If novels are to help us understand 21st century threats like terrorism, late 20th century masculinist realism will need to give way to hysterical realism
It’s easy to forget that White Teeth is about terrorism, even though Millat Iqubal’s botched jihadist plot ends the book. The novel has so much else going on in its raucous, multiethnic London. Zadie Smith, who took her critical lumps for the best seller, has long since moved on. But in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Smith’s take on Millat — the second son of Bangladeshi immigrants, a beautiful teenage stoner, and a half-hearted fundamentalist — looks startling prescient, and not just because Jahar Tsarnaev too was a stoner, a heartbreaker, a Muslim, and a second son. The teenage girls who tweeted #FreeJahar could be the real-life incarnations of Smith’s fictional high schoolers, who “wanted to improve” Millat “until he justified the amount they wanted him.” Likewise, the maternal sympathy for Jahar that Slate columnist Hanna Rosin noticed in her “mom friends” — “reasonable, intelligent types” including “at least one expert on Middle Eastern extremist groups” who nonetheless sighed over goofy photos of “that poor kid” — sounds uncannily like that of Smith’s well-meaning, liberal über-mother Joyce Chalfen. “We’re so close to a breakthrough,” a pained and in-denial Joyce insists late in the novel, when Millat blows off the psychiatrist appointment she’s arranged so he can attend a meeting of the fundamentalist group that has radicalized him.
We tend not to approve of sympathy for terrorists, fictional and otherwise. We dismiss characters like Joyce as parody and condemn the women who see in Jahar anything but a monster — just as Rosin, like countless other pundits, did when she told her friends to “cut that shit out.” In any case, English-language writers don’t often write about Muslim terrorists — at least not well. The overwhelming majority of authors who have tackled Muslim terrorists post-9/11 have done so only indirectly, through the lens of “ordinary” Muslims, or through purported jihadists, like Reynaldo in Lorrie Moore’s Gate at the Stairs or Jaguar in Jess Walter’s Zero, who turn out not necessarily to be terrorists at all. The few well-publicized attempts at depicting bona fide Muslim terrorists — Ahmad, of John Updike’s Terrorist; Hammad, of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man; and Bassam of Andre Dubus’s Garden of Last Days — have all been panned for trading in stereotype, especially the cliché of the embittered and sexually repressed fanatic.
It would be reasonable to conclude, as Benjamin Kunkel did in 2005, that the problem is the genre of the American terrorist novel itself, a literary species born of postmodern hypotheticals and doomed by the overwhelming, all too real horror of the 9/11 attacks. But perhaps the problem lies more specifically in the way authors have been trying to write these stories: as sleek, masculinist tales of alienation and ideological violence, in which the women around the terrorists are diminished, their affective bonds unexplored.
In DeLillo’s Mao II, Bill Grey laments that it now falls to terrorists, not novelists, to “alter the inner life of the culture.” If the attacks of the last decade have prompted many to perceive a world divided between a paranoid “us” and an emotionally incomprehensible “them,” so far the late 20th century modes of Updike, DeLillo, and, Dubus have only ever reproduced the division that the terrorists’ explosions inflict.
As dust clouds from the collapsed World Trade Center Towers engulfed lower Manhattan, the novelist Tom Clancy, famed purveyor of fictional terrorist plots, went on CNN to discuss the tragedy in language that could have come straight out of a writing workshop: “I frankly would have thought that this was not a credible threat to have four separate people commit suicide in the same way on the same morning,” he said. “Ending your own life is not something the average person does.”
The terms of Clancy’s disbelief highlight the chasm between what is plausible to terrorists and what is believable to us. Terrorism violates storytelling imperatives that go all the way back to Aristotle. What we want, according to Poetics, are stories we can readily believe in, even if they are in fact impossible. Terrorism gives us real stories too horrifying for us to accept as true, creating a reality incompatible with “realism” — especially the kind we expect from literature. As a result, when we try to portray terrorists in novels — or, like Clancy, try to make them fit into the sort of realism we’re used to — we’re left at a loss. Clancy’s assertion that the hijackers “committed suicide” on 9/11 communicates what happened in the most literal sense, but the term’s bland inadequacy highlights just how ill-equipped we are to imagine our way across the distance that separates us from someone who would fly a plane full of people into a skyscraper full of people. To write about a terrorist you have to imagine a terrorist. But how do you begin to imagine a person so radically alien to everything you know and believe in and love that he would blow himself up if it meant the chance to blow you up too?
