In her landmark treatise on modern capitalism and branding, 'No Logo', first published in 2000, the Canadian writer writer Naomi uses Starbucks as an example of the phenomenon known as 'clustering'. This is what she says: 'The bottom line is that clustering, like big-boxing, is a competitive retail strategy that is only an option for a large chain that can afford to take a beating on individual stores in order to reap a larger, long-term branding goal. It also explains why critics usually claim that companies like Starbucks are preying on small businesses, while the chains themselves deny it, admitting only that they are expanding and creating new markets for their products. Both are true. but the chains' aggressive strategy of market expansion has the added bonus of simultaneously taking out competitors'.
Save business model and outlook, a similar phenomenon has befallen the literary world in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, the Madrid and London bombings and the invasion of Iraq. There has been a 'clustering', led mainly by Western intellectuals, journalists, columnists and academics where hundreds of thousands if not millions of column inches have been produced with the rather unfortunate side effect that other equally important voices have been muted. The smoke was still billowing on Ground Zero and already print presses were working overtime to turn out books on the tragedy in New York. 9/11 and 7/7 became overnight the most played numbers in literature's lottery and it pains me to say it but there were many occasions on which I felt let down by the cliché-ridden and platitudinous essays, articles and short stories that were rushed out. This is not to say that all the works that resulted from these sad events were below par. There were brilliant analyses, but when you have Martin Amis' 'adumbrations' about the 'Muslim problem', you know that it's time to say enough is enough.
That's why I approached 'Terrorist', John Updike's novel published in 2006, with trepidation. I was already familiar with the American writer's oeuvre having read his 'Rabbit' books before. I had also read 'The Witches of Eastwick', turned into a film with Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Cher and Jack Nicholson in the leading roles. I was acquainted with Updike's close observation of his native land. That was one of the reasons why I decided to try my luck with this novel. The result, alas, was not what I expected.
You know you are reading John Updike when the description of a night of insomnia takes up fourteen pages. But that's how we meet one of the leading characters in the novel. Jack Levy is a career counsellor at a local college (high school in the States) in New Jersey. He is sixty-three, a Jew who does not worship or believes in God anymore and a terrible sleeper. He is married to Beth, who is a an ex-Lutheran, overweight (Updike actually uses the word 'whale' to describe her, well, Jack does at any rate) and works at a library. These two characters are joined in the book by Ahmad, an eighteen-year-old student at the same college where Jack works. Ahmad is the result of the union between an Egyptian father - gone AWOL since his birth- and an Irish-American mother. Teresa Mulloy, Ahmad's mum, is forty years old, an artist who goes by the moniker of Terry and is puzzled at her teenage son's alleged lack of zest for life. On top of this, young Ahmad decided to become Muslim when he was younger and since then has attended weekly classes at the local mosque where a strict teacher guides him through the paths dictated by the Holy Qur'an.
Updike is deft at building up the atmosphere in the novel, although his obsession for describing situations to the minutest details had me yawning like a hungry hippo involuntarily sometimes. It is obvious, however, that he did a lot of research into Islam because of the passages he quotes and the references he uses. He is also quite dextrous at creating situations in which his characters can interact as in the relationship between counsellor and student. Jack is concerned about Ahmad, he sees a different quality in him to the one he sees in other young boys of his same age at college. In a sense, he believes that it is his job to save this poor soul from the abyss into which he will fall on account of his surroundings. The novel takes place in a rundown area full of council estates (projects), unemployement and people with low expectations in life. In the event Jack ends up sleeping with Terry, Ahmad's mother without the latter finding out until the very end. Ahmad has his own agenda, though. Indoctrinated by his own imam, he dreams of becoming a martyr to what both he and his master think it is the Islamic cause, the dismantling of the 'evil empire', i.e., the USA. Updike does produce wonders in guiding us through the character and personality of Ahmad. Through his eyes we see how religion (and by that I mean mainly the three Abrahamic faiths) can be utilised to brainwash and ultimately turn a human being into a lethal weapon.
