x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A dreamscape of terror

With a Jungian therapist and a lapsed mujahideen as its heroes, Michael Gruber's mass-market novel is an ambitious but clumsy exploration of extremism, writes Akiva Gottlieb.

A soldier brandishes a rocket launcher in Pakistan, the setting for Michael Gruber's current-events novel The Good Son.
A soldier brandishes a rocket launcher in Pakistan, the setting for Michael Gruber's current-events novel The Good Son.

With a Jungian therapist and a lapsed mujahideen as its heroes, Michael Gruber's mass-market novel is an ambitious but clumsy exploration of extremism, writes Akiva Gottlieb. The Good Son Michael Gruber Henry Holt Dh81 Anyone with access to a decent newspaper knows that in contemporary geopolitical terms, Pakistan is the world's unstable centre. An Islamic republic that harbours nuclear weapons and nurtures extremist groups, containing a Punjabi Taliban and Pashtun Taliban within its borders, a tiny elite that controls vast chunks of land in a quasi-feudal system, and a press corps seemingly more eager to promote anti-American conspiracies than take stock of homegrown discontent, Pakistan embodies a mix volatile enough to provoke bewilderment even among the most ardent international problem-solvers.

In the early fallout from the Connecticut resident Faisal Shahzad's failed Times Square car bomb, US commentators made the would-be terrorist's home country central to their unscientific inquiry into his motivations. The conjecture came fast and furious. This textbook angry young Pakistani was immediately and tenuously linked to various extremist groups, and an unnamed "government source" told the Los Angeles Times that Shahzad, who was raised in a secular, privileged environment, was "upset by repeated CIA drone attacks on militants in Pakistan". It was enough to cause American Muslim writer Wajahat Ali to respond: "Let it be known that Pakistanis and Muslims are not like the Borg, some cybernetic species with a collective consciousness. There is no broadcast frequency that alerts us to the internal machinations of an angry or confused individual who simply happens to share our skin colour, ethnicity or religious affiliation. We are not 'alerted' when they create their diabolical plans to commit mayhem."

In a move that looks at least in part like a savvy commercial calculation, American author Michael Gruber has written a Pakistan-centred political thriller called The Good Son, which holds a surface appeal for readers seeking a midsummer page-turner that might also assuage the guilt of skipping those last few issues of The Economist. Though journalists have a duty to report the verifiable facts, few would begrudge a fiction writer his attempt to imagine the "other", and an unfamiliar collective consciousness, using only the mimetic tools at his disposal.

Unlike recent books by Pakistani natives Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin, Gruber's novel cannot draw upon a sense-memory of Balzacian detail to convey the sights and smells of street life in Karachi or Lahore. Relinquishing any pretence at authenticity, Gruber sheepishly admits that his research process was limited to reading the novels of Khalid Hosseini and the stories of Mueenuddin, plus some targeted internet sleuthing. Granted, the novel is less a Grand Trunk Road travelogue than an inquiry into the philosophical foundations of contemporary jihadism.

For an author of commercial fiction, Gruber boasts an unlikely pedigree: he earned a PhD in marine sciences, then worked as a chef in Miami, served as a roadie for various rock groups, moved to Washington DC for a stint in the then-president Jimmy Carter's Office of Science and Technology Policy, then settled in Seattle and wrote speeches for the Washington state land commissioner. Speechwriting led to ghostwriting, and then to a disparate series of literary thrillers, including the best-selling Book of Air and Shadows. This is all to say that Gruber is a polymath but not an expert, and that the breadth of his curiosity is expected to compensate for any lack of intellectual depth.

This curiosity is evident in The Good Son, which attempts to shape various unrelated scholarly interests into a cohesive and morally engaging thriller. To prop up his broad-strokes clash of civilisations narrative, Gruber employs two chameleonic caricatures ordered from post-9/11 central casting. Sonia Bailey Laghari is a Polish-born former circus performer who, after marrying a Punjabi husband, moving to Lahore and bearing him three children, dresses as a Muslim boy and runs off with a Sufi master through the lands of then-Soviet Central Asia, later writing a memoir about the experience (and meriting a fatwa). Reborn as a Zurich-trained Jungian psychotherapist - it's another long story - she decides to travel back to Pakistan for an international peace symposium "designed to discuss the possibility that the kind of ethnic and confessional violence that had characterised the region since the exit of the British Raj was in fact a kind of mass insanity and that the analytical tools that had been used to help many individuals recover from madness might be adapted to the peacemaking process".

