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Not on Osama's night-table

Lost in Translation
John Updike’s al-Qaeda Muzak

If John Updike had been, like Roland Barthes, run over by a laundry truck ten years ago, his reputation as the chief eulogist of post-war America would have been secure. His Rabbit quartet, “Couples,” “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” his ziggurat of short stories on top of a solid mass of criticism—another volume of which is due in October—means that his elevation to the pantheon of American greats in the Library of America is a matter of convincing Knopf to let his copyrights go. But Updike keeps writing. He gave up coffee and cigarettes years ago, alcohol, too, for the blood pressure, even though since “Self-Consciousness” in 1989 he’s been giving off observations like this: “When I get out of bed in the morning, my own smell surprises me: stale flesh, warmed over.” In “Metamorphosis,” a New Yorker short story, ten years later: “He was weary of the way whiffs of staleness arose to him from his lower regions, and of the way his crowned and much-patched teeth harbored pockets of suddenly testable decay, as if all the deaths in the newspapers and all the years he had put behind him had been miniaturized and lodged in the crannies of his slimy mouth.” And in “Gertrude and Claudius,” a forgettable novel from 2000: “He was old, old; he had squandered his life. He smelled to himself of old age, of wet straw gone fusty, unforked in the stable.” All this in contrast to the whiffs of his fancies, now out of reach, as he described them in “Toward the End of Time,” in 1997: “The young fill a house with the smell of heavy late-morning sleep, and of nightsweats of fear as they confront life in all its branching possibility and need for decision. Menstrual fluid, epidermal oils, semen—all such effluvia in overflowing supply.” Despite his Death Valley aridity, Updike writes on: The unreadable “Seek My Face” in 2002, the meditatively spent stories still appearing in the New Yorker, and the self-indulgent “sexual seethe” of “Villages,” his 2004 novel, where we were not quite treated to lines like this: “Two kinds of women existed in the world, Owen perceived: those with whom you have slept and those, a cruelly disproportionate but reducible number, with whom you haven’t.” So goes the reductionism of an Updikean philosophy never embraced for its breadth so much as its for its precision, though even then, in a decade and a half of latelies, the precision has seemed obtuse and stale like those whiffs from his characters’ lower regions.

So it was with twice the usual dread that I picked up “Terrorist,” Updike’s late 2006 production: The dread of more disappointment from the writer who, one summer in the mid-1980s, did more than any other until then to shape my immigrant English; and the dread of having to hear the age of terrorism dubbed in the precious style of an old master gone fusty. I’m glad I was prepared. Like “Villages,” “Terrorist” is less a novel than a restatement. “Villages” did sex, that continuo of the Updike oeuvre. “Terrorist” does faith—the broken-hearted aria of the Updike oeuvre. It does it better than “Villages” did with its theme, but not better than it’s already been done in previous novels, although Updike’s stab at a thriller’s pace, beginning with the last third of the book, helped keep the fustiness to tolerable levels.

“His mother is, he sees now, looking back, a typical American, lacking strong convictions and the courage and comfort they bring. She is a victim of the American religion of freedom, freedom above all, though freedom to do what and to what purpose is left up in the air. Bombs bursting in air-empty air is the perfect symbol of American freedom. There is no ummah here, both Charlie and Shaikh Rashid point out-no encompassing structure of divine law that brings men rich and poor to bow down shoulder to shoulder, no code of self-sacrifice, no exalted submission such as lies at the heart of Islam, its very name. Instead there is a clashing diversity of private self-seeking, whose catchwords are Seize the day and Devil take the hindmost and God helps those who help themselves, which translate to There is no God, no Day of Judgment; help yourself The double sense of “help yourself”-self_reljance and “grab what you can”-amuses the shaikh, who, after twenty years among these infidels, takes pride in his fluency in their language. Ahmad some-times has to suppress a suspicion that his teacher inhabits a semi-real world of pure words and most loves the Holy Qur’an for its language, a shell of violent shorthand whose content is its syllables, the ecstatic flow of “l”s and “a”s and guttural catches in the throat, savoring of the cries and the gallantry of mounted robed warriors under the cloudless sky of Arabia Deserta.”

