Thursday, April 1, 2010

Book Review: Andrew Davidson, The Gargoyle

Publisher/Year: Random House, 2009
Book Club: The Next Best Book Club 2010

Andrew Davidson’s debut novel The Gargoyle has all the aspirations of bestseller dynamite, yet is clouded by the reality of reader contraction. Authorship pretensions bleed through on every page, through the clunky narration that at best limps along to a highly unsatisfactory and weary end. Davidson is, if nothing else, imaginative in his narrative formulations; however, the execution of these formulations runs the gamut from highly emotive to cringe-inducing.

The novel begins with high and seductive intentions, plunging its unnamed hero into a fiery self-apocalyptic adventure. A pornographer and cocaine addict, the hero runs off the road one night after witnessing a shower of arrows heading for him. He survives but suffers from horrific burns to the majority of the body, thanks to the explosive combination of the car catching fire and him having an open bottle of liquor in his lap.

While recovering in the burn unit, the hero learns that he has lost his good looks and his penis, and with that pretty much any will to live on. But, and it takes him awhile to accept this, he has also gained something in return - a mysterious female companion named Marianne Engel who claims to be his lover from the 14th century. Marianne is a sculptor well-known for her gargoyles that are high in demand by the wealthy. She is also a patient at the hospital, though a resident of the psychiatric unit and not the burn unit. Her assigned unit offers an explanation of sorts to the hero for the cryptic and history-steeped narrative formulations she hurls at the hero as fact.

The two become close, eventually resulting in co-habitation following the hero’s release from the hospital. Their slow-creeping closeness is not the resulting fantasy of a delusional mind paired with a psychically crippled one, as would be easy to conceive based on how the overarching story is initially positioned. Davidson leads the reader down the path in another direction, one that wishes to present a picture of calm sanity and battered redemption rooted in the ever-elusive tangible forces of love.

Through the months marking the hero’s recovery, Marianne reconstructs their love affair in installments that take on almost mythical proportions. She tells the hero of their first meeting, her a nun at a monastery at Engelthal and he a mercenary brought there for treatment after being hit by a flaming arrow. She nursed him back to health, renounced her vows, and fled with him to continue their apparently undying love affair. Her devotion to his recovery in the present mimics that expressed upon their initial engagement. Now, as then, it is Marianne who inspires the hero to live, to move beyond his blistering physical reality and to move towards the continuity of re-birth. To Marianne, “gargoyles ache to be born” and no such greater gargoyle has such a compulsive ache than the unnamed hero.

The release of their story is excruciatingly slow, a pace even noted by the hero, as Marianne weaves tales of inextinguishable love from around the world into their own. Viking Iceland, 14th century Italy, medieval Japan, and Victorian England all take resident in drawn out tragic tales that hinge on the four elements of air, water, fire, and earth to wring every ounce of romanticism for the hero’s edification. There is even a tour through Dante’s hell, a hallucinated travel positioned as a coda to previous narratives for the hero as he endures morphine withdrawal. All of these tales convey a common message – love outlasts death, as one or both of the intendeds will and must sacrifice in its name.

This particular episode could be considered the most vivid of the novel, not only because of the evocation of its literary predecessor but also because it is where the deepest disappointments of the novel become fully realized. Davidson is just not a strong enough author to follow through on fluidly projecting his imaginings onto the page. He constantly muddles his sensitivities to his own characters by imparting quick quips and descriptions of the inane (“a plump eggplant’s fecund belly pregnant with stuffing”) that serve to implode the intensity of the moment in favor of a more comforting middle ground. The commitment Davidson requires to own the audacity of his imagination and the characters engrossed within it is just not present on a consistent basis.

And without the consistency, it is taxing to move past the immobility of the present-day story and submerge into the collage of stories-within-stories that is The Gargoyle. While readers can allow themselves to be seduced by the possibility of ever-lasting love that spans centuries, it is markedly more difficult to believe that any of the characters marking the various tales were experiencing love. Little intimacy is portrayed, as Davidson does not excavate any of the emotional depth expected for such a grand topic. There is more sentimental sheen than true affection threaded throughout the novel, and unfortunately that is just not enough.

Davidson’s determination to make The Gargoyle a comprehensive whole is applaudable and a little enviable. He did not back away from the scope of his story, demonstrating an ambitious will for his entrance into the literary world. And he does deserve admiration for his skill at tackling physical descriptions ("I plumped up like a freshly roasted wiener, my skin cracking to accommodate the expanding meat"). Actually, he is perhaps a little too skilled as the first few pages can be more than a little assaulting on the senses.

Guaranteed, The Gargoyle will inspire decidedly different takes on how successful Davidson was on packaging his ambitions within its pages. It will be difficult though for the most ardent supporter to not agree that The Gargoyle suffers from wanting to be more substantial than it regrettably turns out to be.

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