John Updike’s Novel Terrorist: A Masterpiece for the 21st Century

Virtually every high school and college anthology includes selections of John Updike’s short stories. Updike, now 73-years old, has given literature another new novel. It is called Terrorist, and is inspired by the dire events of September Eleventh. Updike and his wife had a dreadful close-up view of the crashing of the Twin Towers, and this image clutched his mind, leading him to attempt a literary depiction of the life of an eighteen-year old jihad martyr: What would he think? How would it come about? Could it be averted?

Updike thinks of himself as – to borrow a quote from a Gregory Kirschling interview of John Updike printed in Entertainment Weekly (May 26, 2006) – the poet for the “average man” and “ordinary experience.” I’m not certain Updike’s characters in Terrorist succeed at being ordinary people, or maybe they are extraordinary within their ordinariness – which would provide a touche to Updike’s self-description.

The primary characters in Terrorist are a newly graduated teen-age boy, Ahmad, who is a seriously devout and pious adherent of Islam; Jack, a 63-year old non-practicing Jewish high school teacher and guidance counselor; Ahmad’s 40-year old mother, Terry; Charlie, the son of one of the Lebanese owner’s of Excellency Home Furnishings; and Beth, Jack’s very much overweight German Lutheran, 60-year old, wife.

The melting pot of ordinary is spiced up a little with Beth’s skinny, spinster sister who is Assistant to the Chief of Homeland Security in DC; a dark skinned femme fatal Ahmad knows from school; and Ahmad’s imam and Qur’an teacher. Age seems to be as important to Updike in Terrorist as general demographics of ethnicity and religion, and he is not above politically incorrect descriptions.

The thing that Updike does particularly well in Terrorist, as poet of the ordinary, is reveal the cognitive realities of each of these characters: We know what they are thinking. We also know what they are feeling, but the grand achievement is that we know what they are thinking, particularly Ahmad.

We think with Ahmad along the lines that lead him to take on the role of terrorist – this gives nothing of the plot away, after all, the title is Terrorist. Except there is one spot, one leap of logic or leap of faith, despite all Updike’s careful building and preparation, one spot that is still an unfathomable void. We still don’t know what Ahmad thinks in that one spot, right there….

Further more, this interiority of cognition and attendant emotion – because emotions don’t just spring up without thoughts behind them – isn’t restricted to Ahmad. We know what Jack thinks and what Beth thinks. The interesting thing is that we also don’t know what some characters think. Updike left us in the dark on some of the characters’ thoughts: We see the imam and Charlie as Ahmad sees them, and if they have secrets from Ahmad, they have secrets from us, as well.

In Terrorist, Updike has done a superlative job of letting us see the minds, motives (these come from thoughts, after all) and emotions of such very different kinds of people in such very different kinds of situations. This is a laudable effort and result on Updike’s part, once again proving him a worthy recipient of all his past and future laurels.

Terrorist, however, does not glide on undisturbed waters of perfection, there are flaws worth mentioning in this, Updike’s 22nd novel. While one has to praise Updike’s mastery of language and syntax and his (usually) deft introduction of political and philosophical discourse through the characters’ conversations – the topic of terrorism is, of course, a fundamentally political and philosophical one – it may be noted that every now and then the narrator takes a liberty and adds to the characters’ discourse in a less appealing manner.

And for some reason, Updike felt it behooved him to explain his symbols as soon as he introduced them, most puzzling authorial behavior. Further, even though he most often has poetically poignant imagery, he does descend now and then into the worn out 1960’s-ish tawdry metaphor.

On the same lines, Updike insists on holding to the outdated post modernist obsession with sexually graphic scenes and language. Granted, Jack’s utter humiliation as a human is sketched in flaming letters, so that when we reach the end of the novel, where all the lives are summed up in events that transpire, we are wholly bemused by Jack and not just partially bemused.

But, to remain in keeping with the largess and finesse of the entirety of this great effort; to remain in keeping with the magnitude of new revelation herein offered via the minds of these men and women, the letters would have made a more profound sketch of deeper impact had they not been so boldly flaming; had they not been a tribute to an outdated mode of literary expression.

Updike’s own voice, his collected years of experience and thought, are also heard (at an appropriate whisper) in some of the deep issues discussed. He makes very astute judgments regarding consumerism, religiosity, families and entertainment. An unmistakable blame is laid on television, music and movies for the current state of degradation strangling America by the throat.

It is a pity he left out a preceding effect catalyzing these causes, that of progressive education: the educational theory that threw open classrooms to independent learning (at the loss of education) and unrestrained motion (at the loss of order). Of course, it would have been risky business adding progressive education to the list of precedents leading to currently existing American chaos, because of the obvious, yet subtly different, parallel relevant to Ahmad’s imam’s teachings.

On the whole, Terrorist is an excellent contribution to literature. On the whole, we all are going to be glad we have it. On the whole, Updike has proved himself insightful and poetical once again.

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