The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America

John Updike’s Terrorist rips its plot from the headlines. But the book’s Irish-Egyptian protagonist is paper-thin, and its jihad-lit plot remains stubbornly inanimate, devoid of passion or fury.


“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.”

But one day Ahmad delivers an ottoman to some Arabic-speaking men at the Jersey shore, and after skulking in the bushes to spy through a window, sees them extract “quantities of green American currency” from its innards–an awkward way to transfer funds, all things considered. He asks Charlie, “Is there a plan developing?” and finds himself rather abruptly–this would appear to be only their third such conversation–a foot soldier in the clash of civilizations, drafted to pilot a truck packed with ammonium nitrate, “twice what McVeigh had,” into the Lincoln Tunnel, the pawn in an invisible plot whose details are as obscure to him as they are to the reader. Though the radicalization of a young Muslim in a novel called Terrorist can hardly come as a surprise, Ahmad’s evolution from believer to jihadist happens so swiftly, and so imperceptibly, that even he doesn’t realize it. “You have expressed a willingness to die for jihad,” Shaikh Rashid tells him, announcing the plot to deliver “a mighty blow” to the Americans. “I did?” he replies.

Guidance counselor Jack Levy, meanwhile, makes his own improbable move, into the bed of Ahmad’s mother. The two meet twice after Jack takes an interest in Ahmad, and suddenly she’s “impaling herself on his erection.” While Jack shares his “firm, stout, importunate stalk” with Teresa, his own wife, Beth, “a whale of a woman giving off too much heat through her blubber,” stews at home, chatting on the phone with her sister Hermione–the assistant to the Secretary of Homeland Security, a tidy coincidence that enables the occasional dramatic cut to Washington.

The secretary, who says things like “I love this damn country so much I can’t imagine why anybody would want to bring it down,” is wracked with anxiety over ominous “chatter” indicating a looming attack in the Northeast, worries that Hermione eagerly conveys to Beth via telephone. “Do you remember you mentioned this young Arab-American Jack had taken such an interest in,” Hermione asks with alarm one afternoon, who “had gotten a license to drive a truck because the imam at his mosque had asked him to?” And so the strands become one: Ahmad, en route to paradise, his truck bomb aimed squarely at “Satan’s heart,” is intercepted at a street corner by Jack, who set out–on foot!–to derail the terrorist plot when the FBI could not. Jack, naturally, climbs aboard, and the kid and the old man–the Arab and the Jew–following in the footsteps of our great big-screen interracial buddy teams, pilot the lethal weapon fearlessly onward toward death.

Terrorist is not Updike’s first attempt at “post-September 11” fiction; indeed, he may have been the first major writer to borrow a little moral gravity from the collapse of the World Trade Center, dropping Mohamed Atta into a short story four years before Martin Amis’s turgid account of Atta’s constipation appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Updike’s story, knowingly titled “Varieties of Religious Experience,” begins and ends with Dan Kellogg, a visitor to New York who watches the towers fall from Brooklyn Heights, just as Updike did. (The first tower crumbles “as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown.”) “There is no God,” he thinks as he watches the catastrophe unfold, a reaction that was probably Updike’s own, just like Kellogg’s aborted plan to visit a Wayne Theibaud retrospective at the Whitney. Updike concatenates his own experience of the fateful day with that of a soon-to-be dead man phoning his wife in New Jersey from his smoke-filled office on one of the buildings’ top floors; an older woman aboard United 93; and, finally, Atta himself, a week earlier, blending into “this unclean society” by throwing back Scotches at a Florida strip club with fellow hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi, muttering to himself like a cartoon terrorist about whores and sluts and infidels.

September 11, in this telling, is a crucible of faith (if a sentimental one); Dan Kellogg is stripped of it while Mohamed Atta finds its affirmation in self-immolation. That Updike should view terrorism through the lens of religion should come as no surprise; faith for him is a far more interesting subject of inquiry than politics. “How gorgeously strange the religions of others seem!” he marvels in his 1989 memoir Self-Consciousness, with particular curiosity about Muslims, “the world’s outstanding believers these days.” “What forms has God taken in their heads,” he wonders. “What does Allah mean to them as they surge forward in their Iranian human waves or Palestinian suicide missions?”

Terrorist is Updike’s attempt, in his editor’s words, “to get inside the skin of a young person drawn to this kind of suicidal attack,” while Updike himself has explained in interviews that he wanted to portray “a sympathetic terrorist,” to try to understand the situation “from the terrorist’s point of view.” These pre-publication remarks earned him the ire of right-wing bloggers and columnists, and many of them–the sort who filled their refrigerators with havarti to avenge the Islamic assault on Denmark–will undoubtedly judge Updike deviant from the dictates of “moral clarity,” guilty of the unpardonable sin of dhimmitude.

But his sympathetic portrayal of Ahmad is less a political problem than an aesthetic one. Ahmad is infected with Updike’s renowned mildness; he pities the infidels instead of hating them, and his desultory condemnations of America lack all conviction. “Your mother used to tell me how you couldn’t bear to step on a bug,” Jack says to Ahmad, and indeed, he takes care at one point to gently flip over a beetle he finds in a parking lot, struggling on its back with its legs in the air. He even thanks his mother “for putting up with me all these years” before heading off to meet his death–could you ask for a nicer boy?

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.

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.”

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.

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