In some ways, the critical response to John Updike's recent work seems to me similar to that accorded to Harold Bloom's, even though Updike is a novelist and Bloom a critic. Most of it is rankly opportunistic, as if it is now clearly time, given these writers' advancing age, for Our Best Critics to prepare us for their impending deaths and certain subsequent neglect, at least if these critics' own level-headed standards are to be applied. Most of it is directed at the authors rather than the work, as if the reviewers have stored up their animus against both writers' misguided if inexplicably successful ways and are now able to let them have it. And most of it is pretty stupid.
Terrorist is certainly not one of Updike's best novels. Literary posterity will probably regard it as an interesting but failed experiment, taking Updike away from his usual themes and mileu, although not completely: its exploration of religious belief is consistent with much of his previous fiction, and the town of New Prospect, New Jersey could easily enough be a depiction of Brewer, Pennsylvania in its own decayed postindustrial latter days. But it certainly does not deserve the kind of critical censure it often enough did receive upon its publication. (Amitav Ghosh: "the end result is that Updike is unable to cut his brown characters loose from texts, scriptures and ideologies. As for his belief that elaborate descriptions of skin color are a form of insight, it is not wholly without merit, for it does serve to occasionally enliven the prose"; Floyd Skloot: "the novel is almost wholly without credibility"; Jonathan Shainin: the novel is full of "consummately pretty descriptions of everything under the sun"; Michiko Kakutani: "the ensuing developments in this maladroit novel prove to be every bit as dubious as Ahmad is as a recognizable human being."
To some extent, Christopher Hitchens's ravings can be dismissed as just further proof of what an incompetent literary critic he is. (For more on this, go here.) One combs through his review looking for substantive support for his assertion that "Updike has produced one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-up source since the events he has so unwisely tried to draw upon" but finds little beyond dissatisfaction with the author's pop culture references and impatience with his "grueling homework." Updike's portrayal of a religiously-obsessed Muslim clearly does not satisfy Hitchens, but then, given Hitchens's own record of misjudgment of the influence of religion in Iraq, one would hardly want a protagonist who does fit his image of what a true believer might be like. If I had to choose between John Updike and Christopher Hitchens for "insight" into or "imaginative sympathy" with a young man caught up in the struggle between religious belief and the physical/material temptatations of secular American society, I wouldn't have to weigh the alternatives for very long.
James Wood, on the other hand, doesn't have the excuse of being a generally inept critic, certainly not if his hyperelevated reputation for "intelligence" and "close reading" is to be taken seriously. And, indeed, Wood's familiarity with modern fiction (especially English and European fiction) can't be impugned, and, unlike Hitchens, he does take care to cite text and offer support for his judgments (which are in turn literary judgments rather than political arguments or expressions of dyspepsia). Yet Wood's negative review of Terrorist essentially rests on the conclusion that Updike isn't Dostoevsky or Conrad and that, surprise! surprise!, he isn't a psychological realist. These seem to me to be charges Updike would pretty readily confess to, and they only seem like damning criticism because Wood, as is his wont, advances his own preference for psychological realism, for realistic fiction that gives us an account of Mind, to the front of the line where proper literary strategies are concerned. Only psychological realism is a proper literary strategy, according to Wood, and writing that doesn't conform to his prejudice gets labeled "hysterical" or worse. Wood's reviews would be much easier to take if he began every one of them with a disclaimer: I have a particular hobbyhorse I like to ride when reviewing fiction, and in this case I have chosen a writer who allows me to ride it like the wind!
Wood tells us that the fatal flaw in Terrorist is that it shows Updike's failure "at the essential task of free indirect style." Updike "will begin a paragraph in his character's voice, and then, apparently losing any capacity for the necessary ventriloquism, decide utterly to write over his character." Updike's protagonist, Ahmad, "has no personality, no quiddity as an eighteen-year-old American, so he is Updike's serf, ready for whatever the writer chooses to do with him. In Updikeland, this means lyrical authorial commentary." In other words: Updike does not give over his prose to the task of probing his character's consciousness; he does not present us with a psychologlical portrait that subsumes either style or form to fiction's putative capacity to delve within, to make characters "real" to us by inviting us into their minds.
Updike's "lyrical authorial commentary" in Terrorist is not much altered from what we find in much of his other fiction, so Wood's complaint can't really be about this novel alone. This is Wood attempting a takedown of Updike based on a perceived flaw in one particular book, in which Updike has taken a risk by treating a subject not immediately and recognizably Updikean, however much he is able to render it with his usual precisely observed style. It allows Wood to make the same kind of criticism that has always been made of Updike, but to dress it up in fancier crittalk ("free indirect style"): Updike is too besotted with language. He writes too much.
It is true that Updike does not use the free indirect style. It is true that he "writes over" his characters. Although his third-person narratives (and most of his fiction does use third-person narration) do center on particular characters and their responses to events, Updike does not "inhabit" them in a way that would erase his own stylistic tracks. As I said in a previous post, Updike's writing draws on his characters' "mental storehouse of memories and images, but does not dwell in [their] immediate awareness. It creates writing out of that storehouse." Updike does not prove himself inadequate at psychological realism. He doesn't attempt it. Wood's criticism is thus entirely irrelevant and his review utterly useless.
Both Hitchens's and Wood's reviews seem to me of a piece with Leon Wieseltier's condemnation of Updike for "aestheticizing" the ruined World Trade Center in his depiction of the scene that appeared shortly after the events of 9/11/01. Updike merely applied his considerable powers of visual description to the task of evoking the disaster and was denounced as some kind of moral leper. It isn't surprising that Hitchens and Woods, themselves both moral critics suspicious of the merely aesthetic, would join in on the faultfinding once Updike dared to write a whole novel steeped in associations with the events of that day.