Jarett Kobek’s “psychedelic biography,” ATTA, a 2011 novelistic account, based on real events, of Mohammad Atta’s journey from architecture graduate student to jihadist, is the most successful and innovative post-9/11 effort to imagine a way into a terrorist’s alien worldview. Over the course of the novel, Kobek eases readers into Atta’s sensibility as the young man’s hatred of the skyscrapers he was taught to design congeals into a determination to fly a plane into one. Take Atta’s description of a movie his Hamburg roommate insists on showing him:
[The movie] relays through childish imagery the story of a boy living with animals. The child desires to be an animal. The child takes suck at the teat of wolf. A tiger with a taste for flesh enters the forest. The wolves gather in counsel. The wolves expel the child. The wolves give the child to a panther. The panther loses the child to a bear. The bear sings a song about necessity. Apes kidnap the child. Apes carry the child to the court of a libidinous monkey king. . .
If you catch the allusion to Rudyard Kipling (or can read the German title Kobek supplies), you know that Atta is watching The Jungle Book. Otherwise the realization hits you somewhere closer to Atta’s summation of the movie’s ending: “The child realizes his beastly nature will only emerge in a pagan village tolerant of fornication ... The child passes through the village gate, sure to make himself a beast.” What’s especially unsettling is that Atta’s take on Western culture — like his readings of Disneyland and modernist architecture elsewhere in the book — doesn’t go where stereotypes of “Muslim rage” might lead you to expect it would. Instead, Atta discovers horrors anticipated neither by secular critical theory nor by any recognizable version of Islam, finding in European fairy tales of libidinous monkey kings and children sucking at the teats of wolves something far more visceral. After pages and pages of disturbing Americana, politely unengaged Germans, and the brutal high-rises of Cairo’s sprawl, all refracted by the funhouse mirror of Atta’s perception, it’s almost possible to feel that flying a plane into a skyscraper could be a victorious relief. Almost.
However, for its effects, ATTA relies on the shared cultural myths not only of The Jungle Book but the 9/11 attacks too. The novel can thoroughly inhabit Atta’s consciousness because it’s not burdened with convincing us to suspend our disbelief about the improbable logistics of the terrorist plot or Atta’s bizarre biography. Even then, readers assume that ATTA’s implausible protagonist must be an embellishment on his real namesake. As Kobek explained in a 2012 interview, “Most of the crazy things that people have thought are fictional” — like, for instance, Atta donning makeup or nearly missing his 9/11 flight or playing volleyball with Osama Bin Laden — “are actually true, or at least sourced.”
For novels in the Updike-DeLillo tradition — especially ones less concretely tied to actual terrorist attacks — the problem of the “disarticulation we hear in the term ‘Us and Them,’” as DeLillo put it in 2001, becomes catastrophic. James Wood, in How Fiction Works, condemns Updike’s Terrorist for its awkward use of free indirect discourse, a technique that avoids flags like “he thought” or “he believed” to fuse a character’s perception with a third-person narrative voice:
We are only four pages in, and any attempt to follow Ahmad’s own voice has been abandoned: the phrasing, the syntax, the lyricism, are Updike’s, not Ahmad’s. . . . The penultimate line is telling: “in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur’an, takes eternal good pleasure.” . . . Updike is unsure about entering Ahmad’s mind, and crucially, unsure about our entering Ahmad’s mind, and so he plants his big authorial flags all over his mental site. So he has to identify exactly which sura refers to God, although Ahmad would know where this appears, and would have no need to remind himself. . . . Free indirect style exists precisely to get around such clumsiness.
Wood is mainly interested in Updike’s technical gracelessness. He does not ask whether a mode such as Updike’s can support the chasm between the worldview of a terrorist protagonist and that of Updike’s readers. What if the narration’s compulsive sura citations are not anxious authorial flags but rather efforts to voice the tics of a would-be hafiz, who shows his devotion to Islam by memorizing and reciting the entire Koran? Could even the best free indirect discourse capture the contours of such Koranic obsession without sounding tin-eared and awkward to Western readers — without, that is, coming across as an author clumsily depositing information or, worse, as an insistent caricature of religious rigidity set against Western freedoms? Free indirect discourse, which assumes preexisting common ground between character and reader, can’t offer readers a way into, much less engender sympathy for, a mind they’re conditioned to regard as alien.
