John Updike’s Latest Fails To Speak At--Much Less About--The Unspeakable
The opening paragraph of John Updike’s Terrorist summons the horror of that quintessential space of alienation that any American can relate to, the high school hallway: "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 shinning navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, What else is there to see? Boys strut and saunter along and look dead-eyed, indicating with their edgy killer gestures and careless scornful laughs that this world is all there is---a noisy varnished hall lined with metal lockers and having at its end a blank wall desecrated by graffiti and roller-painted over so often it feels to be coming closer by millimeters."
It’s the springboard for Updike’s psychodrama, a serviceable and enjoyable coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old northern New Jersey boy named Ahmad. Conceptually, at least, Ahmad’s forebears are those mostly male characters in varying states of alienation from themselves and their country: Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, even Updike’s own Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom. Almost immediately, though, you recognize that Terrorist is not up to its task: exploring the suicide bomber. At best you get a take on Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, and the Trench Coat Mafia’s sentimentality. And Updike’s failure parallels our own failings to grasp the very idea of the terrorist.
Why do they hate us? The question has come to require little explanation. You know to what it refers almost immediately. You don’t really need to hear, say, Sept. 11, al-Qaida, suicide bomber, jihad, or terrorist to clarify matters. And the question doesn’t really demand an answer.
Besides, are you really trying to get the answer if you’re asking? You just know, in some visceral way, that there isn’t an answer. But as Americans we’re left babbling the question because we have no conceptual place for the terrorist, no ability to cope with the perpetual state of anxiety that is the true offertory of the post-towers, great anti-American imperial age. Afghanistan, Iraq, axes of evil, and Hezbollah merely intensify this disease. It is no longer a question of if, but when.
"At a time when the normal condition of the citizen is a state of anxiety, euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of an idiot," wrote American critic Robert Warshow in 1948, a prescient analysis of America’s unreality today. Warshow, however, wasn’t writing about the terrorist and his psychic armory. He wrote about the kind of personified dark force Americans could understand and identify with: the gangster. No one ever had to ask the "why" of the American gangster. In America you can aspire to gangsterdom, but you never, ever really want to be a terrorist. Jesse James has a mission and purpose and a folk song. Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh just blow people up.
In his classic essay "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," Warshow proposed a way to see beyond the smile of the American idiot. There was a great struggle in our republic between the forces of light, success, money-making, and suburban picket fences against the forces of darkness contained within these very same desires. The tension could produce great dramatic art with all its cathartic, redemptive value. Warshow saw this dramatic art in the classic Hollywood gangster movies of the studio era, such as The Public Enemy and Scarface. The gangster was our tragic American self.
American art has nothing comparable for the terrorist. Nothing can sublimate the improvised explosive device. There is no redemptive representation of martyrdom--despite a country that slathers itself in the blood of crucifixions.
Instead pop culture offers Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer and the sublimation of anxiety. Today’s terrorism art is Cops in heavy thematic rotation and infinite spin-off reproduction that fails to reassure us of law enforcement’s prophylactic efficacy. Neither law and order nor Law and Order redeems or gives dimension to our lives. There is no tragedy here, just beaming, toothy stupefaction
Not that American artists haven’t tried out a range of arty displays meant to give the terrorist an appropriate representation in our popular culture. Richard Condon’s satirical 1959 thriller novel The Manchurian Candidate was turned into "sleeper cell" movies without satire and irony in 1962 and 2004. Don DeLillo's Libra tries to plumb the gee-whiz, Forrest Gump-mind of Lee Harvey Oswald. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver gets the extremity of alienation right, only to have terrorism turn into self-destruction by the pubescent hooker with a heart of gold. Paul Auster’s novelist-turned-bomber blows up monuments out of artistic impotence in Leviathan. Chuck Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden is saved from terrorism by Fight Club support-group manliness. And, of course, James McTeigue’s movie version of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta utterly reveals that there is no analog to Guy Fawkes in America.
What these caricatures and cartoons all share, however, is that great American penchant for self-righteous moralism. These terrorists are all Salvation Army agents provocateur, anarchist-nags hoping to call us to our better angels that personify classic American Puritanism. They can’t even provide that necessary darkness that Warshow saw in Hollywood’s stylized villains, "a current of opposition seeking to express by whatever means are available to it that sense of desperation and inevitable failure which optimism itself helps to create."
Updike’s Ahmad, conversely, has no sense of desperation, no tragic inevitability about him at all. It doesn’t give away the ending to know that he, too, is ultimately saved from the terrorist act. Rather, he is most convincing as he petulantly pouts about his excesses of self-regard betrayed by his uniform of dry-cleaned shirts: "But there is, he knows, vanity in his costume, a preening that offends the purity of the All-Encompassing."
Even after a few pages, you feel how profoundly lost Updike is in this territory, as we are lost when it comes to the terrorist. His most poorly drawn characters are the ones who stand in for our dumbstruck anxiety:
"The Secretary muses aloud, Those people out there . . .Why do they want to do these horrible things? Why do they hate us? What’s to hate?
"They hate the light," Hermione tells him loyally. "Like cockroaches. Like bats. The light shone in the darkness," she quotes, knowing that Pennsylvania piety is a way to his heart, "and the darkness comprehended it not."
This is the weak voice of the secretary of Homeland Security and his aide. Updike is not saved by the veneer of irony he brushes on these two. They are cartoons in the novel. They are us, churlish, given to fits of pouting, violence, and arrogant self-regard. Updike’s Ahmad, too, is simply a caricature of an American type--like Travis Bickle--but without even the pathos to give him depth: "I seek to walk the Straight Path," Ahmad admits. "In this country, it is not easy. There are too many paths, too much selling of many useless things. They brag of freedom, but freedom to no purpose becomes a kind of prison."
Even irony wouldn’t save this terrorist. And more importantly, this Terrorist doesn’t get close to even asking why they hate us. The terrorist here is reassuring, not merely because his therapeutic ennui is recognizable, but because he forces no one to look at some Achilles heal, some tragic flaw. He has none and, by proxy, we have none. So much for art’s enlightening or redeeming capacity during this time of war.
Warshow ends his essay by suggesting how the gangster is ultimately different and necessary. "This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is--ultimately--impossible. The effect of the gangster film is to embody this dilemma in the person of the gangster and resolve it by his death. The dilemma is resolved because it is his death, not ours. We are safe; for the moment, we can acquiesce in our failure, we can choose to fail."
The essentially messianic self-regard of American culture forecloses any confrontation with the intolerable dilemma of terrorism. The state responds by producing fear and violence in excess, shock and awe. American art and media in turn stylize and frame this anxiety, reflecting it back to us ad nauseam. We need instead a measure of our own tragic culpability with terror--for without that the terrorist remains an unresolved dilemma and we’re no closer to understanding why they hate us.
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