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The Gargoyle

Not just another Beauty and the Beast

Anyone who has ever watched the cartoon "Gargoyles" remembers the impossible love that blossomed between Goliath, the leader of the gargoyles, and Elisa, the savvy New York City cop. He was an enormous, frightening creature who turned to stone during the day, while she was an ordinary (but beautiful and talented) human. Their love remained, sadly, unconsummated. Just as in the cartoon, Andrew Davidson’s novel, The Gargoyle, also tells the story of a man who, despite his frightening appearance, has an unconsummated love affair with a beautiful woman. He, like the stone gargoyles that she carves, is carved away in order to become whole.

The narrator (whose name we never learn) begins this novel by telling the story of his accident. His cocaine and bourbon addled brain hallucinates a shower of flaming arrows aimed at his car, causing him to drive off of the road. As a result, he ends up suspended upside down by his seatbelt as flames begin to consume first his head and face, and then the rest of his body. He awakes in the hospital only to discover that his career in the pornography industry has abruptly ended. However, in the midst of his despair and elegant plans for suicide, he meets Marianne Engel, a carver of stone gargoyles who claims to have known him in a former life and, like Dante’s Beatrice, serves to bring about his redemption. She is probably also schizophrenic.

The reference to Dante’s Beatrice is not coincidental; the novel is riddled with references to Dante’s "Inferno" which, as is the case of our narrator, is the story of a man who goes through hell in order to be redeemed. The narrator of The Gargoyle, in fact, goes through hell both figuratively and literally: he is terribly burned in his accident, evoking the eternal flames of torment, and has to go through the hell of recovering from such an experience both physically and psychologically. Then, as he goes through morphine withdrawal during his recovery, he literally travels through not only the more relevant circles of Dante’s hell, but several other hells as well.

The descriptions of his treatments in the hospital even reproduce many of the gory and horrific images present in Dante’s "Inferno". Perhaps Andrew Davidson should have kept the hell aspect at the figurative level, though -- the narrator’s literal trip through Dante’s hell, while accurate, is a bit too obvious. I like a novel that makes me think a little, and the direct references to hell, and particularly to certain circles of Dante’s hell, seemed to be flashing neon arrows pointing to the overall message of the book. It was more fun trying to figure out the significance of the narrator’s accident’s occurring on Good Friday, and the meaning of Marianne Engel’s name (engel means “angel” in German). The comparison to Dante’s journey of redemption is, however, a nice one, and an appropriate one for this protagonist, and the more subtle references work quite well.

The narrative style and content of the novel, like the references to Dante, are interesting, but not without problems. The narration of the novel moves back and forth between the protagonist’s present experiences in the hospital, and then later in Marianne Engel’s home, and the stories that Marianne tells him both about their own past lives and those of others. While this style of narration provides great pacing and interweaves the many themes of the novel, Marianne’s stories were at times, well, sacharine. They inevitably involved tales of passionate, lifelong love that resulted in acts of incredible self-sacrifice. These types of stories are nice, but the repetition of this theme starts to feel a little like a Harlequin romance novel. On the other hand, the development of the narrator’s character and of Marianne Engel was done quite well, revealing previously unrealized depths and possibilities.
In all, the negative aspects of the novel strike me as being merely the result of writing a first novel: there are some parts that are overdone or seemed forced, but the overall result is a well-written and engaging story.

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
Doubleday, 2008
Hardcover, $25.95
ISBN 0385524943
465 pages