Saturday, April 28, 2012

Damascus Gate by Robert Stone

In Jerusalem, you can’t stand on the side; you must claim your tribe.

I was both disappointed by and fascinated by this book. I couldn’t put it down, though I kept wondering – is this genre fiction or is this literary fiction? Unlike the Dennis Lehane novel which I now believe falls squarely into the genre camp, the story of Damascus Gate and especially its setting of Jerusalem, was compelling and deeply interesting. Robert Stone grapples with essential questions about history, spirituality and identity. On every page, I learned something, though I didn’t get a lot of aesthetic pleasure from the read, because the characterization and the dialogue fell below acceptable standards.

The characterization is sketchy, unless we want to consider the city of Jerusalem as a character.   This might be connected to the dialogue scenes going on too long and not illuminating character but rather conveying information in a way in which if the information wasn't so interesting would be highly monotonous. Also, there feels like there are hundreds of similarly obsessed characters and I got confused. And not one of these hundreds possesses a sense of humor.

Part of the reason I wasn’t fully engaged is that the primary character or narrative conscious, Christopher Lucas, is extremely passive. At every turn, he is being acted upon, beaten up as a child because he is a Jew, abandoned by his girlfriend, unable to get an erection, beaten up as an adult for being a Jew, beaten up as an adult for not being a Jew. I didn’t feel his pain, and couldn’t root for him as he was starting to annoy me. And then the love of his life, Sonia Barnes, a half black, half Jewish Sufi, came across as really dull. I didn’t understand why these people were attracted to each other. The best characters are the evil ones, I think, the end-of-timers, the cynics, the ones creating the mischief. The various subplots had more appeal than Christopher's search for identity. Unfortunately the engine of the plot was a very “genre-y” hidden bomb search, which got silly at the end. (But don’t they always get silly at the end?)

The most striking thing about this book was its strong sense of place – Jerusalem – a unique city claimed by three major religions, a cauldron of bloody hatreds. Finally, despite the boring central characters, there are beautiful passages of description.

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