned in discussions about terrorism, and you include a passage from it on your dedication page: “And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live./And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ ” How did you come to use it?

I found it in an Episcopalian church pamphlet, and it seemed to fit. It was sort of a linked thought — it’s not like I read Jonah and then wrote the novel. That often happens with these separate drafts, there’s something that strikes you. The other [prefatory quote] cropped up in Gabriel García Márquez [“Disbelief is more resistant than faith because it is sustained by the senses.” ]I was so surprised by him saying this so bluntly, and I thought the two quotes helped frame the issue of faith and also how much anger, how much rage . . . my young hero Ahmad has — at being deserted by his father, at many things, including the city around him. Although Ahmad didn’t lose his temper much, [he has] the kind of cold rage which fits right into the sacrifice he’s asked to make.

To someone who grew up in a Muslim household, the observations in Terrorist were impressive at times, but at others I was upset that you left crucial details out, things that would humanize Islam and make it seem more pluralistic. Do you care what Muslims will eventually think of your work?

  • John Updike and his Terrorist

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