Terrorist Infiltrations

Back in 1991, the novelist Don DeLillo told an interviewer that even before the Salman Rushdie fatwa, real-world political terror was starting to overshadow the work of novelists. "Today, the men [hey, it was 15 years ago] who shape and influence human consciousness are the terrorists." This is silly: in what golden age did novels ever affect "human consciousness" more significantly than acts of political violence? Although topical fiction is often thin and amateurishly reported, novelists still insist on writing books "ripped from today's headlines." So shouldn't the terrorist--the archenemy of all civilization, and the writer's evil twin--be an ideal literary character?

Apparently not. From Conrad's theatrically sardonic anarchists in "The Secret Agent" (1907) to Swede Levov's bomb-throwing, lost-soul daughter in Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" (1997), terrorists have been as inscrutable in literature as they are in journalism. We rarely get inside their heads and, when we do, the view just isn't worth the trip. "Aziz had been seduced by his rage years ago," Jennifer Egan writes of the terrorist in her 2001 "Look at Me," "caught in its swooning thrall until everything else in the world seemed faint beside it." This spring two new novels, the Algerian-born Yasmina Khadra's "The Attack" and the old pro John Updike's "Terrorist"--this is his 22nd--center on the purest and least understandable variety of terrorist: the suicide bomber. Together they make you wonder if terrorists, like all monomaniacs who dread complexity or ambiguity, aren't basically boring people.

At least Khadra (the pen name of ex-Algerian Army officer Mohamed Moulessehoul) has the sense to make his suicide bomber's inscrutableness the point of his book. After a night spent patching up survivors of a restaurant bombing, Dr. Jaafari, a well-to-do surgeon in Tel Aviv--and an Arab who's an Israeli citizen--learns it was his own apparently contented and loving wife who'd carried the bomb. Whoa--what did he miss? Naturally, he goes looking for answers.

"The Attack" seems at first to be a conventional page-turner--until you realize the quest is going nowhere but toward the next dead end and Jaafari's next brutal beating. Finally, the terrorist who recruited his wife explains it to him: she was too contented. "You wanted so much to make her happy that you refused to think about what might throw a shadow on her happiness. Sihem didn't want your kind of happiness. She came to see it as morally questionable, and the only way for her to atone was to join the ranks of the Cause." Dr. Jaafari concludes that he hasn't "learned anything redemptive"--and it's the moment when he finally seems human. Khadra isn't in the redemption business: his true subject isn't terrorism, but blindness and ambiguity, which have been around before there were headlines to rip them out of.

Updike, unfortunately, does take us inside the mind of a would-be suicide bomber, a New Jersey high-school kid. " Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God ... The teachers ... make a show of teaching virtue, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief ... They lack true faith; they are not on the Straight Path; they are unclean." This is from the first page of the lame-brained, improbable "Terrorist." And there's plenty more.

Ahmad's imam gets him a job driving a truck, and while we won't give anything away, you know what trucks can carry and how they might get from New Jersey into Manhattan. Ahmad spends what is to be his last night reading the Qur'an in "the blanched, hovering tremble of his high, selfless joy." It's his guidance counselor (whose sister-in-law--small world!--happens to be the secretary of Homeland Security's assistant) who puts terrorism in context. "These crazy Arabs are right--hedonism, nihilism, that's all we offer. Listen to the lyrics of these rock and rap stars ... " Hmm, makes you think. If terrorists only wanted to overthrow writing like this, fine. But once they get into fiction themselves, they're nearly as deadly as they are in the real world.