At a stage at which he might be forgiven for resting on his well-earned laurels, John Updike has chosen to tackle a subject as risky as it is topical. Set in post-9/11 New Jersey,
Terrorist charts the development of Ahmad, a serious-minded young American Muslim, as he attempts to set himself on the "Straight Path" of the true believer.
Ahmad's involvement with Islam depends only loosely on his family circumstances. The only child of a short-lived union between a lapsed Catholic of Irish descent and an irresponsible Egyptian student with worldly ambitions, he has to look beyond his fatherless and spiritually impoverished home for guidance. It's at the feet of Shaikh Rashid, a suave Armenian Imam, that he engages with the language and teaching of the Qur'an and finds a focus for his refined spiritual aspirations.
Ahmad proves an apt pupil. He may lack his teacher's linguistic fluency and exegetical skills, but he comes to see himself as the purer believer of the two: "The student's faith," he thinks, "exceeds the master's." A relative innocent in a dangerous world, touchingly eager to demonstrate the intensity of his devotion, he is drawn far out of his depth by the Imam and expertly guided into the arms of those who can capitalise on his hunger for Paradise.
Updike allows us to interpret that hunger in the psychosexual terms familiar to the west. Ahmad is, on one reading of the evidence, a confused adolescent struggling to control his natural urges through submission to a strict and ultimately distorting discipline. His relationship with Joryleen, a self-possessed and sexually aware fellow student, is hampered not only by the presence of Joryleen's bullying boyfriend but also by Ahmad's helpless oscillation between desire and revulsion.
This isn't, however, a novel that encourages a simple or one-sided reading. Sexual frustration may play its part, but Updike makes it clear that Ahmad's longing for self-immolation can't be reduced to the essentially secular terms of modern psychoanalysis. His thoughtful, disturbing narrative insists repeatedly on the moral and spiritual dimensions of jihad, tacitly urging us towards a deeper understanding of Islamic fundamentalism and revealing, in the process, patterns of connection vastly more subtle and complex than anything recognised by America's political masters.
Look, for example, at the threads linking Ahmad's life with that of his careers guidance counsellor, Jack Levy. A non-practising Jew of broadly liberal tendencies, Levy is, in every obvious sense, the antithesis of Ahmad; factor in his shifty extra-marital relationship with Ahmad's new-agey mother and the almost inevitable enmity takes on an even sharper and more personal edge. Yet there are significant correspondences between the views of the world-weary Jew and those of his idealistic Muslim student: Levy's vision of social disintegration under a barrage of "merciless advertisements geared to a preposterous popular culture of eternal music and beer and impossibly thin and fit young females" is characteristic of a certain strand of western intellectualism, but it also chimes with Ahmad's damning analysis of America's spurious religion of freedom - "freedom above all, though freedom to do what and to what purpose is left up in the air". "Bring 'em on," says Levy, discussing with his wife the possibility of terrorist attack, "This whole neighborhood could do with a good bomb." It's a joke of course, clumsy and tasteless, but it points up affinities suggested elsewhere in the novel.
Ahmad, however, isn't joking. In introducing him to the Chehabs, a Lebanese family whose apparently respectable secondhand furniture business provides a front for shadier dealings, Shaikh Rashid has set his young acolyte on the path to martyrdom, and it's only a matter of time before the boy finds himself at the wheel of a potentially lethal truck, threading his way through the dense commuter traffic towards the Lincoln Tunnel and his promised place in Paradise.
Although the plot creaks a little, particularly in the novel's closing stages, this is a work of considerable distinction. Updike remains one of contemporary literature's most enviable stylists. The lucid economy of his prose often disguising, but never betraying the remarkable complexity of his thought. And he also remains one of American society's most humane and balanced critics, his exasperation tempered by an undeniable love. It's a love of small things - the gleam of morning sunlight on asphalt, the sounds of rattled crockery and the Today Show from the neighbourhood kitchens, the roar of traffic from the boulevard; a love which may, he implies, provide a frail bulwark against the larger and more furious passions that threaten the world.
This article was first published in the Guardian.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006