The concept of territory in John Updike’s Terrorist. The man of letters who truly deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, though he was never given it, John Updike suffers from misunderstanding more than any other writer. A towering giant on the American literary landscape and mindscape, he was an enviable stylist as well as Art’s true custodian. In his homeland he is widely recognized as a chronicler of Middle Class America, his own confession “I like the middles: it is in the middles that the extremes clash” contributing to it.
The influential critic James Wood in his article John Updike’s Complacent God1 called Updike ”the writer of great beauty”, whose prose “confronts one with the question whether Beauty is enough, and whether Beauty must convey what a novelist must convey.” The same view is carried on by Charles McGrath: “Updike was not a novelist of ideas”.
In response to this charge, I would argue in my analysis that John Updike was much more of a social thinker and philosopher than he is usually recognized.
His unique capacity “to think in ink”, to make the ordinary and the commonplace appear significant is beyond any dispute. It may also be true that middle-class life was the terrain he staked his claims to, but he gradually expanded that terrain into a huge territory of thought, the study of social conflicts and cataclysms.
In one of his later works, which is his 23-d novel, Terrorist (2006) Updike is exploring an entirely new territory – the psychological/ideological basis of terrorism. That is to say, terrorism becomes his major concern, and also the title of his book. He seems to be finding an answer to the existential questions: how does it happen that ordinary people when they are caught in the whirlpool of history may act extraordinarily? What is it in mankind that makes it so susceptible to the seemingly irrational forces? What is the meaning and value of human life?
Evidently, John Updike was trying to come to grips with a 9/11 threat, and the book was his reply to that challenge and also his attempt to probe into the nature, causes and sources of terrorism. This was done not to justify the terrorism, but to rationalize it and to eliminate its roots.
Though it is a 9/11 novel, Updike’s influences were not entirely American. The book draws on Charles Dickens, John Galsworthy, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, there is a Jewish element and a bit of Freudean theory in it (though Freudean element takes a back seat there). There is also a strong religious component in Terrorist, which is prefaced with an epigraph from the book of Jonah:
Now, o Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die, than to
And the Lord said, Is it right for you to be angry?
The book of Jonah is a book of Hebrew bible. God sends Jonah to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh, the affluent capital of Assyrian empire, but Jonah tries to resist the divine mission. The epigraph, therefore, anticipates the major themes and concepts of the novel: God and his command (and Ten Commandments), man’s purpose in life.
The reader is justified in bringing in the religious issues to the novel, for it is opened and clinched with one and the same phrase of the protagonist: “Devils, these devils seek to take away my God.” Such a frame, undoubtedly, turns the book into the territory of struggle between God and Devil, between good and evil.
In Updike’s work the struggle between God and devil takes the form of the opposition between the hedonism of American plenty (conspicuous consumption) and its denial.
The novel centres on an American-born 18-year old, Ahmad, who is recruited to blow up the Lincoln tunnel. He is a son of an American hippyish mother and an Egyptian exchange student.
The novel is told in different voices. The most distinctly heard are those of Ahmad and his High School guidance councillor Jack Levi, one voice alternating and complementing another. In this medley of styles and polyphony of voices it is the voice of the author that sets the tone, so that the plane of his own discourse is never destroyed.
Such was the writer’s skill to impersonate his character and penetrate into his consciousness that the language seems to flow from inside of Ahmad’s mind. This is how Updike managed to create an image of an attractive, lovable terrorist, whose intellectual equipment far exceeds that of his peers.
The title of the novel – like any literary title – is a starting pointing in the reader’s appreciation, yet it is also a focal point from which meaning may develop in various directions. It is a criss-cross of various associations and resonances, a knot where different threads of thoughts are tied.
Terrorist is usually defined as “a person who uses violence for political aims or to force a government to act because of the fear among people.”2
The key words in this definition ‘violence’ and ‘fear’ are the ingredients or the components of ‘terror’. In its turn ‘political’ means ‘of the state’, which brings to mind “country as an organized community, territory occupied by this”, or ‘terra’. Both ‘terror’ and ‘terra’ are assessed in relation to people.
