Review Archive


The Gargoyle

Andrew Davidson

Doubleday / Random House

US First Edition Hardcover

ISBN 978-0-385-52494-0

468 Pages; $25.95

Publication Date: 08-05-2008

Date Reviewed: 09-01-2008

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel 2008

Index: General Fiction, Fantasy, Horror References: Interview (08-11-08, 08-11-08)

Novelists like to immerse their readers in the narrative, to grab their attention from the get-go, hoping never to lose hold after a bold beginning. Few decide to do so by immersing their readers in fire, by rendering third-degree burns with flinch-worthy veracity. Andrew Davidson isn’t afraid to do so, and he lingers in his descriptions not just of being burned, but of the months and indeed years of painful, ugly, partial recovery. All this, the thirteenth century, even Hell itself, but nary a kitchen sink in sight. You can describe Andrew Davidson's first novel, 'The Gargoyle' with a variety of verbs, nouns and adjectives. Just don't include restrained.

Davidson succeeds easily in his quest to draw readers in as his unnamed narrator suffers the torments of hell on earth. Before his well-deserved accident, he was a heartless pornographer, producing and starring in his own films. Drunk, drugged and driving, he hallucinates a volley of arrows one night. Swerving to avoid the unreal, he crashes and burns – both physically and psychologically. In the course of his torturously detailed recovery, a beautiful woman, Marianne Engel, appoints herself his caretaker. If this sounds too good to be true, well, it certainly is. Marianne's a sculptress who fashions hideous gargoyles out of stone, and she's quite convinced that she knew the narrator in another very specific life, in 13th century Germany. He thinks she's "unhinged," but as she tells him their tale and several others, Scheherazade-style, Davidson's storytelling skills are brought to the foreground. Clearly backed by assiduous research, these stories don’t feel like lies, either emotionally or factually. Marianne doesn't seem unhinged and her stories seem every bit as true as the present-day story in which she tells them.

Of course, our narrator has a few other problems. He becomes addicted to the morphine required to hold back his pain, and has conversations with a snake that he thinks has replaced his spine. He doesn't buy the previous-lives line, but who's he to call her crazy? How many sub-stories can Davidson cram into a single story and still make that single story compelling? There's clearly more than enough craziness to go around in 'The Gargoyle', but none to be attributed to the author. He manages to make a book that seems to go everywhere at least go somewhere, and that's certainly an entertaining feat.

'The Gargoyle' is an interesting case of literary identity. It includes history written in the style of fantasy, and fantasies that are clearly literary. For all the elements of the fantastic you'll find within, it does not read like genre fiction. Most of the characters are unpleasant or plainly unlikeable, but they're all interesting to read about. There's nobody to cheer for in 'The Gargoyle', but you will care about what happens to those whose lives, real, literary and fantasized, it portrays. The narrator begins as a heartless SOB, and in the course of the novel though his skin is imperfectly re-grown, the heart he develops is at best vestigial. But watching him shiver and sputter as he suffers the agony he comments upon with archly entertaining self-deprecation is quite a show. While one might expect a sort of "guardian angel" like Marianne Engle to compensate with her generosity, she too, is self-involved. But as she destroys her body and renders her mind to create the grotesque titular sculptures, she certainly keeps the reader entertained with her artistic excess. The phrase "made for each other" comes to mind. Or maybe "deserve one another."

The characters in the stories told by Marianne within the novel fare a good deal better – at least emotionally. Physically, they tend to meet fates in line with those of the present day characters. But at least they try to lead lives of honor, joy, and yes, love. There are several sub-stories, cleverly woven though the text of the present-day travails of the crispy pornographer. They're well-written, superbly researched, emotionally involving and rewarding. Some are short stories, and a couple of longer pieces are threaded through the novel at greater length. Some readers might even wonder if what they've got in their hands is the Evil Father of All Fix-Up Novels, those shambling Frankenstein beasts stitched from the crumpled bodies of published and unpublished short stories. There's an element of Frankenstein's monster here in fact of the stitching. But 'The Gargoyle' doesn't really scan that way.

Given the variety and disparity of elements on display in 'The Gargoyle', it’s a tribute to the author's skill that it hangs together as well as it does. At least, it certainly keeps you reading. It's almost the Rocky Road Ice Cream of novels, with delightful expository lumps embedded in a chilled slab. But that slab's bitter, black at heart and not in the least bit sticky. Writing to keep himself entertained, Davidson manages to entertain and string along the reader as well, with enough cliffhangers to occupy a battalion of Dudley Do-Wrongs. He knows how long to let any single story run before pulling the plug. His language skills are strong if not exactly poetic. He has a firm imagination that enables him to describe Hell itself as if it were just a bad patch of town inhabited by a deformed criminal element. It seems real all right, and our no-so-humble narrator certainly seems at home there.

Keeping it all together is the overarching love story of Marianne and the narrator. Davidson knows he has to make that story work for the novel to work as a whole, and it does. But it wouldn't work without all the Frankenstein stitching. Nor would the stories themselves seem as notable. Rope 'em all together, get the balance right, and you get 'The Gargoyle'. If you pick it up, you’re unlikely to put it down or forget it. You might want to punch the narrator. But when he picks himself up off the ground, bloodied and still garrulous, you'll want to hear what he has to say.


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