(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, July 18, 2006)
Long before 9/11 unleashed a flood of novels about terror into a paranoid world, Don DeLilo spoke of the challenge before the writer: “Isolation, solitude, secret plotting. A novel is a secret a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room. Writers in hiding, writers in prison. .. For most writers in the West of course…the cells we live in are strictly personal constructions.”
“Let’s change the room slightly and imagine another kind of apartness. The outsider who builds a plot around his desperation. A self-watcher, a lonely young man, living in a fiction he hasn’t bothered to put down on paper. But this doesn’t mean he is unorganized, he organizes everything. This is how he keeps from disappearing. His head is filled with dangerous secrets, and he may finally devise a way to come out of his room. He invents a false name, orders a gun though the mail, then looks around for someone famous he can shoot.”
DeLilo had no way of knowing how compelling the figure of the terrorist, the underworld outlaw, the renegade gunman or even the war correspondent would become in this decade. One of the first, fractured but brilliant reactions to 9/11 came from a man with terrible expertise in war, terror and inhumanity. Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a searing, unforgettable portrait of Nazi Germany, seen through the eyes of mice (the Jews), pigs (the Polish) and cats (the Germans). In his graphic novel, In the Shadow of No Towers , Spiegelman drew frame after frame of an image that haunted him—”one that… still remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later… the image of the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized.”
To speak of the victims of terrorism is much easier than describing the agents of terror, as Don DeLilo hinted. His words came back to me when I read two starkly different novels—Kiran Nagarkar’s ambitious God’s Little Soldier and John Updike’s Terrorist . Nagarkar’s protagonist, Zia, is frighteningly plausible in his struggles with faith, his insistence on the reassuring fanaticism of absolute belief.
He reminded me of Hanif Kureishi’s protagonist in the short story, ‘My Son the Fanatic’. The problem that Zia and Kureishi’s young fanatic posed was identical: they were part of the ordinary, superficially enlightened world, so how could they have been infected with the deadly virus of implacable belief? Nagarkar attempts to answer that question by turning Zia into a superhero, a mathematical genius who can survive training in Afghanistan and play the part a Catholic priest. The more powerful Zia becomes, the less plausible he is as a character.
Nagarkar did a better job than Updike. In a scathing review of John Updike’s Terrorist , Michiko Kakutani writes: “Unfortunately, the would-be terrorist in this novel turns out to be a completely unbelievable individual: more robot than human being and such a cliché that the reader cannot help suspecting that Mr. Updike found the idea of such a person so incomprehensible that he at some point abandoned any earnest attempt to depict his inner life and settled instead for giving us a static, one-dimensional stereotype.”
Mohsin Hamid’s second novel promises to be far more nuanced. The author of Moth Smoke has been working for several years on The Reluctant Fundamentalist . Hamid’s protagonist is a young Muslim banker working in New York at the time of 9/11; when the world changes, the way he’s seen also changes, and he must decide whether he can continue to live in New York or whether he must go back to Lahore. It should be interesting to read this alongside Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games , which juxtaposes the story of a cynical Bombay cop and a Bombay hitman against the background of the underworld. Despite their very different themes, Hamid and Chandra share a fascination for complex, multilayered characters, and for the ways in which power and prejudice work, wherever they are found.
If fictions of terror have a future, though, it might just be with the graphic novel. Check out Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman’s Shooting War , which has a cult following online. The year is 2011, the war in Iraq is into its eighth year, and America is inured to repeated terrorist attacks. Anti-corporate blogger Jimmy Burns has his NYC apartment blown to bits in a bomb attack, records the footage and is promptly recruited by a TV company, Global News (“Your home for 24-hour-terror coverage!”) to cover the situation in Iraq. The story becomes increasingly complex, the satire more savage, but one character sums it up: “It’s prime time holy war.”