One may predict that in a novel about terrorists whose purpose is to take and hold the territory as a kind of warfare, territory becomes a contentious issue, so much so that ‘territory’ and the derivative of ‘terror’, ‘terrible’, are brought together in one and the same context:
What was so terrible about going into enemy territory?, where phonetic similarity of words ‘terrible’/ ‘territory’ helps to establish semantic connection between them.
It is hardly surprising, then, that ‘territory’ (terra mater) and ‘terror’ (danger, fear) become two major concepts which subsume all other elements in a novel, around which all other language elements revolve.
This explains the prolific use of the derivatives ‘territorial’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘subterranean’ and paradigmatically related to ’territory’ expressions ‘area of land waiting to be developed’, ‘acres of land for recreation’, ‘terrain’, ‘terrace’, ‘city’, ‘district’, ‘dwellings’, ‘domain’, ‘the earth’, ‘the world’, ‘this part of the planet’, ‘portion of the world’, ‘space’ and even ‘slums’, ‘mash’, ‘morass’. They are high-frequency words which are used in a novel in a wide range of contexts. It is also not at all unlikely to be the chief reason of the choice of the name Teresa, or Terry, as the mother’s name.
It should be noted from the outset that the concept of territory is a culturally established concept; one may even attribute a symbolic significance to it. In a novel it is never neutral, but has tended to be imbued with attitudes, personal affiliations and a system of ideological beliefs of a particular historical period.
Since the concept is encoded in the semantic structure of the word ‘territory’, the latter is worth analyzing. Thus, one may easily observe that the word ‘territory’ has several distinguishable though interconnected meanings:
any tract of land, district or region;
the land or water belonging to a state;
a field or sphere of actions; thought; the province of smith., area of interest or knowledge;
an area regarded by a person (animal) as belonging to him alone.
Though nominative (referential) meaning is distinguished from the nominative –derivative (metaphoric) meaning the relations between them are reciprocal: the referential and the metaphoric, the material and the spiritual are interlaced and shade into one another.
Though it is the “territory of thought”, i.e. sphere of interests that Updike stakes his claims to, ‘territory’ in its nominative (referential) meaning as a tract of land, district or region is more than just a backdrop which makes a setting for the action.
‘Territory’ as ‘land’ or ‘district’ becomes an active participants, a living presence, struggling for its own survival.
Thus, the main character perceives the surrounding world in terms of the dichotomy Nature (or Mother Earth, Terra, from which we drew our existence) - and what he calls Western Culture (civilization). For him, Nature is “the force that drives that opulent Eden”, something unconquerable that alone can create and sustain life on earth.
The cracks in the concrete hold the crabgrass and mullein and dandelion inanimate objects) s and ridges of the minute particles, shining like coffee grounds, of the underlying earth which ants have brought to the surface. Where the concrete has been thoroughly undermined and pulverized, taller weeds, purslane and shakeroot and bedstraw and species of daisy have taken root and extend their spindly stems up into the lengthening daylight.
This passage which belongs to Ahmad’s inner represented speech is deliberately literal: on the face of it, it contains nothing but an extensive list of wild plants. However, the nominal category of animacy/inanimacy is pushed to the fore. The juxtaposition of nouns, denoting animate objects (cracks in the concrete, concrete)
and nouns denoting animate objects (names of wild plants) grows into an antithesis which hints both at the continuous struggle of Nature with man-made environment, and the triumph of weeds in that ferocious struggle for survival.
By replacing natural fauna and flora with “a continuous façade of glass, brick and granite (all of the nouns are names of the materials used for building, i.e. the inanimate objects), by turning America into “a coast-to-coast tarbaby, where we all stuck”, humans have mutated and mutilated the ecology , making the territory around less and less humane, dehumanized. Nature is tailored and trimmed to service the needs of people. The way Ahmad sees it, it becomes “a terrainpoisoned by man.”
