Two Novels Tell Very Different Stories About Terrorism in America

1.

It’s strange that the attacks on September 11 are referred to almost exclusively by their date, because it was an event so large that its aftermath sprawls well beyond the borders of conventional time. Maybe this is why we call it 9/11 and not 9/11/01, the former reminding us that trauma has a recurrent, cyclical nature.

Healing, however, can be a more linear process. In the 17 years since 9/11, our culture has worked through an index of ideas about terrorism, Islam, and any potential link between the two. We can see this, in part, by looking at the novels that seek to explore this link, two of which are Terrorist by John Updike, published in 2006, and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, published in 2016. While many post-9/11 novels tend to focus on the experience of victims or witnesses—such as Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—Updike’s and Mahajan’s novels are, to some degree, exercises in understanding a terrorist’s motivations, particularly as a function of religion. However, for all their similarities in subject matter, a number of distinguishing factors—namely the decade that separates their publications, as well as the cultural viewpoints of their authors—allow them to demonstrate a specific evolution of thought regarding Islam and terrorism.

2.
Terrorist was published in 2006, and the novel is steeped in the anxieties of the era in which it was written. The protagonist, Ahmad, an Egyptian-American high school senior living in an economically depressed part of New Jersey, is the novel’s titular terrorist. And though it isn’t until later in the book that he is introduced to the terror plot in which he will participate, from the very beginning he embodies the caricature of Islamic fundamentalists that emerged directly after 9/11—primarily that they hate us for our freedom and the way that freedom flaunts our godlessness. This is expressed in the novel’s opening lines:
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?…The teachers, weak Christians and nonobservant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief…They lack true faith;…they are unclean.
The novel’s trajectory doesn’t need to take Ahmad far from where he starts. Already, his devotion to God and Islam results in his demonization of non-Muslims, and in psychosexual anger. In addition, Ahmad’s Islam functions to alienate him from the other characters in the novel, particularly his white mother, his Jewish guidance counselor, and a black Christian acquaintance from school named Joryleen. His father is absent in his life, so he is the only Egyptian Muslim in his small social circle, which makes his race and religion topics of interest to those around him. Ahmad’s religion, in fact, often seems to be the only thing his social circle is capable of talking about. And this focus seems warranted as Ahmad sees the world through the prism of an Islam that openly suggests violence. The novel is filled with exchanges similar to the one that takes place after Ahmad accepts an invitation to see Joryleen sing in her church choir. She thanks him for coming; he replies:
“You have been gracious to me, and I was curious. It is helpful, up to a point, to know the enemy.”

“Enemy? Whoa. You didn’t have no enemies there.”

“My teacher at the mosque says that all unbelievers are our enemies. The prophet said that eventually all unbelievers must be destroyed.”
This teacher, Ahmad’s imam, is one of the people who recruits him for the suicide bombing he later agrees to participate in, underscoring the fact that all of the novel’s Muslim characters are eventually part of the terror plot. This cleanly fulfills the assumptions the other characters make about Muslims: that they are not to be trusted, that they are enemies of America. They become what many bearded men of a certain race or religion became in the years after 9/11—representatives of the overlap between Islam and evil. Ahmad’s guidance counselor, Jack Levy, whose distrust of Islam primes him to save Ahmad from his ultimate suicide mission, meets the imam at Ahmad’s graduation. It doesn’t take long before Levy, knowing nothing about the man, associates his religion with violence:
Levy studies the imam—a slight, impeccable man embodying a belief system that not many years ago managed the deaths of, among others, hundreds of commuters from northern New Jersey…[H]is initial good will toward the imam dissolves: the man in his white garb sticks like a bone in the throat of the occasion.”
This is one of many times the connection between violence and Islam is articulated. Taken individually, one could argue that the book’s moments of prejudice—e.g. when Jack’s wife tells her sister “Think of what our parents would have said if we’d brought home Muslim men to marry,” or when the secretary of defense advises another character to get out of New Jersey because “It’s full of Arabs—Arab Americans, so-called.” —might aid a larger purpose. A racist character does not prove a novel racist. The problem of this novel, however, is not that characters say Islamaphobic things, but that the events of the novel only prove these characters right. Every Muslim in the book is a terrorist. Each one wants to see harm done to America. None are to be trusted. While American fear and distrust during the post-9/11 years accounted for an ongoing legacy of violence and death, in Terrorist, that fear and distrust are completely warranted and, perhaps, all that will save us.