In focusing on Ahmad and his aging guidance counselor, Jack Levy, Updike fails to provide any meaningful exploration of the one consciousness that might bridge the gulf between us and Ahmad: that of Ahmad’s American mother, Teresa Mulloy, who raised him alone after his exchange-student father returned to Egypt. A more developed version of this character might have captured both her compassionate knowledge of and horrified distance from her precociously fundamentalist son, and given readers a sense of him that could transcend their own bafflement and dependence on stereotypes. Inhabiting her motherly concern might have allowed the novel to build a fragile “us” that encompassed terrorist, reader, and narrator. This “us” would still struggle to comprehend Ahmad, but in Teresa that struggle might find the coherence whose absence elsewhere causes Terrorist’s narration to fall apart. The novel couldn’t so easily reduce Ahmad to a hackneyed or incomprehensible other as long as it — and we — perceived him through a Teresa who loved and avowed him.
Such a Teresa, though, would make Terrorist an entirely different novel, and not just because she would be more than an occasion for engorged passages in which Levy meditates on the existential significance of her aureoles, thighs, and pelvis. This alternate Teresa would have to appear not as a mother in name only. Her love for Ahmad, however muddled or flawed, would have to matter to the book, which could of course no longer be typical Updike, worried mainly about men’s alienation and sexual angst. With some version of motherly caring front and center, it might instead begin to resemble a different sort of story: the neglected 19th century sentimental novel.
With their effusive pleas that the “Dear Reader” shed tears for suffering characters, sentimental novels might at first glance seem curious throwbacks in this age of NSA eavesdropping and pressure-cooker bombs. Best sellers in their time, for the past century books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Maria Susanna Cummins’ The Lamplighter have been read, if at all, primarily in American literature courses, and their conviction that changing readers’ hearts is enough to cure the world’s social ills now seems distressingly naïve. But more problematic for readers looking back from a distance of more than a century is the tendency of sentimental novels, especially when at their galvanizing best, to be troublingly homogenizing. Too often, these novels transformed the object of sympathy into something that looked like, felt like, and thought like the novel’s sympathizing readers. James Baldwin argued as much in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he excoriated Stowe for whitening, literally and metaphorically, the slave characters that Uncle Tom’s Cabin asked readers to feel for — most disturbingly by having Simon Legree’s whip violently strip Uncle Tom’s repellant black body away.
Yet it’s precisely their tendency to create likeness, through their unabashed embrace of motherly feeling particularly, that enabled sentimental abolitionist novels to discover a humanity — an “us” — that both white readers and slave characters could share. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when runaway-slave Eliza hopscotches with her toddler across an icy Ohio River as slave traders’ dogs snarl from the Kentucky bank, readers hang on her every perilous footstep not because she is a slave yearning for freedom but because she is a mother. Through the rhetoric of motherly love — understood as the most adamant and unconditional sort of familial devotion, the most universal feeling — sentimental novels’ effusive narration constructed an “us” that transcended race. By insisting such love was common to all, sentimental novels gave white readers a way to sympathize with slave characters who would otherwise seem threateningly different. Eliza’s love for her son allowed white people, especially women with their own children, to see themselves in Eliza, to weep with her in terror, and, when she and her son reach safety, to feel a part of themselves saved too.
The commonality forged in this scene’s emotional crucible was necessarily tenuous. Even ardent abolitionists often recoiled at the prospect of actually living alongside a race they deemed fundamentally different and inferior, and neither Stowe, who notoriously advocated for deporting freed slaves to African colonies, nor the bulk of her white readers were exceptions. Still, Uncle Tom’s Cabin staked out a shared humanity that reached beyond its pages; it and the sentimental abolitionist novels it inspired imagined black characters as more than simple embodiments of the era’s demeaning stereotypes. The first African-American novel, William Wells Brown’s Clotel, embraced such sentimentality, as did black-authored memoirs like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig. Sentimental fiction had all the troubling features one would expect of a genre geared toward an American literary world dominated by white readers and editors, but it nonetheless helped to make black characters writable.
