The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
Much like The Resurrectionist, The Gargoyle is a contemporary novel I thought was set in the past. However, seeing as almost half of The Gargoyle is composed of historical fiction, I’m almost right. I think The Gargoyle may be one of the last recommendations I have from a trip to England in the past, gleaned from Waterstone’s throughout the land; in any case, the cover is certainly enthralling. (I’m a visual creature, I’ll never get over it.) Trapped on an airplane attempting to return home (Hartsfield-Jackson shut down for a few hours, mucking the entire United States up), I finished it all in one sitting- certainly a refreshing change of pace over a week of Ivanhoe!
The Gargoyle is the story of an unnamed narrator, formerly a gorgeous porn star and currently recovering from a horrific car crash in the burn ward. As he watches his life fall down around him, our narrator decides to kill himself as soon as he can. But a woman starts visiting him in the hospital, the mysterious Marianne Engel, a sculptor who believes that she and the narrator are lovers that have been reincarnated throughout the ages. As she tells him the story of their first love, as well as love stories from around the world, the narrator finds meaning in life as he’s drawn closer to Marianne Engel. But their happiness is marred by the narrator’s increasing addiction to morphine, as well as Marianne Engel’s belief that she needs to carve twenty-seven more sculptures before she can find absolution–which, to Marianne Engel, means death.
I have to admit, at first, I didn’t think I was going to like The Gargoyle because of the narrator. I didn’t like him (he’s cynical and vicious at the beginning) and I hated his attitude towards women and sex. (I also didn’t like his trite and pretentious imagery.) But it’s an accomplishment that he eventually grows on you, becoming a better person because of Marianne Engel while still being himself- his morphine addiction certainly proves that. The Gargoyle is mostly the story of the narrator developing the ability to love, and it executes it very well–so well, in fact, that I didn’t mind the fact the narrator is never named, something I usually despise. However, it also uses the literary equivalent of the cinematic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but I won’t go into that during this review–that’s something for a Sunday Salon article. Here, I feel it is done well, but I’m slowly growing less and less fond of MPDGs.
The pacing and structure is wonderful. As our narrator recovers, he alternates between telling us about his painful recovery and his past in perfect little chunks, although I’m never exactly in love with the narrator’s language until the end. Since the contemporary story focuses on the narrator recovering from his severe burns and coming to live with Marianne Engel (and, wonderfully, she’s always Marianne Engel to the narrator, never just Marianne), there’s plenty of room for the historical stories Marianne Engel tells him as he recuperates and they develop as a couple. I loved reading Marianne Engel’s stories, which are connected by the theme of true and absolute love, even in the face of death, and I especially enjoyed the moment of realization when you understand why she’s telling these stories in addition to their supposed past. Each story is well researched and just downright good- the intertextuality with Dante’s Inferno (a copy of which is important to the plot) is just icing on the cake.
I quite liked the choice for the narrator’s self-doubt and addiction being manifested as a female snake in his spine (in, of course, his head); it’s an interesting way to look at his issues regarding women and voice his “dark” side as he becomes a better person. (I could, however, have done without the black typewriter font for the snake.) Marianne Engel, despite being a literary Manic Pixie Dream Girl, is actually very nicely complex- she doesn’t quite remember boundaries between her and the narrator at times because she remembers him as her lover in medieval Germany, and she throws herself into sculpting (which, according to her, is her divine mission) with an increasing fervor that puts her in the hospital a few times. I also really enjoyed the fact that the truth about her is ambiguous–she could be who she says she is, or she could just be a mental patient. Her voice is quite distinct from the narrator’s, and I really enjoyed her as a character, although she doesn’t develop like the narrator does. (More on that in a future Sunday Salon!) The rest of the cast is sketched out well, but never as fleshed out as our two leads; there’s Sayuri, the narrator’s physical trainer, and Gregor, his psychiatrist, as well as the rest of the hospital staff that make up the narrator’s new circle of friends. While I liked them just fine, I did prefer the characters from Marianne Engel’s stories (which include scheming nuns).
But The Gargoyle isn’t without its flaws. As I’ve mentioned, the beginning can be difficult to get through, with the narrator’s almost pretentious imagery, his general imagery, and the horror of such severe burns. It picks up once Marianne Engel arrives on the scene. While I liked Davidson’s choice to make the narrator a pornographer (making him extremely shallow), I could have done without some of his history and especially two stories that Gregor and the narrator share about their childhoods; I realize Davidson is going for the grotesque here, but he occasionally steps over into some bad taste. Additionally, when the narrator early on thinks life without sex isn’t worth it, I understood–he’s still the cynic and, as a formerly highly sexual person, it’s a natural reaction. But when Marianne Engel, in telling her story, says that a life of chastity is no life at all, I had to roll my eyes. Still, these are small flaws in the greater scheme of the novel.
Bottom line: The Gargoyle pulls off one of the most difficult stunts in literature–start with an unappealing cynic and make the audience care about them as they grow and develop. Combined with the interesting character of Marianne Engel and her marvelous stories, The Gargoyle is a novel well worth your time–although do beware; on a few occasions, the grotesque steps over into bad taste, and the beginning isn’t exactly promising.
I rented this book from the public library.