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.

In the course of his researches, Lucas stumbles on a mystical religious cult led by a young man called Raziel Melker, an American Jew who had converted to Christianity but who is now a Sufi. His old girlfriend, Sonia Barnes, a nightclub singer, is a member of the cult, and, like Raziel, a former druggie. Raziel and Sonia have decided that Adam De Kuff, an unstable American Catholic, is the new Messiah, and that ‘the End of Days’ is nigh. De Kuff starts preaching to crowds of seekers. He teaches a religious and mystical medley, combining millenarian Christianity, Lurianic Kabbala, Buddhist reincarnation, Hindu wisdom, and so on. Stone has been busy in the library – apparently in imitation of Denys of Alexandria, who received an order from God to read everything. He reproduces his reading lists every so often, in meaningless swathes: De Kuff and Raziel ‘talked about Zen and Theravada and the Holy Ghost, the bodhisattvas, the Sefirot and the Trinity, Pico della Mirandola, Teresa of Avila, Philo, Abulafia, Adam Kadmon, the Zohar, the sentience of diamonds, the Shekhinah, the meaning of tikkun’.

In fact, Raziel is involved in a right-wing Zionist plot to blow up the Temple Mount, destroy the mosque, and restart the war of 1948, this time to the finish. He is assisted by various sinister American Christian apocalyptics, who believe that Christ can only come again through the flames of such a conflagration, and apparently assisted by two spies who are actually working for the Israeli Government and who have infiltrated the Zionist networks: Jan Zimmer, a Polish immigrant, and Ian Fotheringill, a Scottish chef and former SAS member. Lucas discovers this menace almost too late, and is nearly killed. The novel ends in a thrillerish shoot-out along underground tunnels. When it is all over, Lucas flies back to New York, clearer-eyed about the insanity of religious adherence.

Stone makes things too easy for himself. His realism is never challenged by Jerusalem’s wild novelties, only lazily fed by it. ‘In the Gaza Strip, it was possible to happen upon anything,’ he writes at one point, and this is the descriptive principle of the novel: it is a strip of ceaseless anythings – pilgrims, madmen, spies, expatriates, soldiers and so on. It proceeds as certain action movies do, except that the swift location changes are metaphysical. And there is an undoubted metaphysical vulgarity, a melodrama, here. Stone might reply that he is describing a concatenation of metaphysical vulgarities, the kind exaggerated by Jerusalem, but his novel’s inability to consider any form of religious attachment that is not extreme or deranged can be read as the novel’s own pedagogical statement about Jerusalem. ‘What happens here affects the inner life of the whole world,’ Sonia announces (it’s a very DeLillo-ish announcement), and Stone seems to agree with her.

Unembarrassed by his riches, Stone is never shamed into stringency: there is always a fresh diversion around the corner. And the novel uses the extremism of its subject to nullify actual religious difference. Indeed, Damascus Gate tends to run together all forms of extreme experience, political or religious. Lucas hears a string quartet of Russian immigrants playing Shostakovitch. He finds the playing ‘inexpressibly beautiful. Yad Vashem, the Gulag, Gaza, exile, cruelty, compassion.’ From this it is only a short step to the Le Carré-like vulgarity, near the end of the book, of ‘outside, where the twiight teemed with riddles, the sun had disappeared beneath the Philistine Sea.’ The novel that began as an attempt to unpick riddles ends by revering them.

Stone might have written a more serious novel, even with this subject-matter, were it not for the hardened simplicities of his realism, which clear away all complication even in the process of announcing complication. In previous novels, in particular in Dog Soldiers and Outerbridge Reach, Stone has often written with vivacious solidity. Here, he rarely crawls beyond convention, writing as if literary modernism had never occurred, as if language were not a medium but a neutral saturate, like light, and as if the novel’s only desire were reportorial summation. Characters are briskly painted, as clothes-horses or busts, or often both: ‘Dr Obermann was red-bearded, crew-cut and thickbodied. He wore a turtle-neck and slacks and army-issue glasses’; ‘Her eyes were very blue and the sort called piercing’; ‘Lucas was a big man, broad-shouldered, thin-lipped, long-jawed’; ‘A horse-faced woman in a yellow pantsuit, with short dark hair and prominent teeth’.

Description of scenery has that careful enigmatic ordinariness that Graham Greene does better: ‘She had opened a latticed Moorish door to the small sunny courtyard outside and moved her chair to sit beside it. An olive tree grew from the dry soil in the middle of the court. Two thirsty-looking potted orange trees sat on the loose cobblestones. The sky had a rich blue afternoon light.’ The short, chopped sentences attempt to impart an aesthetic selectivity, a dramatic chosenness to the details, as if all kinds of impedimenta were avoided on the way to this pondered essence. In actuality, the details are usually the most haplessly banal. Sometimes, Stone is not even this good. This is how he describes a French hospice: ‘The interior of the hostel was redolent of France. Lucas breathed in the aroma of floral soap, sachet and varnish. There were fresh cut flowers at the reception desk. The first guests had come down for breakfast and were speaking French, adding the smoke of their first Gauloises to the mix, along with the smell of coffee and croissants.’ Apparently ‘French’ just means nice French smells.