Insisting that the conference take place in Kashmir's picturesque Leepa Valley instead of a Lahore hotel lobby, Sonia leads her well-meaning humanitarian compatriots into a trap set by a Muslim terrorist organisation. As luck would have it, Sonia's son (and the novel's intermittent narrator) is the US special operations soldier Theo Bailey, who, being fluent in Dari and Pashto and Urdu, with the ability to pass as a local in Central Asia, is a rare and valuable American asset. (Theo is also, at the very least, intelligent enough to warn his mother about returning to Pakistan. "Oh, don't be silly!" she responds.) As the novel progresses, and Theo uses tradecraft to convince the US to invade Pakistan and free the peace activists - the false intimation of loose nukes comes in handy - we learn the soldier's improbable back story. After a bomb killed his eminent grandfather and two sisters in 1970s Lahore, Theo joined the Afghan mujahideen and earned legendary status by killing nearly 50 Soviets in a single ambush. Somehow, his mother smuggled him into America, and this holy warrior eventually heeded the call of Uncle Sam. He is conceived, perhaps, as the mirror image of Adam Gadahn, nee Pearlman, the so-called "American Jihadi" who moved to Pakistan in the late 1990s and joined al Qa'eda.

The incoherence of Sonia's background and her erratic patterns of behaviour ensure that she lacks the dimensions of a human being, but Gruber is most interested in her potential as a pawn and a mouthpiece. What would a Pashtun mullah say to a Jungian feminist in a shalwar kameez who proclaims herself both a devout Catholic and a Muslim? In a series of tense conversations with her captors, Sonia, articulate in Islamic doctrine, courageously lays bare the contradictions of their self-appointed religious crusade. Sentenced to death for her blasphemy, Sonia "answers in a loud but mild voice, as if explaining something to a child, that she has not been judged according to the sharia and therefore it is haram for her to be punished. She quotes the Quran on the wages of injustice". Knowing that her captors - a patchwork of Pashtuns, Arabs, and Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agents - are united by only the most gossamer ideological thread, Sonia also gains leverage by interpreting their dreams, nearly all of which she traces to insecurities about following a false religious path. Her superhuman strength stems from her intellectual adaptability; she knows "it's a Western delusion that all psychological problems are reducible to restrictions on individual freedom".

Despite additional layers of spy-thriller intrigue - mostly engineered by a subplot starring a US National Security Agency translator who suspects the false pretences for the forthcoming secret invasion of Pakistan - The Good Son pays only nominal attention to its sub-John Le Carré plot machinery. The action moves slowly, grinding to a standstill whenever a figure begins speechifying; much of the dialogue is hopelessly expository; and all the end-of-chapter cliffhangers seem perfunctory. Gruber, to his credit, is earnestly trying to answer the question of how Western emissaries can shed their cultural imperialism and communicate with religious fundamentalists when "appeals to our liberal icons - democracy, the rule of law, the open society, civil liberties - fall on deaf ears". Sonia is his avatar for superhuman passive resistance, and Theo is his ultimate warrior.

Gruber has written an ambitious current-events novel that, even at nearly 400 pages, still feels more like a theoretical outline than a fully-fleshed dramatic analysis of the psychology of violence. (A Day and a Night and a Day, by the British author Glen Duncan, much of whose narrative is also given over to one-on-one politico-philosophical debate between a prisoner and his captor, is a comparable masterpiece of the form.) In the end, what is surprising and genuinely radical about Gruber's novel - at least as a piece of mass-market American entertainment - is its openness to the idea that the family values and business traditions embedded in traditional Punjabi Muslim culture might be preferable to the comforts of a materialistic and militaristic West. As one of the Pakistani peaceniks declaims: "You look at us and you see oppression; we see stability and harmony. You see corruption; we see ties of family, friendship, and mutual support. You see feudalism, we see mutual responsibility. You see the oppression of women, we see the defence of modesty." In The Good Son, family and tribe eventually outweigh the chain of command, and even the rule of law.

Akiva Gottlieb is a contributor to The Nation and the Los Angeles Times.