Literary Terrorism

John Updike has joined the ranks of novelists to take on the subject of terrorism and, in fact, that’s the title of his new book, “Terrorist”. It should be on the shelves even as we speak. I haven’t read it as yet, but I have checked out some pre-publication interviews and reviews and I assume that what we have here is a balancing act between good and evil.

I don’t know what good is, exactly, but I do know evil, precisely. That’s when a group of misfits hijack airplanes and crash them into our buildings.

One thing we should never do is judge a book by its reviews, which is exactly what I seem to be doing right now, so apologies to Updike in case I’ve got him all wrong. I should wait, yet I can’t help but be impatient since I’ve got my own novel on terrorism running as a monthly serial on (“The Bathsheba Deadline”) and am curious to know where we converge, where we depart.

(Updike’s “Terrorist” couldn’t find a friend even in the New York Times, where reviewer Michiko Kakutani blasted it as “shopworn” and “lousy.”)

“The Bathsheba Deadline” had been running for nearly a year and as I write and send in new installments, I keep hoping that I’m being fair to my characters– but not too fair to people who are motivated by our lowest instincts and find fulfillment and happiness in performing the act of murder.

Do such people merit a fair hearing? Do they deserve literary pages to tell their side of the story? Over in Israel, Tali Hatuel was driving along the outskirts of Gaza when two terrorists approached and fired, not at random, but point blank, until they had murdered this pregnant Israeli woman and her four daughters. Of these two terrorist slugs, what can POSSIBLY be their side of the story!

Yet we persist in trying to “understand” and as we keep understanding we begin to justify. We do this on the air, in print, and more and more in literature.

Like this laudatory review of Updike’s book that appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Updike’s Painfully Human Terrorist.” That’s the headline, and later on we read that this American kid from a broken home (Egyptian Father, Irish-American mother) was drawn to fundamentalist Islam by reason of its discipline as opposed to an American culture that provides “too many paths.” (Suddenly, freedom is a bad thing.)

I don’t yet know where this kid, Ahmad, goes, or what he does, after he chooses the single path of Islamic fundamentalism (other than choosing to “kill and die for jihad”), but I do suggest that the words “human” and “terrorist” don’t go together but form the perfect oxymoron. One cannot be human and also a terrorist. (Sorry, 9/11 did that to me.)

Does a creep who turns to murder as his life’s calling warrant Updike’s highflying prose – like this? “After a life of barely belonging, he [Ahmad] is on the shaky verge of a radiant centrality.” Shucks, I have no idea what this means, radiant centrality, but it sure sounds fancy and so “literary” that some reviewers just lap it up.

We’ve had this before, where writers from our literary constellation approach murderers with empathy and understanding – if unintentionally. Two such authors come to mind immediately. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” eventually lost touch with the victims as it empathized with the killers. Ditto Norman Mailer in “Executioner’s Song.”

Being in the business myself (without favorably comparing myself to those more worthy), I know the temptation of giving all sides, yes, moral equivalency, and in fact one of the most likeable characters in my Amazon novel is an Arab-Muslim, and why? He happens to be a good person. (I may not succeed, but I know the novelist’s challenge of giving each character a full life.)

But I can find no place in my heart or in my pages for murderers. I do not understand them and I do not wish to understand them. They have nothing to say. It’s a pity that men (and some women) who can only express themselves through guns and bombs are given access to our literature to wage their grievances and holy wars.

Where are we going once we start placing good and evil on the same scale?