“Terrorist” At the Gate
John Updike Brandishes a Box-Cutter
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 6, 2006
He’s calling it Terrorist, and the critics are quick to take the bait: John Updike is making a “surprising turn” into new and “emotionally daring” territory, “taking so many risks,” writing about terrorism from the inside out. Not quite. It’s a reprise for Updike, who treated the subject ten years ago, the last time he wrote a good book, in In the Beauty of the Lillies, where faith, loss of faith and excessive faith form the novel’s gritty trinity. The novel traces the story of a family over 80 years, but culminates with a young man’s Waco-cult-like, and violent, rejection of all things American (“King Gog, as I call our United States government”) and begins with the Rev. Clarence Wilmot losing his faith and discovering that “the God of the Pentateuch was an absurd bully, barbarically thundering through a cosmos entirely misconceived. There is no such God, nor should there be.” Of course, besides being a recurrent dare for Updike to get over, “There is no God” is the line that opens his famous short story, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” famous for having been one of the earliest attempts at transforming 9/11 by way of art, famous for having been rejected by The New Yorker, probably because the story took for its introduction, virtually verbatim, the first-person account Updike had written for The New Yorker of his witnessing the fall of the towers from a Brooklyn roof. (The Atlantic ran the story in its November 2002 issue.) In Terrorist, it seems Updike substituted a Muslim for his usual Presbyterians and ran with it, making it less of a departure than a closing of a circle. The Toronto Star stupidly calls Terrorist “the best 9/11 novel to date,” an honor that, barring an unlikely miracle even on Updike’s part (his recent fiction work—Seek My Face, Villages—has been unreadable for its self-indulgence and rehashes), has gone pretty fairly to Ian McEwan’s Saturday (“What weakness, what delusional folly, to permit yourself sympathy towards a man, sick or not, who invades your house like this”) and mostly because 9/11 is barely a shadow over McEwan’s book. It’s a hum symbolized by that plane, seemingly aflame, that the novel’s hero watches scrimmaging for Heathrow in the early morning of a Saturday. In Terrorist, it feels like one last ploy to grab at the best-seller list, Couples-like, by a 74-year-old grabbing at his last straws. Terrorist is merely on its way: It’s not quite fair to judge it before it’s read. But Updike books, once irresistible and too-far spaced despite their torrents, have been closer to that bottom-of-the-barrel he alluded to in his recent New York Times interview. They have to be read. But dread has replaced anticipation.