3.

Titles may not be the most useful part of a book on which to dwell, but they can serve as a starting point. In Updike’s novel, the title is a claim of decisiveness, a claim to understand the wounded American imagination from which the word terrorist gathers its power. Updike’s title speaks well to the novel’s heavy-handedness, telling readers the whole story, conjuring up a spectacle of violence and destruction. Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, on the other hand, promises a narrative more subtle and complex, which does not rely on social and political caricatures.

The novel opens with a public bombing in a crowded market, and while the rest of the narrative focuses in large part on the victims of this bombing, the renderings of the bombers offer glimpses into the characters’ religious and political motivations. The bomb maker, Shockie, returns from the attack to his organization’s home base, and the room he shares with Malik, noting that:
Malik was praying on a mat…He was a religious person—religion, Shockie thought, that crutch of the weak.
Shockie and Malik are both Muslims. It is not Islam as ideology, however, that has led them down the path to violence, but their inclusion in an oppressed minority group. Islam as a religion separates the two men—Shockie, the motivated and dedicated killer disdains Malik’s devotion. And that religious devotion seems to be the root of Malik’s moments of compassion, for which he is often derided, such as when he suggests at a group meeting that,
We should write letters to the victims and [their] families […] After all, what these victims go through is similar to what we all have gone through as Kashmiris. Something bad happens to them, they expect the government to help them and instead the government ignores them. […]If you want a true Islamic revolution in this country—not just fighting selfishly for our small aims—then we need to win over these people, show our solidarity with them, tell them that our hands were tied, we were only trying to expose to them the callousness of the people they have chosen to elect.”
In Malik and Shockie, Mahajan braids together a number of motivations for these acts of violence. While Islam, like any other well-known identity, functions to group people together through shared experience, it does not send those people on the path to murder. As The Association of Small Bombs seems to suggest, the path that leads to the violence of terrorism, begins somewhere else.

4.

In The Association of Small Bombs, violence is far less the bloody fulfillment of Islam’s tenets than it is a misguided attempt to counter Muslim oppression. But like Terrorist, The Association is also interested in the transformation from peaceful citizen to violent extremist. This transformation can be seen in Ayub, a leader of The NGO, a peaceful protest group dedicated to getting prime minister Modi to own up to his Islamophobic policies.

Ayub’s religion is tied to both his nonviolence and his tendency toward revolution. He often looks to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali for hope and inspiration. He and his girlfriend, Tara, pillars of The NGO, are united in their grand aims of bringing Modi to justice and encouraging peace between Hindus and Muslims. However, they are less united in their personal aims, and when Tara breaks up with him, it initiates a heartbreak that becomes disillusionment and then violence.

Ayub moves back to his family’s small village and lives on their farm. There, he considers the ineffectualness of nonviolence. He considers assassinating Modi. His thoughts turn rancorous, bitter, and cynical. At this point—just as he is beginning to fall from grace—Ayub is introduced to Shockie, thereby bridging the book’s opening act of terror with its concluding one.