Could a reborn sentimental novel do the same for terrorists? By transforming our “them” into their “us,” by allowing us to escape rather than reiterate the us-versus-them schemas that the terrorists themselves seek to bolster, sentimentalism offers a means by which novels might alter, and not merely be altered by, terrorists’ impact on culture. Terrorist characters that provoke our motherly feeling can insist, despite themselves, that together we share something rawly human, indivisible.
One of White Teeth’s mother figures offers hints of what this might look like. Joyce Chalfen first meets Millat when she invites him into her home as part of a punishment cum reform plan after he is busted smoking pot with her son and another teenager, Irie. Her blundering introductions make literal the struggle to find common ground:
“Well,” said Joyce . . . “you look very exotic. Where are you from if you don’t mind me asking?
“Willesden,” said Irie and Millat simultaneously.
“Yes, yes, of course, but where originally?”
“Oh,” said Millat, putting on what he called a bud-bud-ding-ding accent. “You are meaning where from am I originally?”
Joyce looked confused. “Yes, originally.”
“Whitechapel,” said Millat, pulling out a fag. “Via the Royal London Hospital and the 207 bus.”
While Millat, who for his whole life has needed slick retorts to keep from being robbed of his birthplace, gets the best of the exchange, the victory is pyrrhic. The more he thrashes against stereotypes like Joyce’s, the more he finds himself a mess of contradictory pieces — even after he finds Islamic fundamentalism and, “recognize[ing] its anger, thought it recognized him.” (In response to a Britain that tells him he’s “a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelled of curry; that he had no sexual identity; . . . that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a filmmaker,” Millat burns unholy books while collecting rock posters, obsesses over halal while remaining a pothead, and rejects Western decadence while idolizing GoodFellas and screwing an endless string of gorgeous white girls.) Where Millat, born already torn between an “us” and a “them,” can’t articulate his predicament, even to himself, as anything but inchoate anger, Joyce’s motherliness gives it shape. Joyce faces her own painful division between her maternal instinct to adopt Millat and her inability to imagine how he could be from “here” (and from her). Through her, the novel provides a framework for Millat’s rage at a London that housed him from birth but won’t accept him.
Joyce also offers a way to think about what sentimentalism would look like in terrorist novels whose terrorist characters necessarily resist whatever maternal feeling they inspire. “You’re hysterical,” Joyce screeches when Irie tells her that Millat has lost interest in psychiatry — and, it’s implied, Joyce’s ambivalent mothering — but the adjective is displaced. It’s Joyce who’s hysterical, in the 19th century sense: Her motherly impulses are misdirected and confounded. (The root of hysteria is the Greek word for womb.) A sentimental terrorist novel would ask us to experience terrorists as Joyce does Millat — as her own and yet also irrevocably not. Today this experience could come from any character suffering the sort of pain that in the 19th century sentimental novel could have come only from a maternal loss. When Millat’s father, Samad, loses his son to fundamentalism, his grief and rage manifests in “near-hysterical grins.” Anyone can be a sentimental mother, whether a coach, an aunt, a neighbor, or a stranger who happens to see a terrorist’s goofy high school photos on the news.
Distinctions between “us” and “them” begin to disintegrate under the insistence that terrorists and mother-figures, as well as readers who find themselves caring for terrorist characters, all live with the discomfiting sensation of being divided against themselves. Sympathy for the terrorist isn’t the healing, saving sentimentalism of Eliza’s escape across the Ohio; it is the hysterical sentimentalism of our maternal instincts rending us in two.
No wonder, then, that White Teeth had its detractors — including James Wood, whose review described with more insight than perhaps he realized the novel’s strained “hysterical realism,” a manic narrative style whose improbable storylines “clothe real people” that “could never actually endure . . . them.” Smith herself, in an anonymous review, described the novel as “the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old.” But perhaps the problem wasn’t too much hysteria but not enough. After all, what novel but one whose sentimentalism had turned hysterical could have imagined a teenager full of contradictions like Jahar — a Chechen refugee, a US citizen, a UMass college student, a pot dealer, a prom date, a 9/11 truther, and a wrestler all before he was a terrorist? If a novel’s hysteria forces us to live with the unendurable — if there’s a certain horror in experiencing a terrorist like Millat or Jahar as both a lovable boy and a zealous killer — then maybe this is what it feels like to inhabit a realism that can hold on to the terrorists who would tear it apart.