Participle with emotive weight (since ‘poisoned’ is evocative both of illness causing death if taken in and morally harmful) gives an extra charge to the concept of ‘territory’, so that it is no longer neutral, but reveals the narrator’s attitude to it, proving that he spurns the hedonistic life he witnesses.
All across this land, Ahmad now realizes, hazardous materialsare hurtling, spilling, burning, eating roadways and truck beds, - a chemical deviltrymaking manifest materialism’s spiritual poison.
The sentence contains clues to understanding the message of the author: land is becoming dangerous, spoilt by hazardous materials. Oxymoronic attributes”materialism’s spiritual” (poison) together with play upon the phonetic shape of the words [materials – materialism] electrified by firework of alliteration foregrounds the divide, or rather dominance of matter over spirit.
The imaginary city of New Prospect makes a setting to the novel. The name of the city, evocative of its enthusiastically envisioned future, acquires an ironic tinge, for more often than not the reader is given to understand that the prospects are far from rosy.
Thus, Ahmad’s teacher at Central High takes us on his memory lane to show how unbelievably unlivable the place has become;
Housing, Jack Levi thinks. Houses have compressed into housing, squeezed closer together by rising land cost and subdivisions. Where within his memory back and side yards had once included flowering trees and vegetable gardens, clotheslines and swing sets, now a few scruffy bushes fight for carbon dioxide and damp soil between concrete walks and asphalt parking spaces stolen from what has been generous margins of grass.
The needs of automobiles have proved decisive.
Paradoxically, the suffix -ing added to the word ‘house’ leads to semantic compression as well: the word ‘housing’ is not as semantically capacious as the stem it was derived from. ‘Housing’ meaning accommodation as opposed to ‘houses’ loses its ‘people’, ‘family’, ‘government’ which ‘houses’ are suggestive of.
Jack Levi goes on compiling evidence of the city’s unlivability and uninhabitabitity. Juxtaposing now and then, he accurately punctuates each historical period following the transition of inner-city fields into congested slums.
This area … was a domain of the middle class that pulled its money from the mills along the river, a short walk from the working class tenements as the lower side of the downtown. But the near suburban houses became, as Jack Levi thinks of it, housing <…> the inner-city fields became congested slums.
The words ‘area’, ‘domain’, ‘tenements’, ‘houses’, ‘inner-city fields’ are grouped around the concept of ‘territory’. The word ‘slums’ (district in a poor condition) which is connotatively charged is withheld to the end of the sentence. Being highly connotative, it comes into clash with the string of neutral words, making some extra impact on the reader. The transformation of houses and fields into slums, backed up by parallel syntactic constructions, signals changes in the environment, and hence in the concept of ‘territory’, which from the ‘area of land’ has tended to develop strong ideological connotations (district in a poor condition).
However, John Updike is not a romantic poet, voicing his protest against the Industrial Age and the advance of technology. A shrewd observer of human nature, he also offers his analysis of the logic of the society, the social logic, or to be more exact, his scathing criticism of post industrial capitalism.
He is weaving his conception around the concept of the territory. Territory for him is not just a factor of production, but a specific combination of soil, air, light, fauna and flora, waters and topography which all conspire to render the unique and inimitable spirit of the place. That is why “territory as a piece of land’ cannot be dissociated from the spirit of the nation, and the spirit of the nation is best crystallized in the language of the nation. It turns out that in Updike’s novel the referential (nominative) meaning is interwoven with nominative-derivative (sphere of thought).
Updike’s America, “a coast-to coast tarbaby where we all stuck” cannot be separated from the notion of the American plenty. Being a witness to the celebration of American prosperity right after the Second World War, he was fully aware of the potential threat it might bring long before Jean Baudrillard. It should be emphasizes here that John Updike was ahead of his time in recognizing the problem as far back as the mid-sixties. “The sordid plenty”, “the garish abundance” were just throwaway remarks in his little masterpiece”Of the Farm” (1965), without their author being fully aware of their true significance/implication.
