Self-destructive after a life of bad luck and bad choices, a man’s drunken car accident leaves most of his body covered with life-threatening burns. While he struggles to survive in a depressed state in the hospital, a mentally disturbed woman helps heal his psychological wounds with stories of their past lives as lovers.
The Power of Storytelling
Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle opens with its narrator, a cynical, unnamed man with an unfortunate past. The narrator has narrowly survived a horrific car crash of his own, drunken making and must now begin a new life. His body is so completely burned that he is unrecognizable, a grotesque, patchwork figure reminiscent of gargoyles. This is a far cry from the man he was, one whose handsomeness made life easy and gave him a rather successful career as a porn actor. As he slowly recovers in the hospital, he reflects on the painfulness of his childhood, the imperfection of his former life, his selfishness and vanity, and, most of all, how much he wishes he could have it all back, if only to be out of his scarred body. As his depression worsens, he dreams of committing suicide once he’s released from the hospital.
But there are people around him determined to see him not only survive, but thrive, with the life he has been left with, scars and all. One person invested in his well-being is a mentally ill woman by the name of Marianne Engel. She’s an unpredictable artist—she sculpts grotesques/gargoyles—with a personality that changes from day to day, if not by the hour. She’s absurd, she’s weird, she’s crazy. She believes God speaks to and through her. Despite all this, the narrator is intrigued by her, and she shows him love when he feels no one else does. If nothing else, he can halfway accept love from her, as she is broken, too.
Of course, Marianne would show him love, as part of her insanity—or is she insane?—is that she believes she and the narrator were lovers…hundreds of years prior to their meeting in the hospital. She believes they are reincarnated souls, together again to right the wrongs between them, but also destined to repeat some of their worst mistakes, too. To prove the “truth” of this to the narrator, Marianne tells him the story of their supposed past, hoping to coax memories out of him while he heals.
If The Gargoyle were simply about a broken man whose relationships heal him, it would not be an original plot, but Davidson would write the hell out of it. But after the first quarter to half of the book, the story stops being about the narrator’s physical and emotional struggles as a burn victim and starts being about his relationship with Marianne Engel and the stories she’s telling him, which include not only their supposed past love stories, but similar “forever love” stories about other side characters in the book. Davidson wants you and the narrator to question whether Marianne Engel is possibly telling the truth, whether reincarnation and a love you would die for are possible. As a lover of fantasy fiction, that plot doesn’t scare me off; it’s just the way Davidson presents it that is frustrating.
The Gargoyle has all the traits one expects from a good book—well-rounded characters, a strong and original narrator, and interesting plot points. If you take all of the various mini-stories as Marianne tells them, and review them individually, some, perhaps even most, are good. But when you put the straggling pieces together to make a single work, things don’t mesh so well. The parts that make up the whole are too different to blend smoothly. In other words, you are likely to enjoy part of the whole, but not the whole itself. It’s the same way I love tomatoes, chocolate, and garlic, but don’t want them in a soup together.
Perhaps the problem is that I was not invested in the narrator’s relationship with Marianne Engel—past or present—and so a meandering exploration of it failed to grab me. The story I was interested in was their mutual recoveries through each other and the people from the hospital who cared for them. Whether their healing and leaning on each other meant they ended up together or not didn’t matter to me. When Marianne’s stories go on for so many pages, taking us away from her and the narrator’s present struggles, the book’s tone changes considerably. In some respects, this becomes a big romance, even if the narrator is an unconventional lead and the writing is “deeper” than what one often sees in the romance genre.
Wasn’t the idea of a mentally ill woman caring for a physically and emotionally scarred man enough of a plot? A highly-detailed reincarnation backstory seems superfluous.
I loved the narrator in The Gargoyle and don’t regret reading the book. But after all the dramatic lead-up, the ending is anticlimactic. Readers are never given a definitive answer as to whether Marianne is insane, but it’d be hard to think of her as otherwise, even after our narrator has some “spiritual experiences” (after going off of morphine) that seem to lend credence to her tales. In the end, the narrator is healed and whole in a way his body never can be, but some of his journey is marred by the tangential side stories.
I can see myself reading other books by Andrew Davidson in the future because he is indeed a good writer. Even so, The Gargoyle does read and feel like a first novel, so don’t be surprised when you encounter bumps in the road.
Quotes from The Gargoyle
I understand that some people find God after misfortune, although this seems to me even more ridiculous than finding Him in good times. “God smote me. He must love me.” It’s like not wanting a romantic relationship until a member of the opposite sex punches you in the face. My “miraculous survival” will not change my opinion that Heaven is an idea constructed by man to help him cope with the fact that life on earth is both brutally short, and paradoxically, far too long.
Boredom was my bedmate and it was hogging the sheets.