Stone in the Holy City

November 7, 1998

stone-1This review of Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate (1998) appeared in an edited form as “In a Grab Bag of Crazy Characters” in The Straits Times (7 November 1998).

Believe Robert Stone. The apocalypse has arrived and it is full of majnoon.

With madman one in chapter one, the head count explodes. By mid-story, you will have met hustlers, terrorists, zealots, shrinks, religionists, government agents, arms smugglers, drug addicts, paranoiacs, prophets and messiahs.

Damascus Gate, Stone’s glorious sixth novel, will make Don DeLillo look distracted, Chris Carter seem puerile and Joe Sacco go back to the Middle East. It is prose’s blazing breath of vengeance.

Its drama, carefully wound up to a click, declares as much. The plot, however, is simple enough: in present-day Jerusalem, that millennial city nearing the millennium, there is going to be a bombing. One harmless American — as Stone always has it — will be brought into its scourging centre.

But, mythos considered, nothing will have prepared you for the encyclopaedic vision which follows. Its intense cultural referentiality has sent general critics raving as loudly as general readers are ranting. From Gustav Mahler to Miles Davis, Blaise Pascal to Noam Chomsky, William Shakespeare to Ezra Pound, the Zohar to Martin Buber, this is vintage Trivial Pursuit with a narrative.

To illustrate, do the following quotations sound familiar? “The man who believes in nothing ends by believing in everything.” “In Heaven you’ll learn to sing ere here to speak.” “In my beginning is my end.” Those were the words of G. K. Chesterton, Richard Crashaw and T. S. Eliot respectively. Of course, you know that.

And this is only a beginning. While reverends and rabbis enthuse, the theologian’s Stone drags everyone else screaming into a knowledge of tikkun, partsufim and tsimtsum — which, I think, mean cosmic balance, reincarnation and growth of the divine body — and of Walter Benjamin’s discussion of Pico della Mirandola’s mysticism.

Bravest of these moves must be this: like it or not, how much attention you pay to all these expositions is actually proportionate to your understanding of the fundamental analysis of faith, read insanity, in the novel. Throw in, as Dantesque guides, two of the greatest madmen-littérateurs of the twentieth century, Woody Allen and Salman Rushdie, and the spectacle is complete.

But wait a minute: neither of these central characters — central only if you believe me — are really there, or have been there, in Jerusalem or in that fictional Jerusalem or, well, we are not exactly sure. How apt since, by the end of the 500-page adventure, the novel’s chief protagonist is likewise unsure about his own presence in the plot.

This is a curious situation: so many people in so small a place, all so cocksure they know what they are doing, and Christopher Lucas gets lost.

Lucas is “a man without story, secure from tribal delusion, able to see many levels”; at the same time, he feels that “he might give anything to be able to explain himself”. He is what we used to call a bad agnostic but, in a global reality burning with too much meaning, he has become a reluctant saint.

Damascus Gate is his refrigerium, his excursion to that circle of humanity in danger of falling off the edges of faith. It is also ours only insomuch as, through our readerly experience, we face crises that uncannily resemble the political and existential ones confounding Lucas.

Indeed, it may take a while but, failing continually to piece together what refuses to belong to the same puzzle, you will soon learn how to read the novel correctly. You will see that the context of the text is the text.

The clue is a comic verse by Richard Wilbur which Lucas — “the man with a poem for all occasions” — cannot remember until it is too late. It doubles as the book’s crucial wisdom for our age and I will break the reviewer’s code to disclose it here: “Rillons, Rillettes, they taste the same, / And would be by any other name.”

Welcome to my world.

Gwee Li Sui

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