Ceaseless Anythings

James Wood

  • Damascus Gate by Robert Stone
    Picador, 500 pp, £16.99, October 1998, ISBN 0 330 37058 8

American realism, once a belief, is now an idle liberty. Writers such as Robert Stone, Joan Didion, John Irving and even Don DeLillo, are praised for their ‘realism’, for the solidity of their plots, the patience of their characterisation, the capillary spread of their social portraits, the leverage of their political insight. Robert Stone is one of the best contemporary realists America has. But it is difficult to read Damascus Gate with anything like the respect it seems to desire, and with which it has been received in the United States. With its carefully mortised scenes, its dialogue intelligently starved, its descriptions shaved down to a familiar stubble, and the squeezed reticence of its prose (hardly a single simile in the book, each word a little hiatus of arrival), Damascus Gate is never dull, and never unintelligent. But it is never literature, either. Instead, it reveals contemporary realism to be only a series of techniques and conventions aimed at the management of simplicity. Realism, in Stone’s hands, is a calm firefighter, able to travel anywhere and put out the fire of complexity at a moment’s notice.

Not that Stone has designs on simplicity. On the contrary, he has chosen Jerusalem, and its difficult religious and political affiliations, as his site and subject. Yet, as the novel develops, Stone’s very theme – the strangeness of religion in Jerusalem – begins to seem too dramatically intractable, and thus too easy; a way of reversing into simplicity. Christopher Lucas, Stone’s hero, is a journalist who is writing a book about the ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’, the way that city turns certain people into majnoon, or religious lunatics – who think they are the Messiah, or Moses, or Elvis, and who take Jerusalem as their theatre. Lucas ‘majored in religion’ at university, which allows Stone to equip him with the bruised fruits of the author’s own research. Like most of the protagonists, Lucas is half-Jewish; he was raised a Catholic. Stone uses this religious dapple to confound what he sees as Jerusalem’s intemperate run on theological absolutism. ‘Lucas desperately preferred almost anything to blood and soil, ancient loyalty, timeless creeds,’ Stone writes, and the same blameless decency might be fairly ascribed to the author himself. Indeed, Jerusalem, in the familiar way, is seen as an asylum of wandering absolutes – Jewish settlers, Orthodox Christians, vicious Israeli police, political Palestinians, religious Palestinians and meddling Americans. Even the Christians are wildly various:

In the Christian Quarter, a promiscuous babble of pilgrims hurried down the sloping cobbled pavement. One group of Japanese followed a sandaled Japanese friar who held a green pennant aloft. There was a party of Central American Indians of uniform size and shape who stared with blissful incomprehension into the unconvincing smiles of merchants offering knicknacks. There were Sicilian villagers and Boston Irish, Filipinos, more Germans, Breton women in native dress, Spaniards, Brazilians, Québecois.

Lucas is that familiar American male hero, a porous scout, always on the search for sensations and experiences, vaguely religious but also vaguely faithless, and uninterestingly flat. Above all, writes Stone, ‘Lucas wanted it all to mean something.’ Thus he joins the ranks of incomprehension – as a private, alas.

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