With the possible exception of St. Augustine, the most famous conversion story in the history of Christianity is that of Saul of Tarsus. Saul, an overzealous rabbi, asks to visit Damascus in order to round up Christian converts and bring them to Jerusalem. Jesus appears to Saul and asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” Blinded for three days by the vision, Saul converts, eventually changes his name to Paul, and spends the rest of his life as the thirteenth apostle, talking up Christianity to everyone he meets. Taken as metaphor, Saul’s transformation suggests the necessity of becoming blind to the material world in order to “see” the spiritual path.
Reading Elana Greenfield’s collection of genre-blurring stories, At the Damascus Gate: Short Hallucinations—a book that evokes Kafka, Calvino, and Schnitzler among others—requires a similar leap of faith. The book’s consciousness exists in the regions between three binaries: alive/dead; awake/asleep; native/foreign, and it is necessary to transcend notions of conventional narrative in order to dwell in the book’s possibilities. When a soldier’s heart is reincarnated as a parachute (in Greenfield’s story “The Soldier’s Dream”) as he visits a narcoleptic spirit guide who leads him to the children he may or may not have fathered, it’s easier to accept in the way that a dream allows for ruptures in narrative as if they were logical occurrences.
The book seamlessly shifts locations from Brooklyn to Iowa City to Nazareth to Cairo to Jerusalem, though one never senses a linear progression.The point isn’t to arrive; the point is to experience the journey. This particular trip, while seemingly bound to various literal geographies, is in fact leading us into the uncharted realm of the self, but does so through the calming influence of Greenfield’s lucid and piercing prose.
In “Desire,” a story for radio, originally commissioned and produced by WNYC for the Radio Stage, the characters exist virtually inbetween countries aboard “Icelandic Flight 003 to New York.” The piece introduces an Angel/Stewardess on the plane who requests that all Muslims genuflecting to the East on small rugs and all Jews swaying in front of any emergency exits, please try and act more like the Christians onboard who you will notice are sitting in their seats and quietly crossing themselves.
This subtle implication of the Angel/Stewardess’s desire to convince the Muslims and Jews onboard to exhibit the more restrained gestures of the Christian passengers could serve as a chilling metaphor for the contemporary political scene in this country.
Greenfield is also fond of the occasional ecstatic moment of playful lyricism, as in “Freer Than the Psychopathic Blonde Vixen on the Soaps,” where the blonde of the title sings, “O tape me! Tape me! Says my heart, next time / I’m on T.V.” Or in “The Voice of the Damascus Gate,” where the personified gate shouts, “That boot-maker from Palermo, Yerushalayim, you will always have his fire!”
That Greenfield moves easily between animate and inanimate (a fourth binary) is no great surprise. She adheres only to the dream logic she establishes in the first piece, “TheVoice of the American Colony Hotel:” “It’s hard to distinguish your bride from the generators. She’s so demure.”
Greenfield’s visions force the reader out of his complacency and into the realm of the unknown, where faith supplants reason and the reward is a higher level of understanding.