Stone bombs in Jerusalem

With the formulaic "Damascus Gate," a serious novelist succumbs to fictional banalities.

By Robert Alter
Published April 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

This novel about cultists, lunatic messianists, political conspirators and terrorists in contemporary Jerusalem vividly demonstrates how even an accomplished novelist may succumb to the seductions of formula fiction. When that happens, the novel, however serious its aspirations, cannot provide insight into politics and culture, not to speak of the life of the spirit.

Robert Stone is, of course, a seasoned professional, and the procedure he follows is transparent: Research your subject thoroughly (though I shall return to some questionable results of the research); stock the book with bizarre, exotic and mysterious characters doing dangerous things, with a spice of romantic intrigue; build lots of suspense and violence into the plot -- and you have your proverbial page-turner. It is also important to keep things simple in regard to syntax, style and even typography. Many pages are made up of paragraphs of no more than two or three lines. Sentences of a dozen words or fewer tend to predominate. The prose on the whole seeks to be merely efficient.

Here, for example, is Stone's protagonist Lucas, an American freelance journalist living in Jerusalem, getting an answering-machine rebuff from the black half-Jewish American woman with whom he is in love:

"Lucas held the phone against his chest to reject her message. Eight stories below him, an occasional vehicle sped headlong through the half-deserted streets. He felt like crying out in shame and pain. She was out of her mind, in the clutches of lunatics, and he was not man enough to save her."

This small specimen illustrates one major limitation of formula fiction. With language like this, compounded of clichis ("an occasional vehicle sped headlong through the half-deserted streets"), banalities ("He felt like crying out in shame and pain") and unnuanced simplicities ("She was out of her mind ... and he was not man enough to save her"), you cannot invest the characters with any sort of credible psychology, and without much psychological dimension in the principal actors, the page-turning suspense, deployed over 500 pages, becomes mechanical, actually a little tedious.

A great idea for a novel gets lost in all this. Jerusalem, as anyone who has lived in the city for a while can attest, is surely one of the world capitals of spiritual intensity and religious dementia of nearly every imaginable variety. If you situate yourself in the right place in or near the Old City, you may hear in a single auditory rush the nasal whine of the muezzin (amplified from a tape), the clangor of church-bells, the cacophonous half-shouted, half-chanted prayer of the ultra-Orthodox; and there are often visible signs, from angry posters to hot-eyed demonstrations, that each faith and each sectarian subdivision is ready to anathematize and, if need be, stone all the others. I think, then, that Robert Stone has hit on a promising subject in inventing a small group of followers, some Jewish, some Christian and some in between, who have attached themselves to a vaguely messianic figure from New Orleans named De Kuff and his young, heroin-addicted, jazz-playing publicist and manipulator (the two figures are transparently modeled on the 17th century pseudo-messiah, Sabbetai Zevi, and his young self-appointed prophet, Nathan of Gaza). It is also not a bad idea to have the journalist Lucas work on a book about a so-called Jerusalem Syndrome, manifested at its loony extreme in De Kuff and his disciples. But Stone's impulse to tie in the millenarianism with the skein of the suspense plot by implicating the messianists with an entirely different political group plotting to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount has the effect of reducing his report from the religious front to mere hokiness. A more pervasive problem is that his grasp of religion and politics and the local place and culture is limited to surface gestures, and even those are not altogether accurate.

This sort of novel depends on the author's winning the trust of his readers through his insider's knowingness about the represented world. Thus, Stone peppers his story with Hebrew, Yiddish and Arabic terms, and with allusions to the distinctive lore of the place, adding dollops of cabalistic doctrine chiefly culled from the writings of Gershom Scholem. A good number of these references are authentic enough, but he gets things wrong with sufficient frequency to suggest that it is all worked-up, and ultimately fake. Here are a few representative instances. The Israeli slang term for Jews of German origin is Yekkes, not tekkes. (To imagine how risible this would seem to an Israeli, think of a purportedly authentic French novel about the American South in which New Englanders were repeatedly referred to as Tankees.) The Yiddish idiom for old wives' tales is bubbe meises, not bubbe meinses. The numerical value of the Hebrew letter kuf is 100, not 19. The cabalistic term tzimtzum means only "contraction," never "expansion and contraction." Nobody in Israel refers to Tel Aviv (the initials are of course T.A.) as "T.V." -- nor to Jerusalem, in another move to jazz up the dialogue, as "J-town." The prohibited extramural altars of biblical times are called bammot in Hebrew, not hammot. And it requires only a glance at Genesis 21, without any proficiency in Hebrew, to know that Hagar was not fed by ravens in the wilderness (Elijah was the recipient of that benefaction) but rather discovered a well there.

