BURNING LOVE: The Gargoyle

Burning Love: The Gargoyle (by Andrew Davidson / Doubleday / 2008)

Review By Gregory Purvis

 

I don’t read as much fiction as I used to. Sometimes I think about how silly that sounds; kind of like:

I don’t boot as much black tar heroin as I used to.

For a fiction writer, shouldn’t I regard keeping up with the latest novels (i.e. reading) to be, well…research? Sort of a job requirement? 

Ummm…no.

There was a time when that was true, though. I wasn’t as skilled in creating my own lies (or fictions, if you prefer). Reading was education. On The Job Training. The lies (and half-truths), the stories, and the made-up worlds (and words) of others were doing more than just entertaining me. I was learning.

But sometime around my 32nd birthday I decided I was spending far too much time in other people’s stories and not enough time building (and writing) my own.

So I simply switched from fiction to nonfiction.

Research, I called (and still call) it. Yeah, whatever.

But I can’t put the fake worlds of others aside for good and true. After all, had I concentrated on my own stories and made-up lands and fake people exclusively, I would never have read Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. Or spent time in the company of King Alobar, Huckleberry Finn, Randall Flagg, Lestat de Lioncourt, Bilbo Baggins, 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, or Tyrion Lannister.

And I would be lying if I pretended my life would be near as rich without that cadre of fictional friends to enliven it. Do not underestimate the power of imaginary friends. Any 4-year old who knows Snuffleuffphagus knows that.

Still, I have made some hard choices about the amount of time I allow myself to spend in fictional worlds other than those of my own design. But I recognize that writing, like any artform, is a constant process of learning as much as it is a constant process of creating. Like a shark, if you stop swimming you die. Perhaps if you stop learning, you start forgetting. It’s a similar premise that made Flowers for Algernon an absolutely horrifying book when I first read it at 13.

Whatever the metaphysical excuses for my choices between fiction and nonfiction, I’m certainly glad I decided to pick up Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle.

Which, by the way, I just finished about 10 minutes ago.

After finishing certain books, I feel a sense of accomplishment. That (and an admitted amount of sheer relief) was how I felt after slogging through Tolkien’s Silmarillion. It’s also the way I felt after a single chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Other books—upon finishing—leave me thinking “Wow. That’s gonna be a movie.” This was my first thought after the last sentence of The Death and Life of Bobby Z. and The Beach. By the way, those books were better by miles in both examples than the movies. Which is often the case.

And every occasionally I will finish a book and just sit in a kind of narcotic amazement.

This was the way I felt after the aforementioned Jitterbug Perfume—and The Gargoyle had the same opiate-like afterglow.

The two novels actually remind me of each other—as both share a time-spanning scope with characters that somehow transcend the barriers of death (and afterlife). Both books also share a certain sensuality and manage to make even my decidedly unromantic thirtysomething heart feel all a-twitter. Both novels share a certain smoldering sexuality in their female protagonists, and in each case this sex appeal transcends physical beauty and manages to craft a representation of femaleness that has as much to do with mind and spirit as with the pleasures of the flesh. In Gargoyle, that becomes important to the male Number 1 because—even though he was a successful porn star as the novel opens, making love loses the physical conotations immediately. Robbins’ Kudra and Davidson’s Marianne are both exotic, intelligent women. Davidson had the tougher sell to the average reader (Kudra is pretty much exotic sexual incarnate from go) since Medeival German Nuns are not usually the first character one thinks of when asked to visualize a female sex stereotype—though, from my personal perspective, Catholic School Girls AND nuns are in the Top 10.

As for the boys…

Robbins’ male protagonist (King Alobar) is a virile man, even in his dottage. Likewise, Davidson’s masculine antihero manages to keep a certain virility even after his…ah…manhood is taken from him in what is decidedly the most horrible way possible: having a “penectomy” to remove the stub that is left after most of the penis is burned to a charcoal nubbin.

It might sound like Davidson’s incredible novel shares a taste for quirky characterizations with Robbins as well. Though he does introduce us to a gay Viking (and not only makes Thundarr the Fabulous believable, but makes his story one of the more poignant), Davidson’s novel is ultimately amazing not because he weaves expertly through a thousand years of history, but because he ties the histories of his characters together so well.

There are many reasons why I liked this novel: for one, this is Davidson’s FIRST novel. As a writer, that’s inspiring. Actually, it’s downright mega inspirational—but not just for that reason. As silly as this may sound, his novel was—for me—an end to a protracted grieving process.

The details are, quite frankly, none of your business. But the reason I mentioned it is because The Gargoyle did for me what few books have: it not only entertained and inspired me, it also spoke to me in a very personal way, in this case: about grief, love and letting go.

Now, after you dry your weepy eyes, I will point out a few more reasons why Gargoyle should be on your reading list:

Despite the fact that the protagonist is a rather sad and perhaps soulless human being on (and from) page one, he progresses through the novel and comes out the other side of a crucible that defines the creature he has become. Right along with making him the creature he will become.The fire that ends a rather soulless existence of the drugs and casual sex that had been foremost in his porn-star lifestyle is also the catalyst that allows love to grow along with his skin grafts. If it sounds a bit graphic…well, it is. The obviously accurate burn unit treatment plan is as effective a depiction of hell as a trip to the actual place (or rather, Dante Aligheeri’s version of it), which is used later in the story to depict yet another hell: withdrawal from high levels of morphine. A hell which I am personally familiar with, and I can attest to its versissitude.

Though this incredible book is anchored in our own soul-destroying here-and-now, Marianne’s stories take side-trips through Shogunate-era Medeival Japan, 19th Century Victorian England, and Dark Ages Iceland. These well-crafted diversions are more than mere window dressing, though: the characters we meet all seem to be intimately connected through a timeless weave of love, loss and lore. They’re as sweet a treat as the more bittersweet (and equally interwoven) tales of Marianne’s own life, beginning as an infant abandoned to the care of a religious order of educated nuns in 14th century Germany.  

It’s only after I’d finished the novel that I realized all of these scattered jewels were set into the same crown; the repeated themes shine through the story, though while I was busy devouring the pages I’d not been able to see the separate patterns that helped develop the whole puzzle. The beauty is not the complexity of these ideas (love, loss, devotion, the process of grief and how it applies to one’s self as well as for others, et cetera) but, rather, their simplicity.  Davidson shows his mastery of crafting interwoven pieces into a pattern with a discernable hue of its own, but does it without ever taking you too far from how those same pieces interact with the story as a whole. His genius seems to be his ability to craft a tale that feels far more interconnected over a fictional period of time than these component pieces feel when taken one-by-one. To put it more succinctly, the reader can clearly see where the plot seems to be heading, but it still feels like a surprise when you get there.

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