Four decades ago John Updike climbed all the way to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list with Couples (1968), a rather frightening portrait of how the sexual revolution crashed upon the shores of suburbia like a tsunami.
Since then, Updike has appeared on bestseller lists with decreasing frequency as the taboos he shattered no longer needed breaking. But now he's launched back onto the New York Times' roster at #8 with his latest novel, Terrorist, which tells the tale of Ahmad, an 18-year-old New Jersey high school student-cum-suicide bomber.
It is, in fact, Updike’s second novel about an Islamic terrorist, and just one of many he has written that address the tension between enlightenment and religion in American life. Sitting in the office of his publisher, wearing a beige sport coat, cranberry red tie and charcoal slacks, the 74-year-old author recently talked with me about our brave new world.
I understand you reread the Koran in preparation for this book. When did you read it the first time?
I looked at it first in a survey of world religions I gave myself. Then I read it through the first time when I wrote The Coup , a novel about an Islamic terrorist, kind of a Colonel Qaddaffi type.
Did you feel this helped you get inside Ahmad’s head?
There’s an emphasis in Islamic education on memorizing the Koran that exceeds anything that Christian confirmees have to do, especially since Ahmad is taking Koranic lessons, and these verses are fairly fresh to him. So that was my way of showing another value system, and a voice for his thinking.
Did you find you were looking for specific justifications of violence?
There was quite a lot of “combat the infidel,” but the only verse I can think of offhand is “idolatry is worse than carnage.”
Ahmad’s work sponsor Charlie seems to hammer upon this theme when he is manipulating Ahmad toward violence.
He does. I think for those who, for political or whatever reasons, lean toward terrorism, the Koran does offer some support. I believe the Iraq insurgents phrase everything in terms of God. God is watching. God will take his vengeance. We are dealing with a religion that has a history of considerable violence—violence whereby Islam so rapidly spread across North Africa, right up the Pyrenees, in a later surge to the gate of Vienna, all that has just faded into historical documents so that we don’t feel the amount of blood that was spilled, the amount of forced violence that was used. I’m sure there was plenty.
Have you traveled in a Muslim country?
Yes, first was Egypt, where they quickly tell you they are not Arabs. Ask them what an Arab is, and they tell you a crazy person. I was a guest of the American University back in ’68. Later that same year when I was living in England, my four children, my wife and I traveled to Morocco, and later yet I was a guest of the Israeli state, and I forget how many days I was there—maybe five. So that’s about the sum of my personal experience, but it gives you a few impressions—the rigor of the creed most especially. I was in Egypt in Ramadan. There is also a twangy music to the call to prayer that is quite haunting: You feel the attraction to this. That in itself reinforces a constant reminder of the other world, of Allah, on you. So there’s no doubt that Islam is knit into its society more tightly than Christianity is in any post-Medieval country. I assume that in the Middle Ages church bells and the ubiquitous priests and monks served to remind you of God and another level of being and that your actions were being watched by Gods, your misdeeds were being tabulated.
Ahmad spends a lot of time tabulating the misdeeds of those around him.
He is rather censorious, isn’t he? But he is trying to be pure. And he can’t help but notice a lot of impurity. Sadness, too. He’s interested in New Jersey and likes getting out and seeing other people in other cities. He sees there’s a certain pathos in this society: the unemployed black and brown youths on corners, the touching little families who receive the furniture he and Charlie deliver—they’re happy to have it. It’s a revelation in a small way.
There’s a lot in this book about detesting our flesh. It’s not just coming from Ahmad, but from people of other religions, too.
Well, it’s a rare religion, even Hinduism, that doesn’t have a puritanical side, that finds the flesh and the world a squalid preamble to a better world, a purer world. I don’t know to what extent the author of these passages must have some ambivalence about the flesh; I’m not too aware of it as I go about my daily life.
You have written during other climates of fear—how does post 9/11 compare to them?
The Cold War, yes, I remember the day that Russian ships were heading toward Cuba, and Kennedy had vowed to blockade them, it seemed this might indeed be the nuclear Holocaust day. Being somewhat afraid, but in my heart an optimist, I could not believe people would be so stupid to blow up the world for more or less trivial cost. After all, we had missiles in Turkey, [but were] dead set against ones in Cuba. I think the possibility of the world blowing up was something you learned to live with but kind of ignore. And it gave the Cold War maneuvering a certain intensity and tension, but by the Vietnam Era, it seemed pretty likely that it wasn’t going to happen.
I was a child in World War II, and I can remember [the] air raids. We darkened the house. We all huddled, my grandparents, my parents—my mother and I—huddled in a windowless part of the house. I heard a plane go over. I was maybe 8. And I thought it was when they dropped the bomb that my child sense of reality didn’t put an obstacle to this bomb. That was about the most scared I’d ever been.
Have you felt real fear or terror since 9/11?
I think a little about it, I do, more than I used to. The planes are probably as safe as they can make them. We thought they were pretty safe before, but four out of four teams got through security that day. You know, life always has hazard in it. You think of our ancestors, and how disease would just sweep in out of nowhere and carry away a whole family. Look at the American graveyards of the 19th century. They are full of children that died abruptly of diphtheria and other things. We’re relatively safe, I think, even with these international threats. If I were living in New York I might be a little more anxious, but don’t you find you sort of build a resilience? You’re anxious for a while, then you get bored of being anxious, and you move on. What are your choices?