—From Terrorist

The story is set in Patterson, New Jersey, one of those places where “houses have compressed into housing” and where the “dozing giant of American racism, lulled by decades of official liberal singsong,” can find, as in the parabola of the seeds, fertile ground. Ahmad is a high school senior, son of single-mother Terry who’d once married a Muslim with whom she’d been in love “mostly with him being, you know, exotic, third-world, put-upon,” and to show him “how liberal and liberated” she was. Ahmad grows up retiring, resentful, a seethe in search of a cause, though never quite developing the imagination of a rebel. Lurching toward graduation he’s not sure what to be. His counselor, Jack, suggests truck driving, which Ahmad takes up. (Yes, the stereotype-meter in me goes, because once you pair an angry Muslim with a truck, the next thing you know he’ll want to blow something up.) It isn’t the only forced trick in the book. Jack is Jewish (it becomes relevant), is married to fattening Beth, who doesn’t do it for Jack anymore, and whose sister happens to be the executive secretary of the Director of Homeland Security, a kindly, overwhelmed sort from Pennsylvania who’s never named, but who’s obviously Tom Ridge’s look-alike (Updike grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania.) The fourth-degree connection from Ahmad to Jack to Beth to Beth’s secretary-sister Hermione provides the pipeline into the Department of Homeland Security’s executive office and the symmetry of a plot that won’t go much further than this schematic premise — only deeper into its contrivances: Jack starts an affair with Ahmad’s mother. Ahmad, after graduation, starts driving a truck for a Lebanese, family-owned furniture business, and falls in with the hothead son of the business, Charlie, who calls George Washington the “Ho Chi Minh of his day,” lectures Ahmad about the righteous path (by way of whores) and introduces him to Sheikh Rashid, the guru-imam in whose aura the plot to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel, using Ahmad as the truck’s suicide driver, is hatched.

Updike transforms Ahmad from a suburban seethe to a born-again Muslim through a lot of verbiage about Islam that has the feel of those Bruce Lee movies dubbed in English: the language sounds so stilted as to lend the story a comic dimension it doesn’t intend, although even Updike must’ve realized to what extent he was reflecting the American version of jihad rather than re-creating a believably authentic kind: “Their Internet chatter,”—he has his Tom Ridge stand-in explode toward the end of the book, “Heaven will split asunder beneath the Western river. The light shall be admitted. What the fuck kind of sense does that make? Pardon my French, Hermione.” It isn’t as if the feelings Updike condemns Ahmad to aren’t more original: “The world is difficult, he thinks, because devils are busy in it, confusing things and making the straight crooked.” The italics are Updike’s. Or: “And graduate into what? An imperialist economic system rigged in favor of rich Christians.” Or, and this is where the fugue of Updike’s smelly nethers recurs again in militant guise: “Ahmad smells arising from all this massed equipment for living the mortal aura, absorbed into the cushions and carpets and linen lampshades, of organic humanity, its pathetic six or so positions and needs repeated in a desperate variety of styles and textures between the mirror-crammed walls but amounting to the same daily squalor, the wear and boredom of it, the closed spaces, the floors and ceilings constantly measuring finitude, the silent stuffiness and hopelessness of lives without God as a close companion.”

How different, exactly, is Ahmad from the more cheery protagonist and fallen minister of “A Month of Sundays” (1975) when he asks, “is not our love of Christianity an antiquarian and elitist cherishing, a dark and arcane swank, where a living faith for the lowly should obtain? Does not this pornography of faith, like the pornography of copulation printed in the same grimy shop, testify to a needed miracle, a true wonder, a miraculous raw truth which it is one of civilization’s conspiracies to suppress?” The sermonizing of “A Month of Sundays” is reprised in the mouths of Charlie and Sheikh Rashid, just as the relationship between Ahmad and Jack the counselor is a reprise of the relationship between Roger Lambert, the professor of divinity, and his student Dale Kohler in “Roger’s Version” (1986), as Dale tries to prove God’s existence through computer programming while Roger tries to dissuade him of such easy faiths. And just as “Terrorist” involves an illicit affair at the protagonist’s expense, so does “Roger’s Version,” where the affair is inverted: Roger’s wife is cuckolding him with Dale (or so Rogers imagines). The difference with “Terrorist” is that the previous novels immersed the reader in the protagonists’ worlds of upended faiths more heartedly: there is poignancy in “Roger’s Version,” there is controlled hilarity in “A Month of Sundays (“Better, St. Paul said, to marry than to burn; better still to marry and burn.”) There is neither in “Terrorist,” where even the obligatory Updikean cunt chat sounds like that indecipherable internet chatter driving Tom Ridge crazy:

“Tell me about my cunt, Jack. I want to hear it. Loosen up.”
“Please, Terry. This is grotesque.”
Why, you prim prick? You Jewish priss. What’s grotesque about my cunt?”
“Nothing, nothing,” he concedes, beaten down. “It’s perfect, it’s gorgeous, it—”

Oh please. Which leaves us with what? A plot to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel, as far-fetched as that sort of plot usually is (give Updike his due: terrorist plots aren’t usually more than the harebrained family affairs they end up being, with the occasional spectacular success overshadowing slews of failures that are the heart and soul of fanaticism), a Jewish counselor on a series of redemptive collision courses, one of them, hopefully, with his old student gone to the Dark Side, and Updike, the old hand burrowing about equally old themes dressed up in the Halloween masks of 9/11 and “searching for the tumor of malice, the abrupt silhouette of deadly intent” that gives the novel its tug of tension. For a first-timer to Updike, “Terrorist” might not seem like a bad work at all, although I imagine the younger the writer, the stronger the illusion. For the rest, it’s enough to know that if every terrorist America faced was made of such fictions, we’d have more to worry about concerning the decline of American literature than the felling of the next great American landmark.

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