Shockie questions Ayub’s motives for joining violent extremist group, Ayub thinks through a few potential reasons, then says:
I tried nonviolence…I wanted equality between Hindus and Muslims, brotherhood. I thought the majority could be persuaded with such action…Now I see it’s a world where everything operates by force…I had always thought you had to educate others about your pain, show them how to solve it. Now I realize you have to make them feel it.
Throughout Ayub’s journey to violence, he questions his own motives. More often than not, they are political and moral, an act of revenge for what India or the Western world has done not to the Muslim religion but to the Muslim people:
How many time had Tara and he contacted some absent journalist at a major newspaper, one of those people who nodded and took no notes and then shook his head and said, ‘But what’s the story?’  What’s the story? The story is that thousands of innocent Muslims are being killed in plain sight, that innocent Muslims are being harassed in America for a crime they didn’t commit, that innocent Iraqis going about their business now wake to hear American armored vehicles razing…with their sirens while gangs of disaffected young men in office clothes shoot back from the alleys, reloading their AK-47s.
But both the novel and Ayub are aware that murder is not simply the result of political disagreements. While Ayub’s anger over the injustices done to Muslims has significant bearing on his actions, he decides that for someone to do what terrorists do, a more primal anger must be part of the equation. This is seen when Ayub imagines the last moments of Mohammed Atta, who is believed to have helped organize the attacks on 9/11:
There was too much blood involved—blood tossed against the mile-high windows of the WTC like a libation—for the reasons to not be emotional and hotheaded, even if it took the hijackers a year of training to accomplish their goals. Killing others and then yourself is the most visceral experience possible. Atta must have felt himself full of sexual hate for the people piled high in the towers, bodies in a vertical morgue.
Though Ayub has many motivations for violence, the most primal emotional one seems to come into full focus in the moments just after the bomb he planted detonates:
Hundreds of people lay on the ground. From the shop came only silence. Ayub—thrown to the ground, rolling, sliding—thought: Tara will hear me now.
In these lines, Mahajan’s terrorist is allowed to preserve the shreds of his humanity, rather than become a cliché of extremist Islam. Religion makes Ayub a marginalized and oppressed minority within his community. But it is not the path to the dehumanization, extremism, and violence that marks Ayub’s fall from grace.

5.

Like titles, it might be fruitless to dwell too long on endings. However, there is a fundamental difference evident in the conclusions of each novel.

In Terrorist, Ahmad is ready to drive a truck laden with explosives into the Lincoln Tunnel. He is stopped by his guidance counselor, saved by the slightest recognition of his own humanity. After the plot has been diffused, Ahmad drives the truck back to New Jersey, and in the novel’s final paragraphs observes the residents of Manhattan:
All around them…the great city crawls with people…all reduced by the towering structures around them to the size of insects, but scuttling, hurrying, intent in the milky morning sun upon some plan or scheme or hope they are hugging to themselves, their reason for living another day, each one of them impaled lives upon the pin of consciousness, fixed upon self-advancement and self-preservation. That, and only that.
These devils, Ahmad thinks, have taken away my God.

This paragraph, especially the last line, can be read as Ahmad having lost, with the foiled attack, what he sees as his meaning and purpose. Without his upcoming martyrdom, without the murder that would have brought him closer to god, he must now accept his mundane life. Perhaps his Islam was only a way to escape sad conditions, the pain of fatherlessness or alienation. However, the connection between Islam and violence is maintained throughout and articulated clearly at the end. The connection might be complicated by a number of personal and circumstantial factors. But that connection is one that many people in the United States took for granted in the years directly following 9/11. Updike’s book echoes the beat of the American pulse, one that was perhaps hammering too fast for thought, reason, and compassion, and too fast for us to consider the stark boundaries of good and evil that we drew around one another.

But if time can heal, then the privilege of time belongs to Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs. The book was also written by a writer of color who was raised in India and does not share Updike’s white, ethnocentric point of view, a writer who understands that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are not things inflicted upon the Western world, but delocalized symptoms of many complicated issues. Mahajan’s novel also illustrates the ripple effects of violence, and show us that there are few winners where terrorism is concerned. Each of the characters’ lives end in sadness, loneliness, or fear. For some, for Ayub, that end is death.

After detonating his bomb, he manages to escape and is taken in by Shockie’s gang. They abandon him on a deserted island. After desperate attempts to save himself, he gives up, and Mahajan notes that,
[H]e became very tired and despairing and he sat down by a crooked doorframe and wept. ‘I am sorry, God,’ he said finally, recalling his oldest companion—one he had forgotten. ‘Take me back.’
Before Ayub starves to death, it is the disconnection between violence and religion that Mahajan chooses to underscore. It’s a striking note to end on. If a novel is, to some degree, a product of its time, then this choice seems reflective of the progress toward understanding that has taken place over the past decade. It also offers a glimpse into what may be possible in the decades to follow.

Image credit: ActionVance.

Graham Greene’s ‘Entertainments’ and The Problem of Writing from Life

1.
Writing fiction is an act of formulating the right questions, not providing direct answers.  This from Chekhov.  But being a writer also presents many questions, two of which are perhaps universal to all generations and time periods and yet seem, as so much these days, more pertinent now than ever.

