Monday, August 21, 2006

What Makes a Terrorist?

Writing in City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple has presented a detailed and very illuminating critique of John Updike's novel, Terrorist. But the piece is much more than excellent literary criticism for Dalrymple underscores the novel's parallels to Joseph Conrad, the recent terrorist arrests in Toronto, the "mental laziness" of Islam and especially, the intensely personal turmoil (aside from ideological motivations) that prompt terrorist actions. It is a most worthwhile essay.

Heretofore a popular author with the professional critics, Updike has generally been given bad reviews for this new book, in part because of the grim (and grimy) view he presents of Western decadence. In a way not unlike the mainstream media's turn against Solzhenitsyn after his commencement address at Harvard in 1978, Updike's negative (even frightening) portrayal of Western modernity seems to have cost him. Even Tom Wolfe, perhaps America's greatest living writer, has faced an uphill climb with the professional critics for this same reason.

Then again, maybe the bad reviews are simply because John Updike's Terrorist is just that bad. Dalrymple himself faults the book for stilted dialogue, a plot marred by contrived coincidences and even for passages that might suggest a sense of sympathy for terrorists' motivations. However, despite the book's weaknesses, Dalrymple believes that Updike's attempt to look behind the headlines, indeed to look still further beyond the surface layers of political-correctness and ideological rant, in order to discover the basic whys of terrorist actions is a laudable goal.

I agree.

And yet still, instead of reading John Updike (who I've never liked), I'm opting for a re-reading of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (as Dalrymple recommends) and a re-reading of this excellent essay itself. I urge you to at least do the latter. Theodore Dalrymple's essay, "The Terrorists Among Us" can be found at the City Journal right here.