19 January 2007


Damascus Gate by Robert Stone

It's hard to know quite what to make of Robert Stone's novel about millenary crazies in Jersusalem. It's an excellent novel, well written, well plotted and complex. It is at times overly complex, but not so as to be
impenetrable. It's frequently allusive, and those allusions are spelled out at times, and not at others. You can feel as if you're dissecting a T. S. Eliot poem rather than a contemporary novel with thriller aspirations. Stone comes off as a brilliant, perhaps too brilliant, writer with more to say than necessarily needs to be said.

That said, however, the novel never seems bloated or overwritten. In fact, it is sleek and well edited, even at nearly 500 pages. It's taken me almost a week to read it, and that's unusual, especially given my commuting time these days.

The novel weaves the stories of
Christopher Lucas, a somewhat dissassociated freelance journalist, and Sonia Barnes, a red diaper baby cum jazz singer cum Sufi accolyte, with the tales of several drug addicts, psychotics, NGO activists, American right wing evangelicals, and Zionist guerillas. This cast of characters then seeks to bring about their own spiritual renewal, the spiritual salvation of the world, the coming (and/or coming again) of the Messiah, and the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem. Plots are hatched by crazies and political extremists -- which then begin to overlap in both sensational and banal syncronistic ways . Lucas and Sonia fall in love -- or maybe they've just fallen under the sway of an American department store heir and self-proclaimed prophet who has come to believe himself to be the Messiah now that he's off his medication. When the characters and plots begin to intersect, you are surprised at first, but then see that it couldn't have been any other way. Stone may be a highly acclaimed and award winning literary author, but he's no slouch when it comes to crafting a complex thriller of religious and political intrigue.

The novel is best when describing the comings and goings, customs and quotidien ways of everyday Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Russian Jerusalimites. You get a real since of how this city at the center of so many worlds has evolved (or devolved) into the near chaos one so often hears about. Critics have called Damascus Gate one of the best novels written about contemporary Jerusalem. That may be true, but in the end, I hope not. The Jerusalem depicted here is one overrun by nutcases, zealots, cynics, manipulators and anti-Semites of every stripe. The overall tone of the novel is deeply cynical, and there is no single sincerely religious character. Everyone is Damascus Gate is either deluded or busy manipulating the deluded to their advantage.

Stone's most recent book has just come out. It's called Prime Green and it is a non-fiction account of his days on acid and on the bus with Timothy Leary and other Sixties figures. The man has lived many lives, it seems. I'm not sure how his deep knowledge of the Middle East was gained, but the disallusioned hippie stance is evident throughout Damascus Gate.

All in all, I liked Damascus Gate. I don't think I'll be quick to pick up more of Stone's work, if only because it can be work to get through. But it's a well written and entertaining work, if not, for me a particularly beloved one.

My rating:

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