The first question I’ve mulled over since childhood, when I vacillated between Stephen King and John Steinbeck: what distinguishes a piece of fiction as either commercial or literary?  The second question feels most urgent given the present state of our country: how might an artist’s work address times of political and social crisis?

Graham Greene seems a good writer to study in both regards.  Before I read him, my perception was that he was a popular writer of thrillers and mysteries.  However, the first Greene book I read was The Power and the Glory, a moral tale about a boozed-up and deeply penitent Catholic priest trying to escape persecution and find some semblance of dignity.  At the time, I didn’t know about the dichotomy of Greene’s work, the two separate lineages of his fiction—the literary novels and, as he called them, the “Entertainments.”

Since then, I’ve discovered that while Greene encouraged the distinction, he didn’t offer much insight into it.  In The Paris Review he attempted to clarify, saying “The [E]ntertainments…are distinct from the novels because as the name implies they do not carry a message”.  The quote also implies Greene’s distaste for commercial novel, a phrase oxymoronic in the context of a serious writer discussing craft; the commercial fiction, the Entertainments, are not novels at all.

If we take his definition at face value, this presents an obvious problem.  Because the Entertainments often do, like the literary novels, have a message.  The actual difference may rest in how that message is delivered and to what effect.  In an interview with Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace distinguishes literary fiction by pointing to the relationship between reader and writer, each with separate agendas, engaged in a paradoxical push-and-pull of expectations satisfied and subverted.  He says:
This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical…The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—‘re-mediated’…by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedy-ing.  This makes serious fiction a rough and bumpy affair for everyone involved.  Commercial entertainment, on the other hand, smoothes everything over.
While commonly accepted distinctions boil down to the commercial novel’s quick pacing, emphasized plot, simplified characters, and satisfactorily resolute ending, Wallace highlights a more essential component of the writing itself, a linguistic and thematic discourse that presents the reader more agitation than alleviation, more questions than answers.

This aligns with Russel Nye’s claim, in The Unembarrassed Muse, that “Elite art[‘s] aim is the discovery of new ways of recording and interpreting experience.  Technical and thematic complexity is of much greater value in elite art than in… popular art; in fact, technique may become a vehicle for thematic expression, or may simply become an end in itself.”  In other words, one factor distinguishing literary fiction from commercial fiction is the author’s textual awareness, proclaiming often subversive intentions.  The Ministry of Fear, one of Graham Greene’s Entertainments, has all the apparent markings of commercial fiction.  And yet, it metafictionally speaks to its own making, pushing it into the realm of literary art as defined by Wallace, Nye, and Greene himself.

2.
So far left out in the definition of commercial art is its regard for readership and financial viability.  The Ministry of Fear was preceded by Greene’s most acclaimed novel, The Power and the Glory, which, released during World War II, was financially unsuccessful. In The Life of Graham Greene Normal Sherry recounts the writer’s sobering realization:
 Unless books…provided information about war or spies, the chances of their becoming bestsellers were remote…Greene’s brilliant novel had to compete with…titles such as I Was Stalin’s Agent or Hitler Versus Germany…or the Gestapo in England…There was a thirst for secret intrigues and the calamities of war; there was no interest in faraway Mexico or the tribulations of a betrayed whiskey priest.
The Ministry of Fear was Greene’s attempt at providing what his greatest literary achievement hadn’t—a thriller which speaks to the political reality from which it sprung.  This is where writers in 2018 come in.  Though we aren’t living through a world war, we are living through a world event, one which dominates public media, harnesses public fear, and encroaches on our private thoughts.  To address it might seem overkill, but to not address it, to not situate our work within this new and strange world might seem naïve or negligent.  But because this is an event so unprecedented, it presents a number of new questions.  How can we write anything that addresses the political reality of our times, when so much of what defines our times boils down to an unstable and unreal reality?  How do we address an administration and president that seems just as much an aberration of democracy as it seems democracy’s death-rattle?  How do we write truth, when truth seems lost?   How do we tell intelligent lies when stupid lies have become our national discourse?

These are the questions for which I, the writer, have no answers.

3.
But I can say the reason fiction so often eschews providing answers is that the questions in which fiction deals are often inherently unanswerable.  In attempting to address the unanswerable, most writers generalize the act of writing fiction to two things: the story, and how the story is being told.

