The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson, created a minor sensation in the literary world when it went out for bid in 2007. Reportedly, early bids of $1 million were declined. Doubleday eventually came out the winner. Responding to a banner ad from Publisher’s Lunch, I was fortunate enough to receive an Advance Readers Copy, prior to the book’s August 5, 2008 release.

The narrator of The Gargoyle (it seems that he’s consciously never named by the author) had a troubled childhood, and has grown into full-bore bad guy: Pornographer, Drug Addict, and, as the story opens, a Very Impaired Driver on a mountain road. Mysteriously, a volley of burning arrows flies across the road and in front of the car (are they real? hallucinated? Flying through a warp in the space-time continuum?). One too many over-reactions on the Narrator’s part, and he and his car are plunging down the mountainside, toward a crash and an inferno.

By the top of page 3, the narrator is on fire.

The opening of the Gargoyle is like a stiff Scotch, accidentally swallowed down the wrong pipe. It burns going down (you’ll pardon the metaphor), with fumes all up your nose, and you’ll want to take a deep breath. And like a great scotch, once the first drink settles, you’ll want more:

I imagine, dear reader, that you’ve had some experience with heat. Perhaps you’ve tipped a boiling kettle at the wrong angle and the steam crept up your sleeve….I want you to imagine something new…Imagine turning on one of the elements of your stove – let’s say it’s the electric kind with the black coils on top. Don’t put a pot of water on the element because the water only absorbs the heat….a slight violet tinge will appear, nestled there in the black rings, and then the element assumes some reddish-purple tones, like unripe blackberries. It moves towards orange, and finally – finally! – an intense glowing red. Kind of beautiful, isn’t it? Now lower your head so that your eyes are even with the top of the old stove and you can peer through the shimmering waves rising up…..I want you to trace the fingertips of your left hand gently across your right palm, noting the way your skin registers even the lightest touch. If some else were doing it, you might even be turned on. Now, slam that sensitive, responsive hand directly onto the glowing element.

And hold it there. Hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever. Let the heat engrave the skin, the muscles, the tendons; let it smolder down to the bone. Wait for the burn to embed itself so far into you that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to let go of that coil. It won’t be long until the stench of your own burning flesh wafts up, grabbing your nose hairs and refusing to let go, and you smell your body burn….I want you to do one more thing….lean down, turn your head to one side, and slap your check against that same element. I’ll let you choose which side of your face…Now you might have some idea of what it was like for me to be pinned inside that car…

Clearly Davidson has made a deep study of burns and their treatment. On occasion his hypnotic renderings of fire make you wonder if he played with matches too much as a child. Davidson gives all the gory details (literally) of burn treatment, the methods, rationales, and dangers. We follow the Narrator into the hospital and follow his recovery, where he is eventually discovered by Marianne Engle, who appears to be a somewhat deranged artist that likes to sculpt in the nude. Marianne apparently knows our Narrator from the Middle Ages (she apparently has a very long lifespan which our Narrator does not). Marianne attends to our Narrator during his recovery, and begins a Scheherazade-like series of tales involving….well, you’ll need to read the book for those. Along the way, the Narrator also acquires a metaphorical (or is it?) Snake: a voice of self doubt and the personification of Morphine addiction.

The series of tales start in the Middle Ages in Germany, and wend their way into other times and locations, including the aforementioned Hell of Dante. The two-track structure of the novel, alternating between modern times and the Middle Ages, is often reminiscent of Crichton’s Timeline. Yet Crichton’s time-travel has a meticulous and well-articulated (if speculative) mechanism for this time duality. I never felt a clear grasp of the intended mechanism in the Gargoyle, and as a result had some trouble achieving Coleridge’s state of “willing suspension of disbelief” required for fantasy to really work to the fullest extent.

The “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights” structure generally works well and is quite entertaining. This is a first novel, and a fine one – but in places the book feels forced, and I found some of the transitions from one tale to the next to be artificial and abrupt. And some of the stories seem a bit unmotivated and arbitrary. In particular, the Viking interlude featuring Sigurðr, while thoroughly enjoyable, in the end doesn’t seem to really take the book anywhere. Nonetheless the prose is crisp throughout – the occasional awkwardness comes more from the structure of the story than from the language, which is often quite powerful. As the stories progress, I often found myself trying to figure out who was re-incarnated, and who was not? But perhaps that is part of the experience….

The primary criticism of the novel that I have is that the transformation of the Narrator from Bad Guy into what he becomes seems to happen off-camera, as it were – I did not feel as though I was really participating in the internal dialog, the wrenching psychological changes that occur to the Narrator, until near the end of the book.

Those criticisms aside, the book was wonderful fun. Marianne is rendered larger than life – wild hair, flashing green eyes, carving grotesques and sleeping on them in the nude. The Snake is an ever-present voice, whispering poison into the Narrator’s ear (or mind) – a wonderful manifestation of the self doubt we all feel at times. The novel is sprinkled throughout with wonderful historical asides and filled with arcane Medieval history – the history of German translations of Dante, the parallels between Dante’s cosmography and the views and trials of Galileo, and the fundamental strangeness of Medieval German Christian Mysticism via the mortifications of the flesh and self-flagellation. And of course, Gargoyles, and how they are different from Grotesques (you probably have them mixed up, you know – if it doesn’t channel water, it’s not a Gargoyle, it’s a Grotesque). It’s an entertaining read. It has a few rough edges, but read it – I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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