Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle continues to win acclaim for a number of reasons: one is the author’s insightful blend of world cultures to create a single tapestry of world-class literature. Another is his seemingly
seamless fusion of classic genres such as Gothic, erotica, and horror to create something new beneath the literary sun. And a third is his invention of two of
the most compelling characters in modern literature.
The role played by the defining power of character throughout The Gargoyle becomes evident in its first horrific opening pages as our nameless anti-hero drinks and drives his way to a life-altering crash. The detailed account of the inferno that engulfs and permanently disfigures him is as lucidly terrifying as it is mesmerizingly precise. It’s not the kind of thing that most people survive but this man does, albeit with severe anatomical damage and loss: “I could hear the bubbling of my skin as the flames kissed it.” In fact, as a man and former porn star, he suffers the loss
of the one appendage with which he had earned his living.
During the course of his hospital recovery, the narrator battles thoughts of suicide, a growing addiction to morphine, and the excruciating pain of cultivating the growth of brand new skin. Enter Marianne Engel––“She appeared in the burn ward door dressed in a light green hospital gown, with those unsolvable eyes and that riotously entangled hair”––a former psychiatric patient and artist famed for sculpting gargoyles. She is convinced that she and the once-upon-a-time porn star have shared at least one major previous lifetime together when she was a German nun and he was a mercenary soldier. Even more odd, however, is Engel’s claim to have never died at all while waiting some seven centuries to reconnect with her once-beloved. She is comfortable enough with this belief that she strips naked in her new/old friend’s hospital room to reveal a body covered with a luxury of tattoos: a
beaded rosary and cross, a snake coiling up her leg to her sex, a Sacred Heart
on her left breast, a pair of angel wings upon her back, and more.
Whereas we might expect the irony to be painful, it is instead profoundly daring. Engel stands before her friend painted with beautiful symbols while the man once accustomed to being paid for his beauty is now something more akin to her gargoyle sculptures. To a degree, it would seem that his extreme disfigurements make him into the “Gargoyle” of the book’s title. But herein may lie a central aspect of author Davidson’s literary art. Is his anti-hero a gargoyle now because of how he looks, or was he in fact more of a gargoyle because of the cynicism and self-absorption that dominated his personality before his life-transforming accident? And does the ensuing journey to emotional and spiritual recovery make actually make him more beautiful than he ever was in the past?
Marianne seems at first to be a hyper eccentric teller of tales whose stories simultaneously puzzle, captivate, and motivate her friend. It turns out, however,
that these stories––in such diverse settings as France, Japan,Germany, and
Iceland––have a much greater function than simply passing the time while recuperating. Davidson’s skill at evoking the passions and dilemmas of characters in different cultures and historical eras is truly admirable. Likewise, his Dickensian talent for the creation of a cast of supporting characters who, against the odds, lend credible depth, substance, and color to the narrator’s and Marianne’s fantastic story.
Maniacal or not (or more precisely, “schizophrenic or not,”as our narrator suspects) Marianne becomes much like the angel indicated by the tattooed wings on her back as she moves our narrator into her home. There, she alternately nurses him, tells one amazing story after another, and works herself into frenzied bloody exhaustion to complete a final series of gargoyle sculptures, with the very last being of you-know-who. As one grows weaker and the other grows stronger, their original roles reverse and readers find themselves rethinking the plausibility of Marianne’s extraordinary claims.
Interwoven masterfully throughout The Gargoyle are deeply embedded allusions to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno that not only tell the history of the book itself, but that in some ways re-write the masterpiece and present it in modern form as The Gargoyle. To fully understand such a notion, one has to read and actually
experience Davidson’s triumphant first novel. A number of readers have suggested
that taking on The Inferno (for those of us who did not get to it in high school or college) either after or before reading The Gargoyle, doubly enhances the pleasure of delving into this exceptional work of new millennium fiction.