The story of The Ministry of Fear is at its barebones level an obvious attempt at a commercial thriller—Arthur Rowe is swept into espionage, accused of murder, outcast, and on the run.  But amid this action are quiet moments where the book breaks from its quick pace, such as in a chapter that sees essentially no plot-level movement.

Rowe wanders the rubble of bombed London.  As he passes others, he makes observations but concludes that “None of these things mattered.  They were like something written about: they didn’t belong to his own life and he paid them no attention” (61).  This is the first acknowledgment of literature’s sudden impracticality, as well as the fact that the events of Rowe’s life have departed from his once secure perception of reality.  It is followed by further recollections of a past Rowe simultaneously longs for and fervently rejects, saying “People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month.  But it’s not there anymore.”  Then, in an address to his deceased mother: “It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it—but the thrillers are like life…You used to laugh at the books…about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but, dear, that’s real life: it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died.”

How the story is being told is where the complication of classifying the novel as either commercial or literary enters.  And with this complication comes the complication of deciding whether Greene, writing through and about World War II, is attempting to situate a thriller within it, or using a thriller to comment upon it.

4.
The election of Donald Trump was a moment in which, for many of us, the ground of reality broke apart.  But it’s important to remember that all of the major events in human history had seemed, in the present moment, like the end of reality.  A single election, a single war, a single bomb, a single personal tragedy, can have this effect.  It’s a defining trait of traumas big and small—the world as we know it is no longer the same.

And when reality breaks, when trauma invades, as it always does, unexpectedly, we often question the value of all that we previously held dear.  For Greene, this dearly held thing that seemed suddenly, amid the trauma of the war, impractical, was literature.

In The Ministry of Fear books represent paradox—their attempts at instruction become futile in times of true danger.  At one point, Rowe waits for his hired detective, someone he hopes may provide guidance in the quickly evolving conspiracy of which he finds himself at the center.  He waits in a bookstore, noting that:
Here was pornography—eighteenth-century French with beautiful little steel engravings celebrating the copulations of elegant over-clothed people on Pompadour couches; here   were all the Victorian novelists, the memoirs of obscure pig-stickers, the eccentric    philosophies and theologies of the seventeenth century…There was a smell of neglected books, of the straw from packing cases and of clothes which had been too often rained upon.
The books are cast under a grotesque light, impractical to the point of being perverse.  It is far from the last time Greene uses books for thematic effect.  They become integral to the plot in the following chapter, “A Load of Books,” in which Rowe finds himself next to a man who carries said load.  At first, the bookseller seems a pitiable character.  Rowe notes that “The weight of the suitcase cramped him: he looked very old under its weight,” shining light on the antiquity of the man and the books.  All of this is hammered home by the bookseller himself, who says “There’s nothing so heavy as books, sir—unless it’s bricks.”  Rowe agrees to help the man unload his books to a prospective buyer.  But the hand of the genre is visible when he marvels at the ease with which he is being pulled into the plot: “He felt directed, controlled, moulded, moulded by some agency with a surrealist imagination.”  The surrealism of commercial fiction is most often seen in the character’s easy acceptance of the environment’s absurdity.  They are dropped into worlds of excessive violence, espionage, conspiracy, and they face it all with the studied pragmatism of native inhabitants.  The Ministry of Fear takes great aims to measure its absurdities, to call them what they are to the average reader, deviations from real life, or deviations from pre-war real life.

Rowe finds himself in a hotel room while unseen forces of harm linger outside.  The case of books, as well as its symbolism, is nearly forgotten as Rowe scrambles for a weapon, only to reappear when he finds nothing else.  He opens the case, thereby ending Part One of The Ministry of Fear, with books, the symbol of rich antiquity, bringing the scene to unexpected conclusion.  It is a metaphor not only of the way the world has changed in times of war, but of the culture’s expectations from its literature: where was assumed books, turns out to be a bomb.

