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.
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?
I guess I didn’t think too much about that. The book is, by nature of the environment it takes place in, quite ethnic, so there’s something for everyone to be offended by, something for the Jews to be offended by, something for the Irish to dislike, and certainly there’s enough there for Arab-Americans to dislike. I did see the sheik, the imam, as sinister, although charming and erudite, and he probably has a case for himself to be made, too. I saw him as sinister but also as somebody trying to be good, someone trying to be pure in an impure and not very good world. I never felt critical of Ahmad; he is young, and as the young often are, sort of absolute in his ardor, absolute in his intended actions.
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 in Terrorist?
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 novel The 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?
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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.
Do you still believe in universal humanity and understanding?
Oh, sure! As a goal, yes, it’s something to be hoped for. I tend to be ridiculously hopeful about conflicts and ways around them, through them, but I think we’re a long way from the happy world that was dawning when the Cold War collapsed. It’s proven to be a much more troubled and dangerous and messy world than I think we could have foreseen.
TERRORIST | By JOHN UPDIKE | Alfred A. Knopf | 310 pages | $25 hardcover