In “Terrorist” the concept of ‘American plenty’ (conspicuous consumption) is developed, fleshed out and given full resonance to.
The opening lines of the novel are crucial:
Infidels, they think safety lies in accumulation of the things of this world.
They are a decomposed proverb “Safety lies in number”, which translates ‘united we stand, divided we fall” – people are safe, out of danger, when they are united, i.e. joint together for a common purpose.
By replacing number (as unity) with “accumulation of things” (commodity, increase in number, but of things of the material world) the story-teller points to the shift of interests to material things in the society. With the material things taking over and the literal meaning of number (accumulation) prevailing, the purpose of life is lost, ad together with it safety. Or, rather, the new proclaimed purpose of life is, to quote Ahmad, “to consumeconsumer goods”, - hypostatic root repetition, a device especially favoured by John Updike, helps to drive the point home in a most effective way.
Subtlety of Updike’s derision finds its expression in his fondness for root repetition. The similar thought is mediated with the same device in the speech of the Secretary for Homeland Security: “Materialistic comfort is our normally abnormal norm.” Oxymoronic combination normally abnormal norm based on root repetition brings out the absurdity of the situation, the erosion of ethic standards and prevailing ideas in the society, for ‘normal’ is ‘usual, natural, average’. On the other hand, the expression ‘materialistic comfort’ anticipates Jack Levi’s remark “hedonism and nihilism – that’s what we offer them (pupils).”
Not only is John Updike constantly referring to the notion of “the man-made plenty” as territory, but he also spins off some original images from it.
Thus, Ahmad’s friend Charlie states: “The international corporations want to turn us into a machine for consuming goods’. the metaphor of man being mutated into a machine for consuming goods (‘a robot of meat’) fits well into the concept of a territory as a man-made, artificial environment; but is also brought at a junction with the concept of consumption. Mapping from one domain to another enforces the analogy; with consuming people are becoming less and less humane.
Ahmad, who is exploring the reverse side of American plenty, reveals that consumption replaces and even becomes the God of the contemporary world. ‘Western culture is Godless, and because it has no Gods, it is obsessed with sex and luxury goods.” Updike’s style is rich in sound effects and figures of speech. The peculiar commutation test ‘Gods – goods’, where phonetic similarity brings into sharp relief semantic disparity of words, but at the same time establishes their identity, driving it home that goods are becoming Gods. The metaphor Gods of contemporary America are goods (consumption) is sustained further on with the images of shopping centres as churches and advertizing as liturgy (e.g. Perfumed aisles shop contributing to it).
When goods replace gods, i.e. consumption drives the morality off; the territory becomes “morass of godlessness”:
Sinking into morass of godlessness, young men proclaim their identity.
Since ‘morass’ is a situation that is confusing and presents danger or a dangerous area of soft wet land”, it refers to both conceptual fields – territory and danger, so that it becomes territory rife with danger.
Another concept, closely connected with conspicuous consumption, is the concept of simulation (or imitation), i.e. substituting the real with the false and shallow images, surrogates.
The objects around man are of poor quality. The mass produced bad makes it harder for the good to be recognized.
There were goods for sale in the Shop-a-Sec, of course, but mostly bags and boxes of salty, sugary, deleterious food, and plastic fly-swatters, and pencils, made in China, with useless erasers…
As the goods around man are not so good, the area (territory) has tended to be engulfed by surrogates.
“It’s realitywithout being real”, - oxymoron based on hypostatic root repetition brings out the contradictory nature of the situation. Life becomes “a mirage in a desert”, ‘even the true images are the imitation of God”, ‘these many gaudy packages”, “these towering racks of today’s flimsy fashions, these shelves of chip-power expressed in murderous cartoons prodding masses to buy, to consume while the world still had resources to consume”. People are “slaves to images, false one of happiness and affluence”. On close inspection, the surrounding world turns out to be something imagined, supposed or pretended.