All representation, especially of the realist kind, is a forcing of particles; but Stone’s forcings are unusually rigid. My point against Stone is not the one commonly understood by Martin Amis’s comment that his father wished he had more sentences of the order of ‘He finished his drink and left the room.’ Stone’s realism would not be transformed if he just wrote more fancily, though it might be a little more interesting. The weakness lies in his apparent certainty that language can simply yield what it is asked to describe, in his refusal to admit any level of uncertainty into the business of narration. Narration never registers any struggle in Damascus Gate any more than it does in DeLillo’s Underworld, which is fancily-written realism. Both books, you feel, could continue for thousands of pages and keep the same even tone and calm pitch.

A contradiction quickly emerges. Despite the fact that Stone is drawn towards the incomprehensible, the mystical, the fringe, his prose insists on the briskly knowable, and shuts off any of the apertures his religious interests may have opened. ‘Tsililla had been raised on a Tolstoyan-Freudian-Socialist Kibbutz in the Galilee, equipped from infancy with such a plenitude of answers to life’s questions as to leave her awash in useless certainties.’ And that is all we hear about Tsililla’s certainties. It is not Tsililla’s certainties that are the problem, but Stone’s easy formulation of them. He is altogether too certain about her certainties – it is not his place to decide their uselessness in such rapid summation.

The inevitable result of Stone’s realism of the knowable is a mere knowingness, a journalistic slickness: ‘Maria Clara tottered over on her heels. She was wearing skintight spangled pants from a Paris designer.’ Stone has a paragraph about the German, Scandinavian and Irish women who work for relief agencies in the West Bank: ‘fair, boreal creatures whose grannies and great-aunts had been missionaries to the hot world and who laboured on in the same vineyard, chastened and rigorously non-judgmental, demystified but no less intense’. This is everything writing should not be. The tone, because it is journalistically smart and world-weary, is also condescending: instead of capturing actualities, it dabs at typologies; it is verbally drowsy (‘vineyard’ is the grossest cliché). The briefest comparison with Conrad, with whom Stone is often compared, shows not only the difference in talent, but Conrad’s advantage in vividness and depth, when describing characters, for he writes about private narratives that we do not know. Conrad had a genius for hidden strangeness; Stone has a talent for obvious strangeness.

So it is that Stone’s details are frequently not exactly wrong, but wrong because they are a little too right. Christopher Lucas’s father, for example, was a German Jew who taught at Columbia, a great immigrant scholar. At one point, Lucas says of his father and mother: ‘he took her on a trip to Los Angeles on the Superchief’ – the cross-country train – ‘to meet all his pals. The Frankfurt school. Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse and Thomas Mann.’ Although Adorno helped Mann with Doctor Faustus, Mann had no especial proximity to the Frankfurt School, so Stone is technically wrong. But the little list is wrong because it is so obviously the ‘correct’ list of famous Germans in California during the war, as if chosen by a zealous computer. It is the level of detail that is the problem not its accuracy.

The Chief Casualties of Stone’s realism are his characters. This novel, like all its predecessors, is large and bountiful with characters. But they are just a rattle of words on the page; a name attached to a verb. We are always encountering ‘Lucas thought that’ or ‘Lucas wondered if’ or ‘As far as Sonia was concerned’, as if these names had somehow come alive without any help from Stone, who flatters them with the prestige of free will and free thought; the disjunction between this flattery and their absolute hollowness becomes almost comical. It is as if he were a CEO who was always trying to include his secretary in company decisions. His characters have short, efficient biographies, of course – a parent there, a brother here, a university, a temper, a drinking problem – but that is all they have. It would be hard to describe Lucas once the novel has ended. As with most of Stone’s male heroes, his only vivid quality is his separateness, a slightly mournful (and rather boring) quality of toughened alienation.

This failure of the human is a distinctive weakness of current American realism. Stone, like his coevals, is drawn to the very mode of writing which offers the greatest possibility for the exploration of character; and then either refuses, or is not capable of, the interiority, the hermeneutic intensity that great character demands. In the works of Didion, Stone, Irving, and in DeLillo’s Underworld, one encounters large novels that insist, sometimes didactically, on connections between their various parts, yet which, at the human level, offer characters who have no connection with each other and no connection to the reader, because they have no reality. The connectedness that these writers claim to find – political, religious, social, intellectual – is almost entirely conceptual.

Virginia Woolf attacked Galsworthy, Bennett and Wells as realists who defined character only by stubbing the end of it into clothes, income, social status and so on. She faulted a generation for its vivid exteriors. A new generation of realists might be similarly faulted, except that now even the Edwardian solidity has disappeared. Instead of those vivid exteriors, we are offered only the exterior of realism itself – its shape, its machinery, its process. Our fictional characters are not audible and visible and surely present, in the Edwardian manner, but are, in both senses of the word, merely sensational. Alas, the hero of Damascus Gate is a familiar late 20th-century ghost: a speaking frame, who knows what he doesn’t like more feelingly than what he does, who knows no more than what the author gives him, and who silently nullifies all that he voyeuristically consumes.