4 December, 2021

LitStack Pick: Books That Really Piss Us Off

John Updike

So far, I haven’t encountered anyone who found this book anything but, well, the most polite adjective is disappointing. Updike’s twenty-second novel features Ahmad Mulloy, the American-born son of a bohemian Irish-American woman and an Egyptian exchange-student father, and raised in New Jersey by a single mother. When we meet Ahmad, he is a disenchanted teenager who seeks to separate from “American ways,” and so turns to a study of Islam with a local imam. In a 2006 interview Updike said, “I thought that I could present a sympathetic view of a terrorist, or dramatize or animate the terrorist’s point of view.”

Sadly, the writer known for prose of Nabokovian beauty never got this one right. Ahmad, a character whose late nineties cultural milieu would have consisted of the Backstreet Boys, Pearl Jam, The Simpsons, Dawson’s Creek, etc., is denied this basic context and instead portrayed as wooden and one-dimensional. Of Terrorist’s protagonist, Michiko Kakutani wrote, he “talks not like a teenager who was born and grew up in New Jersey but like an Islamic terrorist in a bad action-adventure movie.”

For this reader, Updike’s effort made for a dizzying comedown, such as when Ahmad says things like “I do not desire uncleanness,” or “the American way is the way of infidels.” Even the author’s legendary facility with a sentence couldn’t bring this character to life, and rather than endow a kid from New Jersey with the most natural of thoughts, he burdens him with a mantle of Orientalist bias, as here:

“As Ahmad walks along, swift and scissoring in black and white, yet with a native trace of the American lope…”

In this treatment, even Ahmad’s gait is filtered through an outsider’s gaze. I got through the book, only because I was reading it for grad school, and later learned the author’s research included “The Koran for Dummies,” which tells you all you need to know—and all Updike didn’t.

-Lauren Alwan

3 thoughts on “LitStack Pick: Books That Really Piss Us Off

  1. I'm so glad A Storm of Swords is in there. I threw it and screamed during that scene. I'm pretty sure I invented new swear words.

    The one not mentioned that I'd propose is Last Argument of Kings. It's the third in the First Law trilogy and by the end of it I was very angry, so angry that I couldn't even talk about it for two days.

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