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Why John Updike's book is a bomb

MARK STEYN July 31 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Why John Updike's book is a bomb

MARK STEYN July 31 2006

Why John Updike's book is a bomb

THE BACK PAGES

books

Real-life Islamist terrorists are a whole lot more novelistic than this prissy mouthpiece

MARK STEYN

One of the very very minor aftershocks of 9/11 was how bad the “good writing” was. I don’t quite know why you’d commission a novelist to say something about the Twin Towers, but The New Yorker made John Updike an offer he couldn’t refuse and he got to it. And, even by the standards of the other contributors that week, it was painfully enervated: presumably, he thought going in for the old primal righteous anger routine would have been embarrassing. As it was, the elaborate avoidance thereof was even more cringe-making, a lot of fussy prettified self-regarding subordinate clauses condescending to their subjects:

“Smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure’s vertically corrugated surface. It fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air. An empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command,” etc.

Oh, for a monosyllabic tabloid hack! The ghastly false tinkle of all those shivers and groans and curling rivulets, stillborn as they hit the page. We’re told that the movies are no longer “real,” but on that Tuesday morning a lot of the camcorder footage looked like slightly grittier versions of Godzilla and Independence Day: the moment of a tower’s collapse with the crowds pounding down the sidewalk, like film extras trying to outrun the fireball; or the startled “What the fuh...” of a street-level New Yorker, as high above him in the slit of sky between the buildings the second plane sailed across the blue and through the south tower. The laboured de-

tachment of Updike’s prose—“as if by electronic command”—reminded me of England’s recent poet laureates sloughing off birthday odes to minor royal duchesses.

Perhaps sensing that he hadn’t exactly risen to the occasion, Updike has now given us the Big Novel on terrorists, so Big indeed that its title is simply Terrorist. The eponymous terrorist—or “terrorist”—is Ahmad, a high school student in a decrepit Newjersey town called New Prospect, who gets mixed up in a plot to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel. And Updike gets stuck into his protagonist from the opening sentence:

“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 bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, What else is there to see?”

What else, indeed? It’s doubtful anyone could write “the” novel about Islam today— it is a faith, after all, that can seduce everyone from Ontario welfare deadbeats like Steven Chand to the Prince of Wales. Yet it seems to me Updike has gone awry from the very first word. If Muslims were simply über-devout loners, this whole clash-ofcivilizations rigmarole would be a lot easier. But the London Tube bombers were perfectly

assimilated: they ate fish ’n’ chips, loved cricket, sported hideous Brit leisure wear. Updike’s absurdly alienated misfit is a lot less shocking than the video that aired recently on British television of July 7 jihadist Shehzad Tanweer: he’s spouting all the usual suicidebomber claptrap, but in a Yorkshire accent. Imagine threatening “Death to the Great Satan!” in Cockney or Brooklynese. Or Canadian: “Death to the Great Satan, eh?” That’s far creepier and novelistic than Updike’s opening: it’s someone who appears perfectly normal until he gets in the subway car and self-detonates. As for the revulsion at navel studs, compare Ahmad with Assem Hammoud, recently arrested in a real-life plot to blow up another New York tunnel—the Holland. Mr. Hammoud said he had been ordered by Osama bin Laden to “live the life of a playboy... live a life of fun and indulgence.” That way he would avoid detection. Pretty cunning, huh? Just to show how seriously he took his assignment, there was a picture of Assem with three hot babes (all burka-less) on a “mission” in Canada. “I was proud,” declared Mr. Hammoud, “to carry out my orders”—even though they required him to booze it up and bed beautiful infidels all week long. But it’s okay, because he was nailing chicks for Allah. So he gamely put on a brave show of partying like it’s 1999 even though, as a devout Muslim, he’d obviously much rather party like it’s 799Like Shehzad Tanweer, Assem Hammoud

seems a more vividly novelistic character than Ahmad. In fact, as that opening paragraph suggests, Ahmad is little more than an Updike-esque aesthetic distaste for contemporary America filtered through some rather unconvincing Koranic prissiness. Here’s another example: Joryleen, a black gal who enjoys coming on to Ahmad, tries to get him to ease up on his “purity.” “What about all them virgins on the other side? What happens to purity when those young-men martyrs get there, all full of spunk?”

