What makes a terrorist?

At the end of reading John Updike's Terrorist I still had no answer to my question. It's a bit of an odd novel, less literary fiction than you normally expect with Updike, think more Frederick Forsyth thriller. And it's not a bad thriller. Ahmad, a teenage American, of Egyptian / Irish-American extraction, becomes disillusioned by the materialist society of the United States, and throws his lot in with a Yemeni mullah with Al-Qaeda connections. The Islamic terrorists soon spot that Ahmad is a naive young soul, and set him up as a suicide bomber for a coup to rival 9/11.

Terrorist is, I guess, Updike's attempt to answer the burning question of Americans post-9/11 "Why do people hate us", and there's no easy or even single answer. This is clear in the novel where two characters of Middle Eastern origin but born American react very differently to their native land. This is an incredibly bleak thriller. No-one is happy. Everyone is disillusioned (except for the people working for Homeland Security), and all deal with it in different ways : you go blow up the Lincoln tunnel, become grossly obese, take drugs and become a prostitute, or take the easy route and cheat on your wife.

Oddly none of the characters seem to have control over their lives; except for the masterminds behind the bomb plot, who seem to be fully in control, and manipulative as chess grandmasters.
I did find it interesting the way that religion was used in the novel. It features a lot; as you would expect, not just Islam but also Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism. Updike seems to argue fairly convincingly that religion has failed in Western society. Although they may attend church the drug takers and prostitutes receive little comfort or inspiration from their religion, while ultimately terrorists distort their religion for their own ends.

It's a bleak but gripping read with an unconvincing ending.


betsy said…
I think Updike will be forgotten. He seems dated- a novelist of my parents' generation. Will anyone remember "Couples" or the Rabbit series? I think not.
Book-hound said…
I rather feel the same Betsy. I always wonder about current novelists (and for that matter composers) who receive a lot of acclaim, how will they be viewed in 50 or 100 years time...

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