Updike Misunderstood?

The London Times: “And that, I think, explains some aspects of the critical response. They want their terrorists to be explicable in the most banal terms. Kakutani, for example, whines on about ‘factors’ that do or don’t explain Ahmad’s conversion to terrorism. But great novelists know that people do not act according to ‘factors’. Updike’s Ahmad is as clear an illustration as one could have. The public enthusiasm for the book is, I think, a matter that lies far beyond the terms of critical discourse. Since 9/11, the Americans have been seeking authoritative voices to tell them what is going on…..Nothing has quite worked. In now turning to Updike, they are simply looking to a man whom they must sense is one of their finest. What does this snowy-haired sage have to say about it? They won’t be disappointed.”

For what it’s worth, I actually liked Terrorist, despite its narrative flaws. And so, apparently, did Ian McEwan. My own theory for why it was so critically reviled is because Updike dared to be sincere about his underlying humanism. (In fact, I would compare the book’s mixed reception to that of Richard Powers’ Gain, a novel that was slammed by some for reviving a Dreiser-like concern for corporate responsibility.) If one can set aside one’s personal ideology and read the book as an exercise in consciousness, then I think there are aesthetic rewards which excuse the book’s clunky vernacular. (via TEV)

[UPDATE: Steve Mitchelmore offers a different take.]


  1. Yes, “Updike dared to be sincere about his underlying humanism.” Ahmad is only more intense than the others in the book, but they’re all wrestling one way or another with how our American world makes it tough to believe in God or anything. Even that isn’t a slam on America, just an observation of the way it’s turned out in a country where everyone’s doing a pretty good job of being pretty good.

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