June 6, 2006

"John Updike writing about terrorism?"

Michiko Kakutani goes after "[t]he bard of the middle-class mundane, the chronicler of suburban adultery and angst" for his look into the mind of a jihadist in his new book "Terrorist":
[T]he journalistic portraits of the 9/11 hijackers that Terry McDermott of The Los Angeles Times pieced together — from interviews with acquaintances of the hijackers, "The 9/11 Commission Report" and material from interrogations of captured terrorists — in his 2005 book "Perfect Soldiers" are a hundred times more fascinating, more nuanced and more psychologically intriguing than the cartoonish stick figure named Ahmad whom Mr. Updike has created in these pages....

[He] is given to saying things like "the American way is the way of infidels," and the country "is headed for a terrible doom." Or: "Purity is its own end." Or: "I thirst for Paradise."

In other words, Ahmad talks not like a teenager who was born and grew up in New Jersey but like an Islamic terrorist in a bad action-adventure movie, or someone who has been brainwashed and programmed to spout jihadist clichés. Much of the time he sounds like someone who has learned English as a second language.

Mr. Updike does an equally lousy job of showing us why Ahmad is willing to die and kill for jihad. We're told that the imam who teaches Ahmad the Koran has become a surrogate father to the fatherless boy. We're told that Ahmad is disgusted with his flirtatious mother and her succession of boyfriends. And we're told that he wants a mission in life and can't think of anything else he wants to do after high school.
How I wish some filmmaker would do to this book what Stanley Kubrick did to "Red Alert"!

Actually, the first movie this review made me think of was not "Dr. Strangelove," it was "Napoleon Dynamite." Something about the teenager who doesn't fit in and talks funny called to mind the unforgettable dialogue:
Do the chickens have large talons?

Do they have what?

Large talons.

I don't understand a word you just said.
We need to make more fun of the terrorists. I don't want to see the World Trade Center burning in a horror movie. I want to see merciless fun made of the terrorists. Updike seems to be trying to understand terror-boy. Somebody throw a Kubrick at him.

32 comments:

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sloanasaurus said...

It would be a good start to actually call them terrorists, rather than "gunmen" or "bomber" or "minutemen." The liberal media sees the terrorists as a protected class - if the terrorists were white then it would be open season.

Adam said...

Do The Chickens Have Large Talons?, from the 2005 Spelling Bee.

Re making fun of terrorists, see Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants, a South Park episode which aired on 11-7-01.

Seven Machos said...

I have long had the idea of taking Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner/Bugs Bunny and using it as the basis of a movie about terrorists.

Any big fan of Warner Bros. knows that, in a few episodes, Wile. E. talks. He is a soooper-genius, but he lives in the desert and he is chasing something he is never going to catch. Kind of like terrorists. A lot like terrorists.

In my movie, the Roadrunner/Bugs would be someone airily moving some Maguffin across the country. And the terrorists keep striking and it keeps going terribly wrong. Witty dialogue. Real life characters and action.

All of you aspiring Hollywood writers, feel free to steal this one.

Joe said...

In the South Park episode referred to, Cartman does a Bugs Bunny number on Osama. Very funny.

Ann Althouse said...

I was thinking abou that very old "South Park" episode when I wrote the post. But that was 5 years ago! It was daring to do it then. Why has nothing like that happened since? And it was tucked away on a cable channel. That's hardly enough!

Also that episode was pretty much against the Afghanistan war.

ignacio said...

John Updike's life experience -- Princeton, then on the staff of The New Yorker when 24 or 25 -- makes him a rather odd candidate to write about jihadists from the supposed inside. In "Rabbit Redux" he attempted a character who was a Black Revolutionary of the 1960s variety, and the results there are generally regarded as somewhat absurd.

Updike has not exactly thrown himself a life of adventure in the manner of Hemingway (or to some extent William Vollmann or Denis Johnson or Paul Theroux). Imagine him, for instance, pretending to inhabit the mind of Tupac Shakur.

It just doesn't work.

But he is perhaps what one might call an "attention-whore." Vanity can lead one down some absurd paths.

Dave said...