Ahmad’s visit to the supermarket “revives a sensation buried in the folds of his childhood – the false joy of shopping, the tempting counterfeited lavishness of man-made plenty”. Both evaluative adjectives ‘false’ and ‘counterfeited’ mean not genuine, deliberately made to deceive. When combined with nouns denoting human emotions ‘joy’, ‘lavishness’ (generosity), they signal that people become incapable of genuine feelings.
That the thoughts of Ahmad and Jack Levi are running on the same track can be exemplified with the following. Jack Levi had to buy for his son “all the tawdry junk the culture of the time insisted he possess.”
They (students) think they are doing pretty good with some flashy-trashy new outfit they bought at half price, or the last hyper-violent new computer game.
“Flashy-trashy” refers to simulation, while ‘hyper-violent’ and ‘computer game’ open up new vistas of meaning, terror and computing.
Apart from simulation (falsehood, pretence, imitation) the territory of man-made plenty is saturated with ‘light’, or ‘brightness.’ Most of the nouns denoting objects for consuming are modified with evaluative adjectives “flashy-trashy outfit”, “flashy clothes”, ‘garish abundance”, ”bright shoddy goods”, “tawdry junk’, “gaudy packages”, “shimmering CDs”, “standardized logos are cheerfully garish as are full-coloured images of their fattening fast food”. They are so numerous, so light diffusing, that the cumulative effect is that of fire. The full implication of these bright images may be realized in the context of the whole book: the East is importing the oil, the fuel, and the West is supplying it with fire (false ideas). That the mixture will explode is inevitable. In a way it prepares the reader to the thought that capitalism is fated to doom.
Richly saturated in false images, the territory of man-made plenty is having its impacts and effects on people.
Not only is the society dominated by simulated objects, but it also becomes controlled by simulated relations; in fact simulated models of behaviour take place of family affection, and even destroy them. “Dangers of the environment” are not purely environmental, they have to do with the ecology of human soul.
Thus, Ahmad thinks of Sheikh Rashid as of his “surrogate father”. In the church “False saints look down”, the infidels “lack true faith”, “their values are false.”
Jack Levi’s daughter-in-law is “superficially friendly, but basically stand-offish”. The antithesis backed by parallelism brings out the inconsistency between the inward and the outward.
Another example of surrogate relationships is to be found in the desertion of one’s family: the lack of fathers, the failure of paternity to keep men loyal to their homes is one of the marks of this decadent and rootless society.
Category of negation comes to fore – paradoxical absence of substance in the materialist world is transmitted through the negative suffixes –less (fatherless, rootless), prefixes de- (declawed, de-sexed cat) and nouns denoting absence of some quality lack, failure, so that one may read prefix de even into decease, desertion, decadent. The general implication is that this is the society that grasps the shadow and misses the substance.
Jack Levi has to interview children
Who seem to have no flesh-and-blood parents – whose instructions from the world are entirely imparted byelectronic ghosts signaling across a crowded room, or rapping through black foam earplugs, or encoded in the intricate programming of action figures twitching their spasmodic way through the explosion-producing algorithms of a video game.
The passage is a key to understanding the purport of the author. The doubly-oriented vocabulary (mapping from one domain to another) relates two conceptual fields, one of them being the field of computing (instructions, electronic, signaling, encoded, programming, video game), another being the field of simulation (ghosts, no flesh-and-blood parents, action figures). The link binding them together (tenor) is family relations (parents). Both fields are brought at a junction in “the explosion producing algorithm”, i.e. the convergence of several factors ‘simulation” and ‘computing’ leads to “explosion producing algorithm”, a place of intersection between ‘terrorism’(explosion), ‘computing’, ‘simulation’, ‘family relations’. Besides, the word of Arabic origin ‘algorithm’ (al = the, kh(u)wanzmi = of Khiva, the surname of a 9th century Muslim mathematician) predicts the Islamic involvement into the issue and possible resistance to consumption as a system of beliefs.