The plot and the characters, purportedly representative of urgent contemporary issues in the Holy Land, are no more credible than these details of local life. Everything is tricked out in garish fluorescent colors. The dialogue is so self-consciously and implausibly zippy that at times you can almost hear the characters snapping their fingers in rhythm as they talk. A young Chinese-American woman employed by the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, hearing of the bomb plot, is supposed to address Lucas in the following fashion:

"I lost an old roomie -- my sorority sister -- in the explosion in Riyadh. She went back to Iowa in sections. When I hear the sacred boom, I'm one step ahead of the mob of martyrs. My English will desert me. I know the exact distance to the nearest kosher Chinese restaurant and how long it takes to cover it in heels, and that's where you'll find me. Selling noodles."

The characters' actions and personal histories are similarly pumped up. A beautiful Irishwoman -- actually, all the women in the novel are beautiful -- dedicated (perhaps a bit belatedly) to the international communist revolution, is reported to have been: mistress of a Druse militia chief in Lebanon, the lover of an insurgent colonel in Eritrea who helped her obtain food for the hungry, somehow involved with the Israeli elite fighting unit the Golani Brigade (Stone mistakenly calls it a regiment) as well as with Palestinian guerrillas. In the time frame of the novel, she is involved, sexually and politically, with a Palestinian communist working as a doctor in the Gaza Strip, and there are mind-boggling intricacies of exchanges she helps effect of drugs for arms, with knowing winks from the Israeli secret service and the collaboration of shady profiteers in Tel Aviv.

The improbably adventurous career of this international revolutionist is a model for the way the world at large is conceived in Stone's novel: Everybody is in bed with everybody else, if not literally (there's actually not much sex in the book), then figuratively. A single tangled thread leads from apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists to Jewish messianic syncretists to drug dealers to Palestinian guerrillas to the Shabak (not the "pet name" for Israel's General Security Forces, as Stone claims, but its Hebrew acronym) to intransigent settlers and their American Jewish supporters to Israeli opposition politicians scheming to get back into power. One can grant that politics in Israel is at least as corrupt as anywhere else, and that sometimes things happen through strange or even sinister alliances behind the scenes. Even so, Stone's notion of ubiquitous conspiracy and a pervasive interlocking network of sundry extremists and political interest groups strains belief. The real motive for representing things in this extravagant fashion is not a desire to be faithful to the realities of contemporary Israel but the requirements of suspense, leading to a grand resolution of all the excitements of plot.

As the novelist methodically prepares to plug in all his elaborate connections, he conducts a spectacular fireworks show that takes up most of the book's last 200 pages. The first act is in the Gaza Strip, where the protagonist finds himself caught in the throes of a general insurrection: Bloodthirsty crowds charge about in the night, piles of burning tires spew columns of black smoke to the sky, helicopters roar overhead, Israeli troops sprint through the dark with weapons at ready and Lucas flees across fields from a Palestinian mob only to fall into the brutal hands of Jewish settlers. Then, after an interlude on the Golan Heights that involves a close scrape at the Syrian border, a potent dose of hallucinogens and many portentous messianic pronouncements, Stone moves all his main characters back to Jerusalem for the finale: another nocturnal scene with rioters in the streets of the Old City, a conjunction of more conspirators from disparate points of the world's map than you can shake a stick at, a secret underground tunnel to the Temple Mount that leads to the hidden sanctuary of an ancient pagan god and a last-minute rescue by Israeli commandos of Lucas and his embattled companions.

By this point, the underlying disparity between the assiduously researched surface details of Israeli reality and the plot and conception of the novel should be evident. The thriller plot with its mysteries and revelations could just as easily have been set in any other trouble spot -- Northern Ireland or Burma or Indonesia, with a simple substitution of sectarian coloration and terrorist flag to suit the change of place. The very formulaic character of Stone's language makes the purportedly Israeli scene ultimately interchangeable with other places. At the end of the first chapter, as Lucas watches the woman with whom he will fall in love disappear into the streets of the Old City, he thinks: "Who knew to what arcane aspect of the city she might attach? The place was full of mysteries." The generality of such proclamation of mystery in the exotic city suggests how readily this whole modular verbal construction could be reassembled for a novel set in Istanbul, Karachi, Bangkok or Moscow. "Damascus Gate," instead of probing the distinctive realities of Israel on the brink of the millennium, roiling in its own peculiar mix of religious and political extremisms, is a kind of novelistic "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," unfolding around the site of the biblical Temple. Indeed, one wonders whether the film might have been the real inspiration for the novel.

Robert Alter

MORE FROM Robert Alter

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Fiction Middle East