5.
In the second half of The Ministry of Fear, Rowe has completely lost his memory of the past two decades, thereby returning to the childhood innocence he longed for in the opening lines.  The return streamlines Rowe’s character.  Unburdened by the complexities of his experiences, he fully inhabits his role as a commercial protagonist.  The idea of innocence being bound to narrative simplicity is touched on in an earlier section:
In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality—heaven is as near and actual as the seaside.  Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock.  Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated.
Both innocence and narrative simplicity are longtime staples of commercial fiction.  According to Nye “there are certain themes in popular fiction which seem to maintain perennial interest.  One is nostalgia, the appeal of ‘better days and simpler times,’ the pervasive memory of the past, of childhood, of innocence not yet lost, of times free of the taint of contemporaneity.”

It’s just as easy to situate these sentiments into the Trump platform—a great America which can be had once again—as it is to situate them into the resistance—an American reality that once had, at its foundation, some semblance of truth.  Our heroes, or more accurately “leaders”, are no longer brave, nor are they honest.  Just as World War II turned reality into a wartime thriller (thereby turning the wartime thriller into Realism) so has the election of Trump turned reality into a piece of absurdist fiction.

Perhaps like many writers, I’ve wondered what a piece of fiction set within the current administration might look like.  I started thinking about this before Trump was elected, when it seemed his run would end in a tossaway joke.  Imagine the chaos of a reality TV star, an idiot, a narcissist becoming president.  Imagine the damage he could do, someone with such a fragile ego, someone so brash and unqualified.  A writer of fiction could do wonders with material like this.  It would, of course, be a work of satire, one which comments upon the potential failings of our democracy and discourse, which remind us that there is only a thin line between our functioning, flawed system and overwhelming chaos.

But then it happened.  And while the novel I imagined was an exaggeration of reality, the reality of what happened became an exaggeration of the novel never to be written.

6.
Greene lived through a wartime thriller as he was writing a wartime thriller.  And while a wartime thriller can be considered, on its own, a piece of commercial art, the fact that it was written during the reality of war, and the fact that Greene seems textually aware of this, at the very least distorts an easy classification.

Rowe learns he is wanted for murder, a murder he doesn’t yet know was staged and for which he is therefore innocent, and turns himself in to the police.  After telling his story to one policeman, he is passed to another, Prentice, who the first calls “the surrealist round here.”  As Prentice fills him in on the details of what has taken place in the first half of the book, Rowe is flabbergasted, asking “Is life really like this?” to which Prentice responds, “This is life, so I suppose one can say it’s like life.”  In this sentiment, the story acknowledges its deviation from real life, while also asserting its responsibility to do so as an adherence to Realism.  If war can so drastically shape experience, then it requires a new Realism to speak to that experience, which, according to the novel, is better aligned with commercial fiction.  If literary fiction speaks to the complexities of character, the infinitely-faceted spirit of the human condition given free rein, it is starkly out of place in a world of severe reductions, of rations, of time compressed by daily bombings, of motives good and evil, of Hitler and Churchill, of existence polarized to alive and dead.

However, as Rowe and Prentice head to the next scene of the plot, the novel draws attention to Rowe’s pleasure:
It was a long and gloomy ride, but all the time Rowe repressed for the sake of his    companion a sense of exhilaration: he was happily drunk with danger and action…none of the books of adventure one read as a boy had an unhappy ending.  And none of them was disturbed by a sense of pity for the beaten side.
He becomes the fully immersed, complicit character of The Entertainment, as well as a mirror of its therapeutic effect.  Commercial fiction is easier to digest than literary fiction; the reader of commercial fiction is not being asked to consider the unresolvable questions of real life, so is allowed a more strictly pleasurable experience.  However antithetical this might be to Greene’s literary novels, which are characterized by meditations on the messy nature of morality, the second half of The Ministry of Fear finds morality streamlined—the bad are exposed and punished, the good are redeemed and go on.  The novel ultimately follows the prescriptive course of commercial fiction, thereby preserving its “Entertainment” value.

Does this imply that commercial fiction in 2018 would be that that offers the reader an escape from the pervasive stories of the day?  The type of work that either ignores the political and social climate or rewrites it with the happy ending the most optimistic of us have trouble imagining?  And if this is the case, would literary fiction be that that fully embraces the challenge of speaking to a potentially aberrant reality, a reality that, if it isn’t aberrant, is unquestionably sad?  By ignoring this reality, can we shorten its lifespan?  Or by ignoring it, do we fail future generations, leaving out a part of our history that I’m not alone in hoping we will never repeat?

