Full refund within 30 days if you're not completely satisfied.
used-furniture shop. Ahmad is a devoted Muslim, and the novel follows his covert recruitment and then willing participation in a terrorist plot to blow up the Lincoln tunnel. Updike has always been conscientious about mastering his material, and Terrorist is no exception. When writing Rabbit is Rich, in which Harry Angstrom runs a Toyota dealership, Updike reportedly worked part-time in just such an establishment to learn the day-to-day particulars of the business. In Roger’s Version he appears to command a thorough grasp of both computer science and molecular biology. In this current novel, the Koran is quoted extensively, and some controversies within Islamic theology are given an airing. Nevertheless, in contrast to those earlier books, the erudition on display here seems a slightly show-offy demonstration of learning gleaned solely for the purpose of appearing in this novel, and of lending it verisimilitude. This problem is emblematic of the novel as a whole. For a book like this, with a title character whose identity and personal trajectory are on the surface irredeemable to western readers, its ultimate success or failure may depend on whether he emerges full and vibrant and believable on the page, whether his consciousness is rendered with richness and ambiguity, whether his humanity transcends the role he is designed to play. And I think it fails this test. I am not convinced that Updike has conveyed Ahmad’s interior life, his disgust with the west, his hunger for religious ecstasy, his deeply experienced relationship with his God, in a way that feels internal or authentic. The appropriate emotions are attributed to him, and they are couched in appropriate language, but the presence of an author asserting these emotions and providing this language—often in diction so stilted and unnatural as to seem almost like intentional parody—is palpable. Even the novel’s ﬁnal sequence, with its skilfully crafted suspense but oddly unsatisfying resolution, feels arbitrary, willed, the result of coin-toss rather than a convincing psychological process. In Terrorist, as elsewhere, Updike’s alertness to
detail, and his use of language to convey sensory information vividly and exactly, remain unequaled in contemporary English-language ﬁction. In past novels, Updike has been criticised for bestowing his own intelligence and his own insight on characters who are not otherwise gifted with such qualities. That isn’t the problem here; rather, it may simply be that in attempting to craft a persuasive rhetoric to express his character’s hatred of American energy, vulgarity, voraciousness and sexual sizzle, he has set himself an impossible task. Those are the very national qualities he has always celebrated. Terrorist also, puzzlingly and anomalously, possesses a broad vein of comedy. Comedy has always been in Updike’s repertoire, and the interplay between Jack’s obese wife and her sister, a woman who works for and adores a thinly disguised Tom Ridge at the department of homeland security, is comic in a fashion generally familiar to Updike’s fans (as well as providing a rather too convenient plot pivot). Nevertheless, much of this material grinds uncomfortably against the novel’s prevailing grimness. But more interesting, although no less anomalous, is what I perceive to be a new inﬂuence on his comic style: Updike and Philip Roth were born only a year apart, achieved prominence more or less at the same time, and have always treated each other with respect. Still, their careers have followed parallel paths, with little detectable mutual creative impact. No longer. In the character of Charlie, Lebanese furniture merchant and apparent jihadist, Updike has somehow created a perfect Rothian borscht-belt shpritzer, replete with Yiddish intonations and rhythms, holding forth about all manner of topics, including a virtual monologue—six all but uninterrupted pages of observations about television advertising that belongs in the mouth of one of Nathan Zuckerman’s crazed interlocutors. Listen to this: “‘You really shouldn’t miss this Ex-Lax commercial with this cute dish with long straight hair and Waspy long teeth who looks out through the camera and tells you, just you, sitting there with your bag of Fritos, that she has a weakness for junk food—skinny as a rail, with a weakness for junk food supposedly—and has to battle constipation sometimes? How old is she? Twenty-ﬁve if that, and as buff as Lance Armstrong, and you can bet she hasn’t missed taking a dump for a day in her life, but the Ex-Lax CEO wants the old ladies out there not to be ashamed of their plugged-up colons…’” If that’s a Lebanese used-furniture salesman, I’m Omar Khayyam. Updike is notoriously proliﬁc, and as a consequence notoriously uneven, and Terrorist is not a novel for which he will be remembered. But the book has many pleasures to offer; it is never less than a pleasure to watch a master at work.
PROSPECT September 2006 69
Web exclusive: read Michael Horovitz on the John Betjeman anniversary