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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.
When other writers at a 1986 PEN panel on “How the State Imagines” were lamenting Cold War militarism, John Updike offered a hymn of praise for the U.S. Postal Service: “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” His co-panelists were miffed, but there was no gainsaying him: Updike was a lucky man. Lucky in his chosen career; lucky with women (or at least, he wrote about “getting lucky” often enough); lucky in being an American at the peak of the American century.Many remembrances of this literary polymath will focus on his native talent, and may be right to do so. Updike found his pellucid, synesthetic voice in his mid-twenties, and so seemed a kind of prodigy… even, at times, a prodigal. But at its best, what his voice expressed better than that of any other American novelist (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow) was gratitude for the superabundant gift – the sustained good luck – of everyday life.At the height of his powers… say, from 1959’s The Poorhouse Fair to 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike delineated a territory – American, lower- to upper-middle-class, uneasily suburban – that will ever after be associated with his name. In novel after novel, story after beautifully wrought story, he charted its tensions and ambiguities. That it is hard to remember that this territory was ever unfamiliar is a testament to the thoroughness of Updike’s cartography. Collectively, the novels of the ’60s and ’70s, the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus, and The Early Stories are a monumental achievement, one that will become clearer as the world they describe falls into the past.Somehow, Updike also managed to maintain a a sideline as a poet, as well as a prolific career as an essayist on literature and art. Though his opinions on each could be both narrow and strongly held, his Protestant circumspection always allowed room for doubt. His “rules for reviewing” remain a model of good faith and good sense.As five books became ten, and ten became fifty, Updike’s “spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude,” which seemed to distill a generational trait, could at times flirt with self-satisfaction. We forgive a writer for everything but success, and in his later years, Updike’s critics would execute a kind of pincers movement. From one flank, he was attacked for rehashing old ground, for being (in books like Villages) too… Updikean. From the other flank, he was attacked for his attempts to move beyond first-hand experience (see: Seek My Face, Toward the End of Time, Terrorist). If each position had its merit – more than a decade has passed since Updike’s fiction felt urgent – both overlooked the fact that he had been experimenting with form and subject since the mid-70s. And well into his own eighth decade, his reviews and essays, which he produced with the dependability of a classic Buick sedan, bespoke a writer still alive to the surprise of the new.In this, too, Updike was lucky: he outlived his aura of invincibility.He will not, however, have outlived his reputation. Now that he is no longer among us, it will be easier not to begrudge him his good fortune, and to appraise his legacy. The career of Émile Zola, that other prodigy of the real, tells us that a few golden works will outweigh any amount of dross. Updike’s gold-to-dross ratio was, in retrospect, remarkable, and his good books many. They remind us of our own good fortune. We are lucky to have had him.