Education is also viewed through the lens of consumption. In the consumer society it is reified, turned into commodity, and like any other product it is to be consumed. And like any other product of man-made plenty, it becomes a simulacra, i.e. turns into the exchange of symbols.
Updike’s attack on education under capitalism is remorseless in its irony and violent in its denial.
In Ahmad’s view, “teachers make a show of teaching”, when teaching becomes an outward display, even a false one.
The aim of education is neither to mould a personality, nor to develop the student’s mind. It is to be found in hedonistic pleasure seeking.
They (students) think their mind is on eternal holiday, but from now on has nothing else to do but absorb entertainment.
“Holiday” and “entertainment” belong to the conceptual field of ‘hedonism’ (leisure and pleasure’). On the other hand, the expressions ‘eternal holiday’, ‘nothing …but entertainment’ are conceptually non-integral and socio-linguistically non-determined, since holiday cannot last forever, nothing but entertainment negates common sense and experience. These language units signal that something goes wrong, the basic principles and standards of behavior are being eroded, the values people hold are false.
Hedonistic pleasure-seeking is sustained by another metaphor: “Eden of public education has closed its garden gates”.
Once the true goals of education are lost, students’ minds are being messed with, the whole process becomes regress and degradation.
They think they are doing well…with a ridiculous new religion when you’ve drugged your brains back into the Stone Age.
In the sentence above ‘Stone Age’ sarcastically looks back to the previous references to the city of New Prospect.
Students present themselves to their counselor “like a succession of CDs whose shimmering surface gives no clue to their contents without the equipment to play them.” A prolonged metaphor (‘CDs – shimmering surface – contents – equipment to play them”) is borrowed from the field of computing. It becomes a part of the pattern, fitting well into the scheme of an artificial environment, where man is reduced to “a robot of meat”, a character of a video game, whose mind is a rewritable disk, a kind of software obsolete with each season, in other words, man is ground to waste product of post-industrial society.
It doesn’t seem accidental, however, that the teacher and pupil share their views of the world and also the language in which these views are couched. Jack Levi’s metaphor fatal morass of the world is reechoing Ahmad’s morass of godlessness :
Не sees himself as a pathetic elderly figure on the shore, shouting to a flotilla of the young as they slide into the fatal morass of the world – its dwindling resources, its disappearing freedoms, its merciless advertisement geared to a preposterous culture of eternal music and impossibly thin and fit young females.
“Fatal morass of the world” is a heading before enumeration. The latter is worth analyzing: different phenomena are named one by one so that they produce a chain the links of which are bound to display semantic proximity. Words of different conceptual fields are brought together (materials – resources, abstract notions – freedoms, activities – advertizing) and what brings them together is the idea of shrinking, becoming less in size – dwindling, disappearing, geared to a particular need, impossibly thin, so that the whole is perceived as an anticlimax, giving effect and its causes. This striking enumeration provides an insight into the mind of the narrator, the author’s alter ego, his despair at the world’s regress into the morass (in the twin senses of complicated situation and dangerous area of land).
Jack Levi looks upon Ahmad as on “another needy, surly, misguided teenager about to float away into the morass of the world”. “To float away” is hooked to “flotilla of the young”. In its turn, the metaphor with strong military associations ‘flotilla of the young’ (flotilla is a group of small warships, usually destroyers) hands them up to the previously used in Ahmad’s speech “unbelievers, love this fleeting life so well.” So, instead of moulding the personality and developing the students’ minds, education succeeds only in supplying the “flotilla of the young”, the army of the dissatisfied, “people with nothing to do and nowhere to go”, “those who can’t afford to live”, but “whose lawful domain scarcely exceeds an inch beyond their skin”, in other words, terrorists.
As a result, the consumer society is accused of forgery, uselessness and artificiality. It comes to be perceived as “the enemy territory”.
The Western power steal our oil; they take our land, they our God, they take from Muslims their tradition and sense of themselves.
