Unlike every other novelist looking over his shoulder at 9/11—an Ian McEwan, a Reynolds Price, a Jay McInerney, a Jonathan Safran Foer—Updike isn’t writing from the victim’s point of view. He guesses instead at unhinging excruciations. Finally, Terrorist has to be read as part of an accumulating literature in which serious novelists have tried to grope their way into the mind of the ultra, a literature that began with Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad, and André Malraux and continues with Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, and Salman Rushdie, trying to explain the phenomenon of what Victor Serge called “the lunatic of one idea,” as he shape-shifts from Belfast to Beirut to Jakarta to lower Manhattan, from skyjacking jumbo jets to bombing abortion clinics, from Pol Pot to Shining Path. Terrorists and torturers tend to be more interesting in novels, where they have complicated rationales, than they are in banal person. To think about horrific behavior, novelists need to imagine minds as nuanced as their own. So they pile aesthetic patterning and gaudy mythomanias on top of abstract grievance. They gussy up these kamikazes of Kingdom Come with Oedipus, Freud, Marx, Fanon, Dante, and Bluebeard, as though seeking a subjective correlative for the fabulous derangements of Gonzalo Thought.
But horrific behavior is perfectly capable of writing its own novel, of spinning its own excuses for abduction, torture, rape, and murder out of a spidery bowel and a smoked brain. Its cold, invariable, contemptuous purpose is to dominate and humiliate; to create, as in the nightmares of Kafka and Foucault, a lab-rat labyrinth, a “total immersion” maze, where our private histories, personal beliefs, and multiple motives are beside the brutal point. What we really need the Updikes for is to remind us, over and over again, that each fragile human being, every Rabbit or Ahmad, is an end, not a means.