“My teacher at the mosque,” explains Ahmad, “thinks that the dark-eyed virgins are symbolic of a bliss one cannot imagine without concrete images. It is typical of the sex-obsessed West that it has seized upon that image, and ridicules Islam because of it.”

Oh, phooey. In the will he left behind after 9/11, Mohammed Atta wrote:

“He who washes my body around my genitals should wear gloves so that I am not touched there.”

He’d gone to the trouble of shaving off his pubic hair the day before the mission and the principal preoccupation of his last will and testament was that the old frank-andbeans (if he’ll forgive such a porcine formulation) should make it to paradise without being contaminated by infidels and whores.

So pretty much any Islamist terrorist, big or small, is a more interesting commingling of East and West than Updike’s Jersey boy. How’d that happen? The author certainly did his research, jamming it in at every opportunity. Ahmad’s imam, for example, draws the lad’s attention to a “rather amusing controversy over the scholarly dicta of a German specialist in ancient Middle Eastern tongues, one Christoph Luxenberg.” A couple of years back, if you recall, professor Luxenberg suggested that the 72 black-eyed virgins business was a mistranslation and that it was actually 72 “white raisins” of “crystal clarity.” “I fear,” says Shaikh Rashid, “this particular revision would make Paradise significantly less attractive for many young men.”

Westernized Muslims are not without their drolleries. My old friend Ghazi Algosaibi, the Saudi minister of labour, may well be the funniest cabinet minister in the world. After some public skirmishing over my plans for the destruction of the House of Saud, he sent me a copy of his novel with the cutest inscription: “To Mark. Ambivalently, Ghazi.”

And yet I’ll wager there’s not a mosque in North America where the imams rouse their young charges to destroy the enemies of Allah by engaging in wry disquisitions on metaphor, symbolism and literary interpretation. “Christoph Luxenberg” is a pseudonym: the author was advised not to publish his scholarly work The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran under his own name on the grounds that Muslims offended by the 72raisin passage might decide to kill him. What Updike is doing here is imposing the default literary voice of English letters—amused irony—on a world in which it is largely absent and, in its rare occurrences, life-threatening. Islam is very literal: that’s one of the problems.

That said, Ahmad is a marvel of threedimensional realization next to the novel’s Jews and Irish (pale green eyes, freckles, red hair, pale skin) and blacks (with names like Tylenol Jones), all tied together neatly and geometrically: the Jewish guidance counsellor’s lard-butt wife’s sister is a secretary at the Department of Homeland Security who blabs incessantly. And Updike gets Ahmad a gig delivering furniture solely for the purpose of being able to conceal the dough for the terrorist operation inside an ottoman. An Ottoman! Geddit? You can’t help feeling that real cells would find less clunky conveyances for cash disbursement and, if they were forced into using furniture, would be more likely to deploy an EZ Boy recliner. But an ottoman is the kind of pointedly elegant visual image you need a big-time novelist for.

By the time we reach the end and the Manhattan crowd scenes with each denizen “im-

paled live upon the pin of consciousness,” the author seems to be recycling discarded metaphors from his 9/11 dispatch. Two years ago, a first-time novelist, Lorraine Adams, wrote a book called Harbor about Algerian illegal immigrants in Boston (and, briefly, Montreal). Like Updike, Miss Adams tells the story from the Muslim fellow’s point of view, and sympathetically. But, unlike him, she brings to life a weird particular world in which innocent acts—frequent visits to a storage locker—can attract all the wrong kind of attention. In its artifice of self-delusion, Updike’s book is enough to make one despair of the novelist’s art: this is one of the most numbingly inadequate attempts to engage a major subject I’ve ever read. Or, as he’d say, its strange inky rivulets fall straight down like an elevator. M