“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”).