Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle, a debut novel that explores concepts like the timelessness of love and "the redemptive power of suffering" (straight from the press notes), is annoyingly self-conscious from the start. "Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love" (p. 1) is the first line of this exhausting book, explicitly stating the connection we are asked to make between the two central events of the novel—a debilitating car accident (resulting in the severe burning and mutilation of its victim, the novel's protagonist) and a mysterious, largely inexplicable love affair—as an aggressively obvious and plainly dull metaphor of recovery and discovery, the act of finding beauty in the most unlikely places and circumstances. The fact that the nameless narrator was a drug-addled porn star before his accident makes his transformation at the hand of tragedy all the more groan-inducing and predictable, and nostalgic reflections upon his absurdly active sex life before the accident ("I was a fuck artist" [p. 38]) are juxtaposed with constant reminders that, among a plethora of other unpleasant and lingering problems resulting from his unfortunate disaster, he no longer has a penis, maybe a too-perfect literalization of the things no longer available to him.
Castrated by the effects of his former lifestyle, he now lies practically immobile in a hospital burn unit, trapped inside a body that has failed him, waiting ... for what? Why are we reading this, anyway? We're led backwards in time to his troubled childhood when he was abused by the drug addicts who raised him, and then we witness his early entry into the pornography industry and, of course, after achieving a moderate level of success, we hear about how he moved on to fostering his own drug and alcohol addictions, reaping the benefits of his appealing body by attempting, albeit indirectly, to destroy it. At one point he explicitly describes, from his hospital bed where he lies mired in self-pity, a planned suicide strategy that would theoretically utilize a combination of methods that would both ensure his subsequent death, allowing for no annoying complications, and also convince the outside world of the purity of his deed; "Never has a man looked forward to his death more than I" (p. 48), he tells us, setting up the reader for an immediate shift (from rock bottom, one assumes that the only place to go is up) in a more positive direction, in this case towards a stilted and hobbled love affair with a (probable) schizophrenic and (unlikely, at least at first) time traveler of sorts, a woman who claims to have known—and loved—the narrator in a past life.
And then things get weird. Marianne Engel, the woman who befriends the narrator of The Gargoyle, is strikingly beautiful, strange, apparently something of a stone-carving prodigy (specializing in gargoyles, or "grotesques" as she calls them) who may or may not be hundreds of years old. This detail is dealt with more or less in midstride as she captivates the narrator with tales of their supposed first meeting hundreds of years in the past, and the torrid love affair that followed. The story holds a particular interest for the narrator because, according to Marianne, they originally met under the same circumstances as they are now meeting again: he had been severely burned and she had taken on the responsibility of nursing him, physically and spiritually, back to health. Using her frequent visits to the narrator's hospital room as a framing device, we are launched into a series of mini-narratives about Marianne, her time spent in a 14th century monastery, and a host of seemingly random secondary characters who are later, rather gratuitously, roped into an extended hallucination of a descent into Dante's Hell that the narrator experiences late in the novel as a result of morphine withdrawal.