What I believe fails terribly in the novel is John Updike's overall intention or lack of it thereof. I am still trying to figure out what that intention is/was. There's a lot of repetition and the relationship between Terry and Jack does not come across as a credible liaison, at least to me. Jack is twenty-three years Terry's senior, he has a beer-belly, he is not very attractive physically (according to the author's obsession for describing everything) and to cap it all he has not even got a great sense of humour. So, what led Teresa Mulloy into the hands of this non-practicing Jew? There's no rational explanation for it, which made think that here again we see the old adage of older man+younger woman (Woody Allen, anyone?), a fantasy that has played on many an older folk's mind since the world's been turning. The other reason why I think Updike tried to pair up Jack and Terry was in order to have a type of symbolism, the essence of which was lost on me, too. Secular Jew sleeps with non-practicing Catholic Irish-American woman behind his ex-Lutheran wife, whilst the Muslim son of the Irish woman is left out of the loop. Hello, Updike, are you there? No, you aren't anymore, sadly, you died earlier this year.
The novel's middle section finds Ahmad preparing himself for jihad. He begins to work as a lorry driver in a nearby furniture company and strikes up a good friendship with the owner's son. One day after he delivers a heavy sofa to a house where some Arab men live, in the outskirts of New Jersey, he notices something strange. Mindful that someone might be spying on him, he drives his truck around the corner and retraces his own steps to the house he has just left. He sees how the sofa he has just dropped off at this house is full of dollar notes inside. The next day he puts his doubts forward to his colleague Charlie whilst they are driving and the latter asks him in return whether he would be willing to die for Islam. Ahmad realises that there's a plan being concocted and he wants to be part of it. As soon as the plotters' top hierarchy confirms Ahmad's involvement in their diabolical machinations, he knows that there will be only one outcome for him: martyrdom.
The last part made me wonder whether Updike had tired of writing this novel and wanted to end it as soon as possible. In what I can only consider as a mad rush, we have Ahmad being visited by his mentor, Shaikh, Rashid, scarcely twelve hours before being sent on a suicide mission in the tunnel that joins New Jersey and New York. The next morning, on what is supposed to be his last day, several things go wrong and Ahmad has to improvise as he goes along. Then, as if by magic, Jack Levy intercepts the truck he is driving near the interchange of Route 80 and Tilden Avenue. The non-believing Jew manages to climb into the seat next to the would-be Muslim assassin. What follows thereafter would have been slapstick comedy had it not had the undertone of actual events ringing in my ears. I kept asking myself, where are Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson when you really need them as a pair? To say that the last fifteen to twenty pages of this book are corny, over-sentimental and kitsch would be the understatement of the century. Let us just say (spoiler ahead) that Ahmad suddenly has an epiphany from the same holy book that he had used to convince himself that it was OK to maim and murder innocent people and that in this act of conversion or re-conversion to humankind, decides not to detonate the bomb. I could almost imagine the cinematic version of this book with Jack Levy and Ahmad driving back to New Jersey after the latter's change of heart, with a truck full of explosives, cracking jokes as the camera zooms out and up, their voces fade out and the credits roll up. OK, Updike, I hold my hands up, you convinced me, now, where's that tree to hug? And hey, brother/sister, won't you join me in a rendition of John Lennon's 'Imagine' or 'Give Peace a Chance'?
By all means, read this book if you are interested in finding out more about modern US society. Updike excells at that and taking into account that this novel came out in 2006, its ideas are quite prescient. His description of boarded up shops and broken down communities is, to me, one of the gems of this novel. The scene where Joryleen, Ahmad's love interest at Central High (although he strongly denies it), performs oral sex on him in the same furniture shop where Ahmad works, is sad beyond description. The only reason Joryleen acquiesces to carry out this act, which is by the way facilitated by Ahmad's pal and work colleague, Charlie (as in he pays Joryleen), is because her boyfriend has asked her to do some 'favours' for him. Of a sexual nature, of course. The passage where Ahmad, twenty four hours before he sets off to kill, saves a beetle from dying is wonderfully written. But Updike's characters, bar Ahmad and Jack, are one-sided and on occasions, caricaturesque. Beth's sister, Hermione, and her boss at the Pentagon are two grotesque figures that seem to have come out straight from The Wall, Pink Floyd's cinematic version of their best-selling album.
As I mentioned at the begining of this review, 'clustering' more often than not prevents truly innovative and original works from seeing the light. And 'Terrorist' sadly proves my theory.