The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
New York: Doubleday & Company
$25.95 – 468 pages – 2008
“You are mine; I am yours;
You can be sure of this.
You’ve been locked inside my heart,
The key has been thrown away,
Within it, you will always stay.”
Inscription, Gargoyle, p. 461
For the past month, the literary pundits and Internet bloggers have been all a-twitter about Andrew Davidson’s Gargoyle. Everyone from The New York Times (three weeks on the Best Seller List) to the Kirkus Reviews (with major writers like Peter Straub giving rave endorsements) - and all seem convinced that this is “the book of the year.” Is it? Well, gird your loins. This review will attempt to unravel a few strands of this Byzantine plot. Here we go!
In the first chapter, the unnamed narrator of The Gargoyle gives a vivid and darkly comical account of his self-immolation. While navigating a treacherous mountain road in his sports car, our protagonist attempts to snort a little coke and drink a little bourbon. In the subsequent wreck, the car burns, the bottle of whiskey (sitting in our hero’s lap) ignites and the hapless victim suffers massive third-degree burns to 90% of his body. When he regains consciousness in a medical “burn center,” he learns that he has a mangled arm, a disfigured face, and a host of malfunctioning body parts. In addition to having lost most of his fingers and toes, he finally discovers that he no longer has a penis.
Since our narrator earns his living as a filmmaker and a sexually adept porn star, this latter loss is devastating. In addition, the painful nature of his “reconditioning” reduces his life to an unending round of morphine comas and excruciating pain. After weighing his options, our anonymous narrator decides to commit suicide as soon as he can devise a means of accomplishing it. At this point, Marianne Engel arrives.
Marianne’s origin is uncertain. Did she simply wander down from the psychiatric ward upstairs, or is she a strange, 700-year-old woman searching for her lost lover?
She assures our astonished narrator that she will take care of his injuries, adding, “this is not the first time you have been badly burned.”
This is the beginning of an amazing journey. Each day, she comes to care for her lost lover. Gradually, she takes an active part in the treatment, employing skilled therapists, purchasing expensive equipment and cooking special foods. At one point, she disrobes to prove that she really does have “angel’s wings.” Through it all, she talks, telling her patient everything from urban myths to ancient tales of tragic lovers – yet the themes that bind them all together is always the same: the redemptive power of love.
In time we learn that Marianne speaks eight languages, has translated Dante’s Inferno into German and is an accomplished sculptress who specializes in gargoyles. According to Marianne, these surreal images “sleep” inside the huge slabs of stone in her basement and she “uncovers” them by sleeping naked on the stone and listening to the dreams of the creatures that beg her to free them. Her work sells well and pays for her luxurious life style.
In time, Marianne brings her recuperating patient home where she embarks on his final rehabilitation. Gradually, he regains the ability to walk and function while bound inside a complicated “suit” that presses his body into an “acceptable” shape. However, his most painful ordeal is “going cold turkey” for his morphine addiction. His withdrawal prompts a terrifying hallucinatory journey through Dante’s Hell, complete with demons, eternal torments, burning rivers and legions of the damned.
Woven through the tales of tragic lovers in The Gargoyle is a series of linked stories that Marianne insists are a true account of her former life with her “burned lover.” She gives a moving account of how she came to be a nun in a German monastery called “Engelthal” where she translated religious manuscripts. Here, she met and fell in love with an injured mercenary and finally fled with him. After becoming pregnant, she and her mercenary are hunted down by a band of ruthless soldiers. “You were that mercenary,” says Marianne, adding that she will prove it.
At times, The Gargoyle resembles an English version of A Thousand and One Nights, with Marianne Engel in the role of Scheherazade. Like Scheheralzade, Marianne has a talent for leaving a story “unfinished,” thereby forcing her listener to wait for the tantalizing completion.
The Gargoyle is replete with classical and literary references, and Davidson manages to combine an astonishing variety of fables and myths in this tale of “deathless love.”
Will The Gargoyle live up to the current enthusiastic (and somewhat shrill) endorsements? Yes, it will, even though at times I felt as though I were watching the “slick’ performance of a clever magician.