Well, I don't understand the Kubrick reference and Napoleon Dynamite is well nigh impossible to watch, but Kakutani's review is interesting.

I never understood the appeal of Updike.

Joe said...

Ann, I would disagree that the SP episode was against the war - I saw it as more pointing out the unintended consequences of war, even when it is necessary. Which leads me to the broader point that critics of the war are silly when they complain that everything did not go perfectly. One of our legendary generals - Sherman? Grant? Ike? Patton? - said the best battle plan never survives first contact with the enemy.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: "Well, I don't understand the Kubrick reference..."

If you went to the link a read a sentence or two you would. You know, the links are provided for a reason. Do you know what "Red Alert" is?

Dave said...

Ann, relax.

Never saw the movie, so it doesn't really make sense to me.

Marghlar said...

For me, the closest thing is probably Team America: World Police. But that fell a tad flat for me -- not nearly as funny as Strangelove. But then, as clever as Matt and Trey are, they lack the chops of either Peter Sellers or Kubrick.

But then again, is it really fair to compare any modern comedies to what was probably the greatest film comedy of all time?

HaloJonesFan said...

I've never seen "Doctor Strangelove" either, but that didn't stop me from clicking the link and READING THE TITLE OF THE ARTICLE.

As for making fun of terrorists: How about "True Lies"?

Hamsun56 said...

"We need to make more fun of the terrorists."

Agree, it helps to live with the perceived threat that they present.

Letterman has been running a gag for a few years now with the same film clip of Osama Bin Laden spouting something absurd and always ending with "and Death to America".
It's before my time, but I assume that the media made fun of Hitler and Mussolini (I recall some Popeye cartoons and of course the famous nursery ryhme).

Joe said...

Hollywood generally won't make fun of Islamic terrorists, rather, they are careful not to offend them. Remember after 9-11 they changed the film of a Clancy book to make the Muslim terrorists into good old, reliable neo-Nazis.

Ann Althouse said...

"Ann, relax."

No. And don't make me spend time writing a whole post about how I hate that exhortation. It's always bogus! But I'm too busy to go into detail about that right now.

Ann Althouse said...

I watched some of "Team America: World Police," but fell asleep. I mean, I was tired, but I was also kinda bored. I woke back up when the guy was puking. I don't know why he was puking, but he sure was puking. I'll have to finish the movie some time

Christy said...

Oddly enough, I think Flannery O'Connor could have given us an interesting perspective on the terrorists. she worked that angst between what our Gods expect of us and what we, as flawed beings, can manage.

Bissage said...

Andrew: Here's a little something. Russian Rhapsody.

monkeyboy said...

I think it was Von Molke who said "no plan survives contact with the enemy."
Patton did say "A good plan executed violently now is better than a perfect plan executed too late."

TeamAmerica works really well as a send up of action movies. The camera work is perfect.

Hamsun56 said...

Bissage:Thanks for the link.

Dave: If you not familiar with "Dr. Strangelove" then, IMHO, you're culturally illiterate. Nothing wrong with that, but before burdening others for an explaination, you should go to Wikipedia.

Adam said...

Bissage: Bless you. I [heart] Gremlins from the Kremlin. Am just trying to remember who all the caricatures are of.

PatCA said...

There probably are some great screenplays out there on this very subject; however, it takes (a very rich) iconoclast to make one. So we get Team America. Hey, it's a start!

For me, the funniest terrorist video is the clip, endlessly replayed, of the jihadis zipping across the overhead bars. Sort of like an Olympics for skinny losers with really bad clothes.

P. Froward said...

'...he wants a mission in life and can't think of anything else he wants to do after high school.'

I had the same problem, and my guidance counsellor made the same suggestion, but I was all, y'know, hate to give up beer, so... may as well go to college instead.

If only I'd known then what I know now...


But anyhow it sounds like Updike's making the mistake a lot of people make in trying to understand that stuff: These very normal, liberal, utterly secular middle-class euroamerican post-religious ex-protestants or whatever sit down and ask, "what would drive a person just like me to do a thing like that?" But the answer is "nothing". Nothing makes people like them die for anything. It's not people like Updike who do it, so any answer to that question is bound to be idiotic.

