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The Plot Against America

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Setting aside the novel's many implausibilities, the real trouble lies with Ahmad, whose piety quite literally defies belief. Swaddled in a display of Updike's Islamic learning, Ahmad wears his religion like those talismanic shirts, covered in intricately scripted verses of the Koran, that Muslim warriors once donned to shield themselves from harm. Updike is a gifted mimic and a diligent researcher; he captures the tone of jihadi talk and its convoluted hermeneutics, and the text is riddled with ostentatious nuggets of italicized Arabic, as in a superfluous bit of discourse on the distinction between al-lugha al-fusha, classical Arabic, and al-lugha al'ammiyya, the spoken tongue. Updike is never shy about demonstrating his erudition and, ever the schoolteacher's son, he has certainly done his homework. But homework, as schoolteachers can attest, rarely makes for good reading. Our sympathy for Ahmad is purchased at the cost of verisimilitude; if there are sympathetic terrorists, they exist in the eyes of those who share their aims. But Updike, for all his Salafi mimicry, cannot convince us that Ahmad hates the Great Satan any more than Updike himself does. The pundits and scholars fight among themselves about the causes of Islamic terrorism, assigning blame to religious fundamentalism, Arab humiliation or American perfidy, but in every account the terrorists are fueled by a rage that Ahmad does not possess.

About the Author

Jonathan Shainin
Jonathan Shainin is on the staff of the New Yorker. He is editor, with Roane Carey, of The Other Israel, (New Press).

Also by the Author

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Cynthia Ozick once complained that Henry Bech, Updike's Jewish novelist, was less a Jew than a machine for Jewish references, a "Christian posing as Jew," with a Yiddish vocabulary limited to shiksa, putz and zaftig. "Beware," she wrote, "of any character requiring more sociology than imagination." Ahmad's fervent Islam appears to be little more than a compilation of the Koran's greatest hits, many of which appeared almost thirty years ago in Updike's odd and brilliant novel The Coup. That book's narrator, a prolix Islamic Marxist African strongman named Hakim Félix Elleloû, sounds a lot like Ahmad when he calls America "that fountainhead of obscenity and glut," and takes comfort, just like Ahmad, in the Koran's declaration that "God is closer to a man than the vein in his neck."

Elleloû's Islamic Marxism, however, was an invention from whole cloth, a giddy transmogrification of Third World anti-American patter, black Muslim piety and postcolonial anger; The Coup is surely among a very small set of Updike's books capable of provoking outright laughter. Elleloû narrates his own life, vacillating--he too shares too much of Updike's self-consciousness--between the first and third person, from his exile in the South of France, remaking Pale Fire as African farce. In the evolution from Elleloû to Ahmad, however, Marx moves in reverse--what then was farce is now tragedy, and as Ozick warned, sociology has overtaken Updike's imagination. Elleloû's misbegotten fanaticism is feverish but hilarious, whereas Ahmad's is simply limp, a patchwork quilt sewn from yesterday's newsmagazines, stuffed with too much information, perhaps because, as Elleloû laments, "great fanatics can no longer arise; they are swamped by distraction."

Though Updike is no moralist, Terrorist suggests he believes that understanding terrorism and sympathizing with its perpetrators go hand in hand, an equation he attempts to reverse-engineer. To deepen our understanding of "the problem of our time," as he has described terrorism, it must first be made sympathetic; to do so, Updike casts Ahmad's religion in the mold of his own. What convulses Ahmad is not the power of his faith but his fear of losing it, his anguish at the inadequate evidence of Allah's presence in the fallen world and his fear that America--or what Updike elsewhere called "the incandescent power of these manufactured visions"--will strip him of what he holds dearest. His angst is existential; with no evidence of a life after this one, he fears "his own death will be...small and final." He cannot stomach his Shaikh's suggestion that "these visionary descriptions" of hellfire and paradise in the Koran are "figurative"--"Paradise," he protests, "must be real, a real place."

Because Ahmad's faith is anxious, he is sensitive to any signs of wavering around him; he "could always sense his teacher's doubts, since it was important to him that there not be any." In this he sounds less like Mohamed Atta than David Kern, the teenaged version of Updike in the short story "Pigeon Feathers," who is devastated by his discovery of unbelief and dismayed by the incomplete faith of the adults who surround him. Told by his minister that the soul persists after death sort of like how "the goodness Abraham Lincoln did lives after him," "tears of outrage" come to his eyes. Where Ahmad "has taken to searching television for traces of God in this infidel society," David takes comfort in the sight of clergymen, "the sermon topics posted outside churches" and "cartoons in magazines showing angels or devils." David's high school is full of "sexy, perfumed people, wisecracking, chewing gum, all of them doomed to die, and none of them noticing," while Ahmad thinks that the halls of Central High "smell of perfume and bodily exhalations, of chewing gum and impure cafeteria food," and sneers at his classmates as they "strut and saunter along and look dead-eyed, indicating with their edgy killer gestures and careless scornful laughs that this world is all there is."

David's flagging faith is restored, as every high school student knows, when he is dispatched to kill a flock of pigeons fouling the family's old furniture in the barn; touched with remorse, he contemplates the intricate design of the dead birds. "The God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds," David concludes with certainty, "would not destroy His whole Creation."

Ahmad is prepared to deal with death on a far grander scale, with Jack riding shotgun and twenty-five barrels of fertilizer and racing fuel bringing up the rear. He is pushed to the cusp of suicide not by the blind certainty of religious fanaticism but rather by its opposite, a doubter's need to prove that God exists. Updike has endowed Ahmad with his own Barthian theology, with God as "Wholly Other," untouchable and unknowable, utterly separate from man. "We cannot reach Him," Updike wrote, glossing Karl Barth in 1963; "only He can reach us." "When I turn to Allah and try to think of Him," Ahmad confides to Joryleen, "it is borne in upon me how alone He is, in all the starry space He has willed into existence.... At times I have this yearning to join God, to alleviate His loneliness." To die for jihad is to bring himself face to face with Allah, to obliterate his uncertainty about his existence. "An icy trickle high in his abdomen reaches his bowels" as he steers the truck toward New York, "at the thought of meeting the other self, as close as a vein in his neck, that he has always felt beside him."

But as the truck tiptoes in the traffic, stuttering toward oblivion, and Ahmad tells Jack about Sayyid Qutb and Jack tells Ahmad, "I fucked your mother," our existential terrorist sheds the urge to murder he barely possessed to begin with. He loses God in a breath and finds him again, just as David Kern did, somewhere in the abundant splendor and geometric intricacies of the visible: "The pattern of the wall tiles and of the exhaust-darkened tiles of the ceiling--countless receding repetitions of squares like giant graph paper rolled into a third dimension--explodes outward in Ahmad's mind's eye in the gigantic fiat of Creation, one concentric wave after another, each pushing the other farther and farther out from the initial point of nothingness, God having willed the great transition from non-being to being." "God does not want to destroy," Ahmad realizes suddenly; "it was He who made the world."

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