February 8, 2009

The Gargoyle: A Novel by Andrew Davidson

Andrew Davidson's first novel, The Gargoyle, did something to me that I love, but which happens relatively infrequently - I ended the book feeling melancholy and out of sorts because it was over. Apparently, The Gargoyle took Davidson seven years to write and the end result is a novel that fully embodies the benefits of its long period of gestation. This is most evident in the mellowness of the narrative's strong pull - nothing feels manufactured, nothing feels forced. The story simply pulls the reader forward through to its inevitable end. 

Here follows a very brief and necessarily incomplete synopsis:

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator/protagonist - a hyper-intelligent, beautiful man who, as the result of a great string of circumstances, is a drug-addled pornographer at the time of the fire that nearly kills him. Though he survives his accident (quite against his preference at the time),  the narrator is left severely disfigured with nothing but a fantastically thorough plan to commit suicide pulling him through his grueling recovery. 

Enter Marianne Engel, a beautiful sculptress of gargoyles and grotesques undergoing temporary treatment at the hospital's psych ward. She comes to the narrator's room and informs him that she was a nun 700 years before in medieval Germany, and that he was  the love of her life, a mercenary whom she'd helped heal from burns received in battle. The narrator thinks she's crazy (really, why wouldn't he), but something about her draws him and he begins to look forward to her visits. 

Over the course of these visits, which become increasingly important to the narrator, Marianne Engel tells him stories - beautiful stories of doomed lovers intertwined with their own history and readings of Dante's Inferno. Although the narrator's logic never fully accepts these stories and their history as being factual, he does come to believe that she believes them, and this is enough for him.

When he is well enough to leave the hospital, he goes to live with her, and for a time they are happy. But Marianne Engel believes that her carvings are a penance. She receives word from God that there are only 27 left before her time on earth is finished, and the narrator, who has never loved before, must travel through his own inferno before coming to the end.

Davidson ties the threads and themes of Dante's work, Marianne's stories, the narrator's experiences and their medieval history so successfully that the narrative progresses with inexorable grace. The narrator unflinchingly relates his own emotional progression with a sardonic self-awareness that gradually mellows to simple self-awareness, as indicated by the subtle and gradual shift in narrative tone. 

Implications and perceptions are presented without forced conclusions, questions of religion and faith are raised without the desperate expectation of an answer. In this way, Davidson trusts his reader more than any first-time author I've ever read. He never strives, grasps or manipulates. He simply weaves a seamless tapestry of a novel and allows the reader to see what she (or he) will.

I suspect that some will love The Gargoyle while other might just think it's neat, and I suspect that the response will depend entirely on the reader. For me, this was certainly the best first novel I've read in a very long time. It did not feel like a first novel, it felt sure and brave and inevitable. If this is the result of Davidson's first seven year effort, I will happily wait another seven for a work of equal worth.


Convivialdingo said...

It's interesting how we identify our down-and-out protagonist in modern times.

A pornographer "protagonist" would have been considered out of the mainstream, perhaps just 10 years ago.

But the literary ties with Dante certainly has piqued my interest!

Madeleine said...

It is interesting how traditionally unsympathetic protagonists are showing up more often. I think that perhaps flawed protagonists are in some way comforting for modern readers - especially if the story involves some sort of redemption.

And the Dante ties are definitely nicely done - certainly not as heavy-handed as I'd been expecting. Besides, I love The Inferno :)