The Plot Against America
Easy come, easy go! We stare ever so briefly into the black heart of murderous evil and then, well, it's gone, and not a moment too soon. Updike's picture of America in the age of terrorism is a bleak one; all is not well in what Rabbit Angstrom not so long ago called "the happiest fucking country the world has ever seen." But the book's unpleasant depiction of a soulless, materialist, hedonistic America--whether it is Updike's vision or that of Ahmad or Jack--has only the barest residue of September 11. There is talk of the Twin Towers, and we have a Secretary of Homeland Security, but no nationalist ardor, domestic repression or inflated fear. Teresa tells Jack at one point that she had to disconnect the phone because she and Ahmad received anti-Arab "hate calls" after September 11, which is pretty strange considering that her last name is Mulloy.
American culture, by contrast, is saturated in information about September 11 and the era it names, an accumulation of details in newspapers, magazines, books and movies. As literary subjects go, terrorism possesses an enviable gravitas, but it is ubiquitous to the point of banality: The novelist must surely wonder what remains to be said, yet the compulsion to say something apparently cannot be suppressed, particularly if you are a prolific author addicted to writing.
So rather than pondering the legitimacy of these fictions of September 11, we might more profitably ask, Why are they so bad? The novelist in the age of information wants to compete on the terms of the culture that threatens to make him obsolete, to answer information with more information. Terrorist, glutted with its fragments of Arabic, its consummately pretty descriptions of everything under the sun, filled with Ahmad's halfhearted parodies of speeches by Ayman al-Zawahiri, is all information, and it withholds from the reader the critical contribution fiction might make to our understanding: what it feels like to murder for God, to strike with righteous vengeance against the enemies of the umma. It is a phenomenological leap that Updike appears incapable of making, and judging from most of the books and films that have recently strapped bombs to their protagonists, he is not alone in his inability to do so. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that Updike, for his part, has not tried very hard, passing off research--more and more information--as a counterfeit for experience.
Reviewing Salman Rushdie less than a year ago, Updike praised him for writing "fiction that animates Islam's tenacious rage with faces and life stories." Terrorist is a golem cobbled together from such raw material: It walks and talks like its namesake but remains stubbornly inanimate, devoid of passion or fury. If only all our terrorists were so harmless.