Saturday, July 29, 2006

Why am I telling you this?

The reviews of John Updike's Terrorist seem almost universal in their unease with him, of all people, telling the story of a half-Irish, half-Egyptian teenage Muslim fanatic, albeit one familiar with life in the US. It's rare that such unease is expressed about a novel, perhaps because most do not present such an obvious disjunction between author and protagonist. Unfortunately for Updike, his personal fame rather foregrounds his attempted disappearance.

Whatever, it highlights something which has long bothered me about fiction (and to which I return under various guises often enough but never to my satisfaction; perhaps that's what literary blogging is all about). At the beginning of every novel written in the third person, one question I always ask is: why I am being told this? And when a narrator begins to speak, I ask: why are you telling me this? If these questions remain unaddressed, much as I might enjoy the novel - and I enjoy them as much as anyone - ultimately it seems to fail as a novel. It's this conclusion that often makes me appear to be unduly antagonistic toward many supposed 'literary' novels.

Most writers and readers seem to believe access to the inner life of a character or the freedom to ventriloquise another's story are natural givens of literature (what James Wood in his review of Terrorist calls "the temptation toward negative capability"). But for me, the primary experience of literature, the experience that impels me to read and to write, the experience that makes literature, is the experience of distance, the distance (which can include extreme closeness) between oneself and another, which is also the distance between oneself and the fiction, as author and as reader.

In concluding his review, James Wood says "[it] is the otherness of Islamicism that is missing in this book". The question then becomes: how best frame that otherness, that distance? Updike's answer is evidently an evasion, so it will be interesting to see how other writers answer if Wood's suggestion, that the novel is harbinger of novels whose subject "will be religious fundamentalism and its relation to Western secular society", is correct, as it surely is.


  1. Anonymous7:20 pm

    Regarding your earlier "penalty shot" question: the common U.S. term is actually "penalty kick", not "penalty shot." The latter is a hockey term. Not a major gaffe, obviously, but I sure hope Updike was a lot more careful with his Islamic references.

  2. Thanks. I deleted that post because it seemed too petty to let it remain. I just can't imagine someone who plays football (soccer) regularly would ever add kick or shot when referring to a penalty. It'd be like saying "Hey, I've just scored a touchdown goal".

    The implication is of course, what does that say for something else he isn't entirely familar with? James Wood gets it right in his review and it has implications for fiction in general, which I suspect Updike's fans can't fathom. I'm writing about that right now actually ...



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