Friday, June 09, 2006

#43 - Terrorist

I'll say one thing for Terrorist, John Updike's new novel, it's certainly the perfect book for the current climate. Considering the media fury over the death of al-Zarqawi and the young men they arrested here in Canada, not to mention the ongoing efforts of George W. and company in Iraq, a novel about an 18-year-old boy who becomes embroiled in a terrorist act seems rather timely. What's odd then, is that's all the book truly has going for it: a good hook.

I'm embarrassed to say that I've never read any other Updike. I started Rabbit Run years ago and it remains sitting unfinished on the shelf. And perhaps it's just my own personal taste, but he's not really a writer for me. I found this book to be trying too hard, to have angry, awkward and not entirely believable characters. The story is fascinating, but Ahmad's (the teenager in question) faith doesn't come across as authentic, nor does his dissent into the crucial act that defines the book feel real. Not to mention the fact that he's stiff and speaks in such muted, oddly writerly tones that Ahmad's almost a caricature.

But what bothered me the most were the lack of truly redeeming female characters, Ahmad's mother was an artist who was not particularly prone to childrearing, Ahmad's quasi-crush ends up being a hooker, and the two other women, one a spinster, the other an obese librarian, were so one-dimensional that I had a hard time finishing the book.

I had a teacher write on an essay once, "You are certainly a good writer, but this is not well written." That's very close to how I feel about Terrorist. It's, of course, the job of the novelist to be consistently challenging our ideas of stereotypes, our ideas of the world around us, but in the way the Updike presents the Muslim faith, he does nothing to dispel the very misconceptions that exist in the world. And I know that's not the point, that he's writing about fundamentalism from the point of view of said fundamentalist, but Ahmad's speeches, his thoughts, his actions all feel so put-upon that I have a hard time imagining him in the real world.

There is no doubt that Updike remains one of the great modern literary giants of American books, and so much of his latest speech at BEA points to this fact (where he, ironically, rails against the internet, the very tool used to disseminate his speech, um, whatever), but just because he can write doesn't mean that everything he does write will automatically be great fiction. Despite how much it wants and/or tries to be.

It's an interesting book to read after finishing Sweetness in the Belly considering how much deft and talent Gibb shows when discussing the same faith (albeit in two very different ways). Because I think the point of a book like this should be understanding, at least that's my humble opinion, and it's a shame that Updike presents me with the same dogged images/characters I hear about in the news every day. There's no underlying enlightenment, like in Gibb's novel, to make me feel like this book has changed my world. All in all, I'm just glad I managed to get through it.

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