By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In preparing for this book, did you read other authors who’ve dealt with so-called terrorist subjects?
I’ve read Martin Amis. He’s quite interested in all this; he sees the terrorists as embodiments of evil and nihilism. I don’t see it that way, and I don’t have Amis’ ability to, or his wish to, see evil. I just see various conflicting goals. Everybody in my novel is sort of doing their best. Blowing things up, from the standpoint of the wider society, is not a good act; from their standpoint, it is an act of necessary war.
So is there a kind of moral neutrality or moral distance inTerrorist?
I think the author is basically on the side of not blowing up things. I think I’m for the order that exists rather than any hypothetical order that might exist if the present order was brushed aside. I think, in general, change is also needed in societies, but it proceeds by gradual, unspectacular, unmurderous means.
You use an omniscient point of view and make some pretty extreme pronouncements. We don’t always know whether those thoughts belong to Ahmad or to the narrator, which makes for a tense ambiguity sometimes, like bombs being let off and no one taking responsibility. Was that a conscious technique?
His thoughts . . . some of them are hostile, he’s very hostile, in fact. He feels that the Western world, materialism, sexuality, consumerism, all these things the West has — basically the face presented in the movies and the songs — he thinks all this is inimical to his faith, and to God. So, in that case, yes, he is something of an extremist. There’s a way in which I share the possibility of feeling this way. There’s a selfishness and a silliness and a rot afoot in the society that offers very little guidance or ultimate hope, the kind of hope that religion used to offer, and still does to many, but far from all.
Are there any rules you follow when speaking vicariously through characters very distant from you in terms of identity? Did you read Christopher Hitchens’ review of your book, where he talks about “ventriloquism”?
Haven’t seen it, I can probably wait to see it. But the author, this author, imagines that he’s working his way into this other mind, and speaks what he believes that mind would. I don’t think of it as a ventriloquist; what you’d like is to merely have access to belief systems and thought processes that you don’t necessarily share. You always have to have some difference between a character and you; otherwise, you’re spouting opinions.
The enduring message of this book is pretty gloomy. Do you consider yourself the Michel Houellebecq of America?
Uh . . . [Laughs.] . . . I think of myself as a kind of amiable, patriotic, happy person, but when I write, yeah, something else creeps in. There was a certain pleasure in trying to empathize your way into the destructiveness here, into the thought of terror. I recently reviewed Houellebecq in The New Yorker, and I find him not pleasant to read, and not terribly persuasive in his portrait of the human condition. I don’t see myself as much of a Houellebecq, but who knows, when you’re writing fiction, you’re not so much trying to establish a package of viewpoints but trying to show human beings in action with their convictions. The short answer is no, I don’t think of myself as an American Houellebecq, but I know in my own review, which kind of recoiled from his views, his nihilistic and sort of frantic sexuality, that nevertheless the man is honest, and he tells it the way he sees it, which is all you can ask of a writer.
In your 1978 novelThe Coup, you wrote about a fictitious African country called Kush, and the Muslims there. Is this book in any way a second chapter or follow-up? Did you identify something then that needed to be readdressed?
That was prompted mostly by the advances of General Qaddafi. Libya is now becoming one of our good friends, but at the time he was very hostile, and I guess as an American, I feel compelled to notice expressions of hatred, and most of the expressions of hatred come from the Arab world these days. We all have to face the fact that we are disliked — “disliked” puts it mildly — and sort of try to empathize with the hatred and make some sense of it. In that sense it is a sequel — both heroes cite the Koran — but in many ways it’s different, of course.
Do you think Muslim self-pity and Muslim purity, which irk some writers and journalists in the West, are things that should be scrutinized?
Sure . . . scrutinize everything. I’ve not seen too much self-pity out of quoted Arab sources. The aspiration to purity I quite sympathize with. I find nothing intrinsically wrong with it. All religions aspire to a kind of purity. It’s what makes decent behavior, really; it’s what makes society livable, that the people in it are aspiring to goodness of a kind. I don’t find that satirical. But in the context of modern-day America, I think the wish to keep pure and to be pure sticks out in a painful way. I see it as a rebuke to the way the majority feels and thinks.