Or maybe it's just a "tin ear for cultural signifiers", like Tom Wolfe thinking he's hep to this swingin' new punk rock jive, daddy-o.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Updike's short story about 9/11 was terrible, and criticized because it didn't treat the terrorists as human beings. Now he writes a book that humanizes the terrorists by showing how terrorism can be an outgrowth of teenage angst in a hyper-materialistic culture (which is not that far from his critique of hypercapitalism in his Rabbit books), and he still gets criticized!!! He just can't win.

I will note that Michiko Kakutani thinks Brazil was misbegotten, which might be a fair criticism ... if she then didn't go on to hold up The Coup as a paragon of great Updike writing!!!! Which is IDIOTIC!!! The Coup is amusing fluff!!! Fluff!!!

What's more, Kakutani HATES John Updike AND Philip Roth ANd Saul Bellow AND .. wait, if you're a white, male award-winner from a certain generation...M.K. HATES you. How do I know that? She basically admitted it in one of her columns! This is why the N.Y. Times frequently has two reviews of notable books: a 1. crazy screed by Michiko Kakutani; and 2. a second review that fairly estimates the literary merit of the work. Why do they do that? Because people complain. Don't tell me you've never noticed this phenomenon????

knoxgirl said...

so Updike can't make even interesting material interessssszzzzzzzzz.....wha?

Tibore said...

I don't know about anyone else's critique of Updike, but I listened to him being interviewed on NPR. On the one hand, he sounded sincere in his attempts to understand suicide bombers. On the other, it sounded like he merely settled for misanthropic judgements to be substituted for radical Islamic thought. There wasn't really anything original in his thesis, and on top of that, it wasn't anything that hasn't already been said by Communists, Fascists, and any other sort of revolutionary for years. Updike made such a generic critique, yet to hear him talk, you'd think he believes he stumbled across reasons specific to radical militant islamicists alone that accounts for their hostility to America.

I really mean it. He really didn't state anything original when he was describing the motivations of the protagonist. It sounded like a simple redressing of '60's era revolutionary philosophy in a suicide bomber's vest. The central thesis -- which was that the protagonist was motivated by what he saw in American culture -- could've come out of the mouth of anyone from Castro to Chavez, from Mao to Ho Chi Mihn, or any of the revolutionary followers of those people.

I wanted to read his book, but I'm much less motivated now. If all he's done is retail clichés, then I don't know if there's anything useful to be gotten out of his book.

Then again, who knows? This was just an interview. Maybe the book is more nuanced, more insightful. Unfortunately, the section he read doesn't get my hopes up any, but it was merely one small excerpt.

Maxine Weiss said...

Updike has a full head of hair at 72. He has his own teeth....it looks like. Hemingway didn't have that.

---Of course they hate him!

He's on his way to Helinski to collect the Nobel Prize next year.

I don't know anything about Dr. Strangelove. I like "Clockwork Orange". Is that Kubrick?

(Relax, Ann). ---What's not to like about that statement?

How about (Chill out) ???

Or, (Ann, call your agent!)

Which is most annoying?

Peace Maxine

Marghlar said...

I don't know anything about Dr. Strangelove. I like "Clockwork Orange". Is that Kubrick?

Yep. Also good, but not that funny. Dr. Strangelove is that rare movie -- one you still laugh at when watching it for the tenth time. And it made fun with perhaps the most terrifying issue of its time. I don't think Kubrick ever made a better movie (which is saying something).

Peter Sellers is particularly good, playing three different roles: the President of the US, a wacked-out German scientist now working for the Pentagon, and a British Air Force officer.

amba said...

Ali Eteraz in his "Ali Eshtehar" alter ego makes wonderful fun of terrorists, capturing particularly the adolescent nerdiness under the jihadi pose.

He also just found out from Google's archive of old Usenet groups (which sounds like a must-visit) that God was the first spammer -- speaking through His prophet Clarence Thomas!! Ali comments, "Apocalypse was the handmaiden of spam (not penis enlargement)."

amba said...

More Eshtehar.

Bissage said...

Marghlar said that Dr. Strangelove is a movie "you still laugh at when watching it for the tenth time."

It's also a hoot to read.