7.
In any case, for Greene, the moralizing literary artist, the therapy of commercial fiction itself becomes an object of his moralizing.  What makes The Ministry of Fear so difficult to classify is that its value cannot be contained to the plot.  In literary fiction, the plot is only a part of the experience, which is often best exemplified by its linguistic intercourse.  In the linguistic intercourse of The Ministry of Fear the claim being made is that while childhood equals innocence and pleasurable simplicity, it also amounts to ignorance.  By the same turn, adulthood is not simply an immoral mess.  And Rowe, embarked on his quest for justice, begins to realize the limitations of the story he has inhabited:
Over there among the unknown tribes a woman was giving birth, rats were nosing among   sacks of meal, an old man was dying, two people were seeing each other for the first time by the light of a lamp: everything in that darkness was of such deep importance that their errand could not equal it—this violent superficial chase, this cardboard adventure hurtling at forty-five miles an hour along the edge of the profound natural common experiences of men.
If the Entertainments are, as Greene suggests, meant simply to entertain by immersing the reader in a message-less tale, this paragraph is a move in the wrong direction.  The tragedy of Rowe’s past is that he killed his wife, a “mercy killing,” to spare her a drawn out, painful death.  With his memory gone, this formative episode is no longer part of him.  He regresses to a childlike innocence, but he is an adult.  It is the adult in him that senses the emptiness of his hero-like bravado, which the surrealism of the Entertainment demands, yet which he is too Real a character to be satisfied with.  Even prior to his memory being fully restored, he understands that, “Happiness should always be qualified by a knowledge of misery… Knowledge was the great thing—not abstract knowledge…but detailed passionate trivial human knowledge.”  The tension between difficult knowledge and therapeutic ignorance is hammered home in lines such as “The sense of adventure struggled with common sense as though it were on the side of happiness, and common sense were allied to possible miseries.”

The questions posed by literary fiction are rarely ingredients for pure happiness.  The realism of literary fiction deals in the most irreconcilable facts of daily life.  Happiness, on the other hand, according to Nye is a required component of popular fiction.  He writes that “Since the popular arts aim at the largest common denominator…the popular artist cannot disturb or offend any significant part of his public: though the elite artist may and should be a critic of his society, the popular artist cannot risk alienation.”  If commercial fiction is meant to promote happiness and not criticize society, Greene breaks both rules in the novel’s last line: “It seemed to him that after all one could exaggerate the value of happiness.”

Happiness is not a word that could earnestly be used to define our recent history or, I presume, the years ahead.  In a deeply divided country, it’s possible the ultimate distinguishing trait between literary and commercial fiction will be whether that fiction attempts to avoid disturbing/offending or whether it embraces its critical impulse.

However, it might be difficult to write fiction that criticizes society when much of our current cultural dissatisfaction stems from the same sources.  When this thought bothers me, I try to remember that art has always been an expression within a limited medium.  Each medium has its own rules and functions.  What has always been most interesting about great art is what the artist can do within these confines, how the artist conveys infinity within the finite.  The writer of fiction should not attempt a fictional version of Fire and Fury.  What the writer of fiction should do, I think, is what the writer of fiction has always done: look beneath the overarching problems of our day, where a woman is giving birth and an old man is dying.  For all the helplessness we may feel, this is where narratives, real and imagined, begin.  This is where the events of human history take shape.

8.
Though the dual nature of Greene’s body of work is still preserved, it has become a less viable method of differentiating his novels.  The Ministry of Fear invites classification, thereby making it difficult to classify.  This difficulty is inherent in all discussions about Art and Entertainment.  The fact remains that Art, the literary novel in particular, is not worth a whole lot unless it compels one to consume it.  By that same token, Entertainment’s entertainment value is often a result of its bits of wisdom and confrontation that tease out an audience’s emotional and intellectual investment.  And whether we’re talking art or entertainment, books are being read by people who live in a world besought by political turmoil, gender and racial inequality, devastating economic disparities, war, violence, terror.  I don’t know what an artist does with this information, but I do believe an artist has a responsibility to keep this information in mind.  Good writers, good readers, and good books do not exist in a vacuum.  Nor is fiction obliged to be journalistic.  Somewhere between these two facts exist the answers I don’t have.