Terrorist by John Updike

I need to be careful I don’t do a spoiler in this review. There must be still millions of people out there who have not read this magnificent novel and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for them should they find the time and mindfulness to get a hold of a copy. Such efforts would not be wasted. John Updike needs no promotion to those that follow US 20th century literature. But after the glory days of the Rabbit novels, Mr Updike somewhat faded from view. This post 9/11 offering merely reaffirms Updike as the master novelist the world knew him to be, both in terms of language, plot and theme. It is a sheer joy to read his prose; sparse, taut and invariably authentic. But this is not a literary blog. No, it is the central theme of the novel that interests me most: the social psychology of the would-be terrorist and the environment that nurtured that mindset.

The best place to start is by reaffirming the old adage; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. If we don’t keep that little truism firmly in the front of our jaded little minds we will never have a hope of establishing a dialogue let alone a solution to our current predicament. Of course, ISIS and Co have a very particular perspective on freedom fighting. They, unlike say guerrilla movement fighting for territory and self-determination, are fighting for a very different type of territory. Theirs is for a global Islamic Caliphate but not as an alternative earthly empire, but rather as a fore-runner to their imagined caliphate in the sky a metaphysical caliphate that is quite impossible to negotiate with.

Updike, through his central protagonist, paints this metaphysical caliphate with consummate skill and subtlety. He is both sympathetic and gently mocking all at the very same time. And by unravelling the human dimensions of our neighboured terrorist, Updike can show how personal trauma, childhood attachment issues and ordinary everyday alienation are all vital ingredients to our friendly purveyor of urban terror. This is where Updike’s ability to empathise with the terrorist mentality comes into its own. Who is the counter protagonist to our terrorist? A school career guidance officer who must deal daily with alienated youth and who himself is suffering from the usual mid-life existential nightmares. There is the clever link. Both protagonists are desperate to find meaning in our alienating times. Both seek redress in some imagined paradise; one in the metaphysical world, the other in an earthly relationship with the younger woman. Updike suggests, subtly of course, that these two alienated souls have more in common than they might care to admit.

If Updike is in top form from the psychological perspective, he is equally adroit at setting up the political environment in which disillusioned youth might be drawn to holy jihad. It’s fascinating how desperate our western politicians are (Corbyn and McDonnell excluded) in attempting to dismiss the connection between Western imperialist policy and the urge to commit acts of terror. The West can wipe out half a million Iraqi families in the neo liberal blink of an eye, yet scream blue murder when the jihadis take out a few hundred in response. The West having nurtured the Zionist project for decades is outraged when the Palestinian youth hurl a few stones or the nearby Islamic nations hurl a few missiles back at Israel. But Updike sees through all this hypocrisy with a finely tuned mind.

Bush complains about Putin turning into Stalin, but we’re worse than the poor old clunky Kremlin ever was. The Commies just wanted to brainwash you. The new powers that be, the international corporations, want to wash your brains away, period. They want to turn you into machines for consuming the chicken coop society. P172

And who can argue with that. And Updike has more:

there’s a certain hunger for, I don’t know, the absolute, when everything is so relative, and all the economic forces are pushing instant gratification and credit-card debt at them. It’s not just the Christian Right Ashcroft and his morning revival meeting down in DC. You see it in Ahmed. And the Black Muslims. People want to go back to simple black and white, right and wrong, when things aren’t simple.

So, my son is simple minded in a way. But so is most of mankind. Otherwise, being human is too tough. Unlike other animals, we know too much. They, the other animals, know just enough to get the job done and die. Eat, sleep, fuck, have babies and die. Updike offers a lot more of this sort of polemic but it comes across quite naturally. I never got the feeling Updike was using his characters to lecture his readers, though in one sense of course, he is. Well, a great novel from a great novelist. I may just go back in time and reread the entire Rabbit series all over again.

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