Robert Stone's Opium of the People: Religious Ambivalence in Damascus Gate

Article excerpt

That Robert Stone has written another novel, Damascus Gate, with a central figure resembling those drugged and detached men of his earlier work leads us to ponder why he repeatedly so situates his readers in relation to his stories. Christopher Lucas, like Holliwell (A Flag for Sunrise) and Converse (Dog Soldiers), is another marginal, uncommitted, self loathing sot, another of those who "pretended to be human but were not"(DG 326). These characters stand forever on the periphery of political or religious commitment, alternately belittling those who are involved and envying them. Moreover, they are uprooted, having gone out of their way to far flung places to witness the revolution or the revelation, even if they have no good reason to be there. They make odd pilgrims, these men, since they seem not to want to find anything.

Stone's repetition suggests a certain obsessiveness, leaving readers to ponder just what his affinity is with these men, many of whom are also writers. They do work of a journalistic sort, as Stone has sometimes done for The New York Times Magazine or Harpers, but unlike Stone, who now has six novels, his characters are frequently blocked or paralyzed, as if not knowing why they are writing in the first place.[1] For them producing any book is problematic. Converse had gone to Vietnam to write a book, yet he takes up running drugs when it appears there would be none, as if doing so might provide some equivalent. Lucas has already written a book about Grenada, but due to his fastidiousness it appeared so long after the event that what he had so startlingly revealed was no longer news. He is now attempting a book on the Jerusalem Syndrome, the phenomenon of religious mania in the Holy Land, but his effort is likely to result only in further confusion, since he remains unsure about his relation to the material. Because Stone might have called his new novel, The Jerusalem Syndrome, we are left to puzzle out his relation to this material as well. Thirteen years earlier, Stone may have provided an explanation: "I take seriously questions that the culture has largely obviated. In a sense, I'm a theologian" (qtd. in Woods 44). Yet his protagonists usually disdain theological questions, even while implicitly asking them

We might ask as well whether Stone regards his audience as his fictional writers do theirs. Characteristically Stone depicts artists like Converse and Strickland, a documentary film maker in Outerbridge Reach, who, as a matter of marketing, cynically provide the prerequisite "left-liberal coloration" in order to appease a politically correct audience in America or Europe. Similarly aware of the intricacies of left wing politics, Stone seemingly writes for the same audience to which Converse and Strickland pander, although Stone avoids making concessions by not taking sides.[2] Nonetheless, it is the readers of magazines such as The New York Review of Books, New Republic, and Nation (all of which regularly review any new Stone book) who make up Stone's audience. Somehow Stone's vacillating protagonists must be particularly recognizable to secular, left-oriented Americans, as if many of them now look to Stone for verification of their plight. Like Lucas, such readers belong "to the late imperial, rootless, cosmopolitan side of things" (DG 76). Hence, when we read how Lucas sees his audience, we may well wonder if this how Stone sees us: "When he wrote, it was for some reader like himself, a bastard, party to no covenants, promised nothing except the certainty of silence overhead, darkness around"(DG 59).

With Damascus Gate, his protagonist's quagmire has become principally a religious one. Israel may be the site of an east-west political struggle, but what disturbs Lucas particularly is that men will kill each other over questions of whom God has chosen and what God wills. By their nature, Stone's secular readers would likely share Lucas's skepticism about taking sides in such disputes. …