The most potent metaphor in The Gargoyle, and the one most deeply explored by Davidson, is that of recovery—and, by extension, personal growth—as a process of stripping away, rather than one of acquisition. The protagonist literally undergoes the act of stripping away who he once was during the procedure of debriment, the "ripping apart of a person, the cutting away of as much as can possibly be endured" (p. 29), which burn victims must undergo to remove their damaged outer layer of skin. This aligns closely with how Marianne Engel describes the carving of gargoyles: "...backwards art. You end up with less than you started with" (p. 73). The narrator begins to recognize himself in this process as one of Marianne's gargoyles, just another aesthetic project, when he considers a gift of a miniature gargoyle that he receives from her:
The gargoyle seemed to be trying hard to scowl, but he couldn't quite pull it off. His expression was sweet and sad and somehow all too human, like that of a forlorn man who has spent his entire life dragging himself from one tiny accident to another until the cumulative effect has crushed him under the weight of words he can no longer speak. (p. 68)
The narrator's recovery, referred to directly by the novel's title, hinges on his willingness to be "carved" by another person, a clear allusion to the intangible, uniquely inexpressible process of giving oneself to another, surrendering to unconditional love. Marianne describes how she sees herself in relationship to the gargoyles she carves, drawing even closer parallels with her painstaking and selfless care of the novel's narrator:
It's like I'm digging a survivor out from underneath the avalanche of time, which has been collecting for eons and all at once has come sliding down the mountain. The gargoyles have always been in the stone but, at this precise instant, it becomes unbearable for them to remain. They've been hibernating in the winter of the stone, and the spring is in my chisel. If I can carve away the right pieces the gargoyle comes forth like a flower out of a rocky embankment. I'm the only one who can do it, because I understand their languages and I'm the only one who can give them the hearts necessary to begin their new lives. (pp. 103-104)
But, though constantly referred to, such a beautiful image is overwhelmed by the novel's clunkiness. The narrator addresses the reader far too often and directly, ruminating on such issues as "whether beginning with my accident was the best decision, as I've never written a book before. Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story. You're still reading, so it seems to have worked" (p. 5). This type of thing is not, alas, necessary, and proves instead to be incredibly distracting. And while occasionally entertaining, the mini-narratives (in the form of oral stories that Marianne is communicating to the narrator during his bed-ridden recovery process) ultimately prove to be self-indulgent excuses to hint at the writer's familiarity with Dante, mysticism, and general theology. Readers may at times feel as though they are being educated, as (presumably) do readers of books like The Da Vinci Code, but Davidson only flirts with depth, relaying forgettable parables that reflect on the novel's primary, present-day story in only the most cursory ways. I mean, it's fine to hear about the supposed past relationship between the two main characters, and these "flashbacks" actually contain real resonance, but why do we need to hear about a Victorian farming woman who has lost her husband, a gay Viking living under the torture of unrequited love, an Italian couple dying of the plague, or a sexy Japanese girl suffering the cruelties of a feudal lord, other than as colorful diversions from the shallowness of the characters sitting directly in front of us? "I was fascinated to hear a history of Marianne Engel that did not include medieval monasteries. It made me realize how completely I had been engrossed in her fairy tales" (p. 348), says the narrator, reflecting on his time spent with Marianne, but speaking also to the reader's relationship with her fairy tales as simple distractions from the meatier issues that Davidson touches upon but ultimately circumvents in favor of more fluffy story fodder.
The novel reaches its conclusion in a grating, self-satisfied way as if, having proved its thesis (that love and redemption, glimpsing "the possibilities of the heart" [p. 371], are indeed available to all of us if we are willing to make the appropriate sacrifices), the book can now endlessly wallow in smugness. A final confession of love from the narrator to Marianne, during which he says "that every remaining beat of my heart belongs to you, and I believe that when I finally leave this world, my last breath will carry your name" (p. 446), is touching, even potentially heartbreaking if you believe in the path of his ultimate conversion from an exaggeratedly decadent past to "the panicked exhilaration that comes with starting anew" (p. 370). But it's too bad that the novel is so cold, so transparently composed as to avoid altogether the breadth of love and emotion that it tries so hard to convince us is mandatory for true human happiness.
It's regrettably impossible to divorce a novel like this one from the market conditions under which it emerged, and indeed The Gargoyle was hailed early after an impressive stint at auction as something of an assured literary sensation. But the fact that the book failed in the marketplace despite a powerful campaign from its publishers is perhaps a comfort to those of us who still believe in the possibility of serious literature that doesn't pander, preach, or think itself smarter than its reader, but rather is intelligent and provocative while still possessing the ability to entertain. This is a fantasy novel that the genre community will probably (mostly) ignore, leaving it to be consumed by those who haplessly gorge themselves on the mass market and discard their books half-read, coffee-stained, and blissfully forgotten in airport waiting areas. I haven't decided yet what to do with my copy, but I assure you that it will reside far from Dante's Inferno and my copy of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, a far more intelligent and emotionally engaging example of the classically referential structure and historically evocative tone to which The Gargoyle aspires. Like a child trying to copy a Rembrandt with dull crayons on old construction paper, Andrew Davidson just doesn't possess the appropriate tools to see his ambition through.
Richard Larson is a graduate student at New York University. His short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in ChiZine, Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.