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Jihad and the Novel

Terrorist: A Novel by John Updike

Reviewed by James Wood
The New Republic Online

John Updike's new novel, which is about a Muslim teenager tempted to become a suicide bomber, is surely a harbinger: in the next few years, one of the central novelistic subjects will be religious fundamentalism and its relation to Western secular society. Dostoevsky and Conrad will cast large, provoking shadows over the writers who approach the subject. Those two writers, along with Nietzsche, were the great analysts of the 'underground,' seeking out the psychological and ideological sources of resentment and impotence." Read the entire New Republic Online review.

3 Responses to "Jihad and the Novel"

    Eunice K. Riemer June 29th, 2006 at 8:39 am

    I always cringe when I see that a review comes from The New Republic. I know it will be long, it will bring in as many outside references as the reviewer can reasonably fit into the framework of the book under review and it will be cranky. I once had a subscription to The New Republic, but I did not renew it. The whole magazine is something like the book reviews--verbose, proud to show off its obscure references and defiantly contrarian. It was a bore, and so are its reviews.

    bears June 29th, 2006 at 10:09 am

    I always enjoy Wood's reviews and I enjoyed this one, but I really don't like the way he spoils the book's ending by quoting the last sentence. That wouldn't always necessarily be a spoiler, but it's obvious that this book is loomed over by the question "Will he do it??" and revealing even a non-commital ending is a disservice to anyone who is planning to read it!

    Johnny Calzone June 29th, 2006 at 11:28 pm

    I'm with Eunice... I think it was Lincoln who said, "I loves me a review that starts with Nietzsche...

    (Maybe it was Plutarch who said that. Maybe Jesus. Not important.)

    Is Nietzsche necessary here? I'm all for the high literary review, and I too like to name drop until my ears bleed. But are Nietzsche and Conrad really the forefathers to Updike's book? What about Styron's absurd Nat Turner story? Styron, another white guy, thought he could really understand a rebelling slave: what he ended up with was a sexually charged Other who was as two-dimensional as the racist newspaper editorials of Turner's time - only more of ye-olde black-man-loves-white-woman crap was found in Styon's novel.

    (I pull no punches.)

    That Updike deals with religous fundamentalism is really an aside to his historically unsurprising ethnocentrism (and religious arrogance). Like Tom Wolfe in his I-know-I'm-an-asshole-white-suit trying to write from the perspective of "Charlotte Simmons," that Updike "doesn't get it" concerning religious fundamentalism isn't surprising... The sort of ego found in novels (including Updike's) is still given a free pass, by and by, as if the writing outside of "what you know" was equivalent to "I can totally relate to terrorists, that is, as an old, rich white guy. I get it."

    So as far as the New Republic's actual review, which doesn't start until like page 3, it seems spot on. Even the snarkiness (a review staple - see:this blog response). The book sucked.

    But that the Republic thought to say "it sucked" by making up this context of great thinkers of religion (that Conrad was a devout racist is another blog, another post) was just plain silly.

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