Within this paradigm of thinking land (a territory) incorporates not only resources, but spiritual energy as a system of beliefs and traditions.
Though capitalism is assessed as “a carefully rigged system”, this is the society which undermines itself from within.
The words of the Secretary are indicative of the author’s purport;
Even our vaunted freedom is nothing much to be proud of, …it just makes it easier for terrorists to move about. …Religious fanatics and computer geeks: the combination seems strange to his old-fashioned sense of the reason-versus-faith divide.
The vocabulary of this sentence is doubly-oriented: “the computer geeks” is interconnected with “Cyberwar”, “cyber attack”, and hence “terrorism”; “religious fanatics” is tied to Ahmad’s denunciation of the hedonistic life he sees around. Both intersect at”terrorism”. This intersection is seen as the result of “reason-versus-faith divide”. If reason is divorced from faith, if the society forgets about the absolute value of four cardinal virtues and Ten Commandments, if the society condones seven deadly sins, the meaning of life is lost. Society which forgets about the absolute truth of morality is fated to failure and degradation. In Jack Levi’s words, “there is a certain hunger for the absolute when everything is so relative.”
Updike’s character offers a priceless understanding of the nature of late capitalism:
There is no … encompassing structure of divine law that brings men shoulder to shoulder, no code of self-sacrifice. Instead, there is a clashing diversity of private self-seeking, whose catchwords are Seize the Day, and god helps those who help themselves, which translate into: There is no God, no Day of Judgment, help yourself.
The antithesis of self-sacrifice and self-seeking is too obvious to be perceived as the main spring of the conflict: abundance is more than mutilation of the ecology of the human species, it warps human soul as well.
The choice of names in a novel proves to be decisive. It becomes crucial for the analytical examination of the novel. “Get an association, that’s what I do with the name”, - Jack Levi’s words seem to be Updike’s recipe for skillful writing.
The name of Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, derived from the Greek “theresein’ = to reap, to harvest, takes the definition of ‘a harvester’ in the context of the book, thus being associated with terra mater. The phonetic shape of the name is played on and off: “You can do a lot with Terry. Terry cloth. Terri-ble. Terri-fy,” thus pushing its symbolic significance to the fore.” Ahmad is silently repeating the words: “Our mother is the Earth itself from which we drew our existence.” As if reading his mind, Teresa remarks: “Some parents give their children everything. Yet they turn out terrible. Self-destructive and other destructive.” This phrase contains an echo of the author himself: hedonism and nihilism is a road to destruction, self-destruction above all.
The name of Jack Levi has strong religious associations. Since Levi was the third son of Jacob and Leah, the ancestor the tribe which eventually became priests, it may be taken as a general word for a priest. In full accord with the connotation of the biblical namesake, Jack Levi of the book exercises his priestly function – he is a guidance councilor at High school.
Again, Updike did a lot with that name: Jack Levi is opposing the ‘levy of school taxes’, he is doing his best to find’ the potential of his students as the water finds its level’. In doing so he keeps the social ‘river from overflowing’; therefore, the lever of his armchair becomes the educational lever which helped ‘to lower the level of terrorism’.
A humanist Updike emerges from the final pages of the novel: Jack Levi managed to dissuade Ahmad from blowing up the Lincoln tunnel. Against bombs and detonators he is using his soft weapon – the gift of persuasive tongue. Handed down to the subsequent generation of readers is Updike’s definition of the language: “The imagery of words alone grips the soul with its own spiritual substance.” The ambivalent nature of language as “spiritual substance” shows how thin the dividing line is between the material and the spiritual.
Let us conclude by calling Updike’s Terrorist a timeless novel, a novel which may be read outside the American context. It will be timely and required as long as hedonism exists. It was because Updike managed to capture the spirit of time and the sense of the place, that his work continues to live in all times and at different places.
1 James Wood, the Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (2000), "John Updike's Complacent God", Modern Library, pp. 192.