The Plot Against America
"Although good novelists don't deliberately seek out trends," Jonathan Franzen wrote in a famous Harper's essay in 1996, "they do feel a responsibility to dramatize important issues of the day, and they now confront a culture in which almost all of the issues are burned out almost all of the time." Franzen's anguished cri de coeur over the impending obsolescence of the novel bemoaned the ephemerality of an age of "apathy and distractions" along with the shallowness of its preoccupations. A decade later the novel may be no more relevant, but the naïve prosperity and endless leisure of the post-cold war era are a hazy memory. "The writer who wants to tell a story about society that's true not just in 1996 but in 1997 as well," he fretted, "finds herself at a loss for solid cultural referents." It's a problem we might be glad to have back, since the writer in 2006 confronts a culture whose pious obsession with 2001 shows no signs of waning. Chin-stroking op-eds by the dozen uselessly ponder our readiness to endure each month's new terror-themed movie or novel, even as our roiling anxieties are reliably spun into gold by those who transmute terror into entertainment. Our fear of terrorists, it seems, is exceeded only by our desire to watch them on television.
The latest work of jihadi-lit comes from John Updike, who turns in his twenty-second novel to a subject that has produced, in a few short years, even more books than he has. Lifted from the headlines like an episode of Law & Order, Terrorist tells the story of young Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, the 18-year-old offspring of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian exchange student, a union that left him, Updike reminds us three times, with "dun-colored" skin, along with a yearning for his absent father. Alienated from his peers and neglected by his pseudo-bohemian mother, Teresa, a nurse's aide who devotes her attention to mediocre suitors and the production of oversized abstract paintings, he turns to Islam at age 11: "He thought he might find in this religion a trace of the handsome father who had receded at the moment his memories were beginning." He falls under the sway of the Yemeni Shaikh Rashid, the imam of a tiny downtown mosque; this hotbed of radical Islam appears to have one student, Ahmad, and, so far as can be detected, no other congregants.
His twice-weekly Koran lessons with Shaikh Rashid have made Ahmad a model of piety, "a good Muslim, in a world that mocks faith," sleepwalking through his depressed New Jersey city with Allah as his co-pilot--"closer to him than his neck vein, as the Qur'an expresses it." New Prospect--like Paterson, its real-life counterpart--is "full of Arabs," although, oddly, Ahmad does not seem to know any other Muslims: "his exploration of his Islamic identity ends at the mosque." This does not prevent him from pantomiming the cant of radical Islam, if listlessly so, calmly condemning the "Zionist-dominated federal government," "Jewish and Protestant exploiters" and the American infidels who "think safety lies in accumulation of the things of this world"--reciting his lines with the rote tone of an actor playing a terrorist.
Though Ahmad abhors the sexual frankness and wanton lust permeating American society, he is attentive to the "skintight hiphuggers" of the "infidel girls," worn " low enough--less than a finger's breadth, he has estimated--to release into view the topmost fringe of their pubic curls." His classmate Joryleen Grant teases him flirtatiously; he resists her entreaties, though he cannot help noticing the way "the tops of her breasts push up like great blisters in the scoop neck of the indecent top" and picturing "her smooth body, darker than caramel but paler than chocolate." His interest in her "cocoa-brown roundnesses" (with which Updike, who cannot introduce a woman without extending the same courtesy to her breasts, seems similarly smitten) does earn him a few small humiliations at the hands of her thug boyfriend, the improbably named Tylenol Jones (his mother, Updike tells us in a giddy moment of soft bigotry, "saw the name in a television commercial for painkiller and liked the sound of it").
So life at Central High, not surprisingly, holds little interest for Ahmad; nor is he excited to graduate into "an imperialist economic system rigged in favor of rich Christians." Indeed, as he guilelessly tells his inattentive guidance counselor, despite his apparent lack of interest in world affairs, "The American way is the way of infidels. It is headed for a terrible doom." Jack Levy, the "old and tired, baggy-eyed" counselor, an "unhappy Jew," hardly bats an eye at this declaration. Levy is rather intrigued by the evidently intelligent young man with the curious parentage, but his attention comes too late: Ahmad explains in their first meeting that he has already decided to skip college, at the urging of Shaikh Rashid, in order to earn a commercial truck driver's license, a declaration that will surely be accompanied, in the inevitable movie based on Terrorist, by a swelling of ominous music.
From this point, the plot moves along with the slack predictability of a screenplay. Shaikh Rashid gets Ahmad a job driving a truck for a Lebanese-owned furniture store, and Charlie Chehab, the scion of this discount ottoman empire, accompanies Ahmad on his deliveries. Charlie talks a lot; sometimes like Updike, expressing a burning desire to direct television commercials (which Updike has called "the aesthetic marvels of our age"), delivering a panting monologue about "my idea of absolute pussy," as embodied by a woman in a Levitra ad with "the perfect mouth for cocksucking." Charlie also has an unusually thorough knowledge of local Revolutionary War sites and a curious Islamist admiration for George Washington, whom he terms "the Ho Chi Minh of his day." Washington's "insurgency," in fact, has "much to teach our jihad," Charlie adds conspiratorially.
Ahmad's thirst for infidel blood, however, is less than evident. Charlie takes Ahmad one afternoon to gaze across the Hudson at the spot where the World Trade Center stood; when Ahmad, not yet convinced, avers that he "pitied" the men and women who jumped to their deaths, Charlie notes grimly that "those people worked in finance, furthering the interests of the American empire, the empire that sustains Israel and inflicts death every day on Palestinians and Chechnyans, Afghans and Iraqis."