Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Updike's Pallid Terrorist

Writing about any John Updike novel published over the last ten years or so is an exercise in separating wheat from chaff, and the chaff has been gaining. If his novels work at all, they do so by halves. No matter how somnolent his attention may get, his native prose gifts have a way of tripping you up, either in the casual line or the perfect detail, or he’ll rally in the fourth quarter. His otherwise disastrous Villages (2004) had some of Updike’s best writing on the decline and fall of marriage (actually, in this case, a literal crash) since the classic Maples Stories or Marry Me, sending the lead character on a night-long introspective journey that stay with you long after the book is over.

There is a lot to said in favor of Terrorist, too, but I think I’d best start out by pointing out its many faults, as it is as bad a book as Updike has ever written. The problem begins from the first paragraph, where his protagonist, 18-year-old fundamentalist Muslim Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, plods into view:

Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bellies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, What else is there to see? Boys strut and saunter along and look dead-eyed, indicating with their edgy killer gestures and careless scornful laughs that the world is all there is -- a noisy varnished hall lined with metal lockers and having at its end a blank wall desecrated by graffiti and roller-painted over so often it feels to be coming closer by millimeters.

That first thought gives the game away. Ahmad is a stereotype who says and thinks more or less what we may expect Islamic radicals to think, but who never feels like the genuine article. Ahmad is later correctly described by another character as sounding like he is imitating "some adult he knows, a smooth and formal talker." He also thinks that way, which is another matter altogether; as the thoughts churn around in Ahmad’s skull, he sounds less like a naive, easily influenced young man who has been pumped full of Islamic rhetoric than a cranky old Republican who thinks the world has gone to hell. This is only part of the problem, as Ahmad shares with a number of Updike’s characters a near-identical eloquence -- all of them see the world through the author’s eyes. In Ahmad, particularly, these dire, pellucid little grace notes ring false, whether he’s looking at the “helpless walls” attacked by graffiti, or quaintly detesting "the chalk-faced Goths, minority whites at Central who pride themselves on showing no emotion, like their nihilistic punk-rock heroes."

Furthermore, the narrative is clotted with dutiful but lumpy homework on Muslim ideology, truck-driving, bomb-making, and TV-watching. It also has a ludicrous bedroom scene -- in which a black chorister regales Ahmad with a post-orgasmic rendering of "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" -- that will almost certainly short-list the book for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award (easily beating out earlier Updike winners from Gertrude and Claudius and the pussy-centric prose of Villages).

It is, also, a tightly-paced thriller and, like most of Updike’s novels, a fairly probing attempt to get at what it means to be an aging white suburban male at this hour of the world. This role falls to Jack Levy, Ahmad’s guidance counselor, who feels beaten down by the decrepit modern public school system, run by adults like him who have all but given up. Jack, who once dreamed of being a comedy writer, now finds himself "a humorless enforcer of a system that doesn’t believe in itself," guiding students whose lives have long since fallen off the track.

Like everything else, Jack’s marriage has all but completely gone to hell; his once-svelte wife Beth has turned into a behemoth whose daily goal is to make sure the remote and snacks are nearby once she parks her ass in front of the tube. Jack doesn’t believe in tomorrow, and Beth eats like there isn’t one. Updike is particularly attentive to Beth’s weight and, like Ahmad, this portly sow serves as something of an unwilling vessel for Updike’s brilliant, often luminous throughts, this time on the shrill staleness of modern life as reflected in daily soap operas.

Jack hasn’t, however, completely lost faith. He takes a special interest in Ahmad, a bright graduating senior who is bent of becoming a truck driver as soon as he graduates. Jack wants to get him into a good college, but Ahmad isn’t about to fill his head with a lot of secular ideas. Jack tries to convince him otherwise, but faces stiff competition from Ahmad’s spiritual guide, Shaikh Rashid, a humorless, by-the-book imam who seems like a Muslim version of that old guy from “Kung Fu.” He doesn’t call Ahmad “Grasshopper,” but he does say things like “the shadows are lengthening, the spring days outside our windows are pathetically dying.”

Ahmad is the child of a deadbeat Muslim father who deserted him and Terry, the free-spirited lapsed Catholic who raised him; he clings to the memory of one and regards the other as a hellbound floozy. Jack and Shaikh are substitute dads, locked in a battle for the young man’s future, with Shaikh having a decided edge in keeping Ahmad on a “Straight Path” to mass destruction.

Standing astride the yin of Jack and the yang of Shaikh is Joryleen, a fetching young black woman who blends heaven and hell, street-smart and stupid. Alas, her fair mocha booty belongs to Tylenol, not the pain medicine but a brutal thug whose mother got the name from watching TV. (Ah, those black people and their funny names. Does he have any siblings at home? A pair of twins, perhaps, named Anacin and Advil?)

While Updike’s attempts at creating black or Muslim characters are pretty clumsy, he’s very much on his own ground with Jack, Beth, and Terry. They are standard Updike archetypes: aging and middle-aged losers in a middle-class world, where life is so boring and meaningless that people eventually wind up playing grabass just to remind thmselves they’re alive. Familiar as this setting may be from book to book -- even ones like this, where Updike makes a desperate attempt to jump over the hedge -- it continues to serve the author well, particularly in the Orange Alert era, where sudden death has come that much closer. Updike is typically superb at capturing the contempt that simmers beneath the surface of adultery, as both sides are pissed at each other for giving them something they can’t keep, and his characters are always at their most vulnerable in these moments, when they are naked or about to be, on the precipice of commiting the sin. Sometimes it’s like watching great acting, where slight but precise physical details give away inner motives, such as when Jack first meets Terry, and becomes attentive to both her looks and the vibe she’s giving him, either as Ahmad’s mother or as a potential bedmate:

Her maternal side is a sensitive side; her beryl-green eyes bulge out at him between colorless lashes that must get mascara from time to time, but not today or yesterday. The hair at her hairline is a lighter, softer tint than the metallic red on top. The set of her lips, the plump upper one lifted a bit as with someone listening hard, tells him that he has used up her initial gush of friendliness.

At the same time, Updike yearns to see his people as citizens of the United States of America in the 21st Century. From early in his career, particularly in what would evolve into the Rabbit tetralogy, Updike has had an eye toward history, toward getting his era right forever; he doesn't want to deceive later generations. Those future readers are going to see through the flimsy Ahmad story, but they won't be wrong to see, too, a true reflection of post-9/11 American life, where everyone is sooner or later out of place.


Aisha said...

GREAT and thorough review. I agree with your analysis. I kept trying to figure out what made me feel sort of icky about the book and it was the blatant resort to stereotyping that Updike did to storytell the characters he was on unfamiliar territory with. I like Updike but this wasn't his best work.

RW said...

Why thanks, angel. This blog is a veritable ghost town where tumbleweeds blow past me as I type my little thoughts. Can I get you a drink?