The Gargoyle is a striking debut, a searing quest for re-examining the set-in-stone conventions of “being human” throughout the ages, and identifying when being only human is simply not enough.
Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle is a somewhat challenging read, perhaps because it plays with reader anticipation so well that it sets an inconsistent narrative pace that veers between rapid and inert, sometimes in the same chapter. Yet, taken as a whole, the necessity of this can be seen in how events in the novel unfold to create a beguiling mix of unadulterated romance and existential terror, and the strong visual style in which the novel is written points the way toward a possible motion picture adaptation. Such a film would most likely star someone as handsome as Brad Pitt, if only to "gargoyle" him into ugliness, along the lines of the book’s protagonist and narrator, and would follow the larger-than-life aspirations of films like The English Patient, being seen as both guilty entertainment and, hopefully, art.
A quick summary of the novel’s plot may already read like the synopsis for a big, “artsy” Hollywood production: a horrific car accident leaves our narrator burned beyond recognition, and undergoing the most intense hospital treatment just to be barely alive with his mind intact. Into his physical rehabilitation appears a seemingly crazed but lovely and mysterious woman who sculpts gargoyles and informs him that in past lives and through the ages they had been lovers, and their story intertwines with those of many others living within history, if not always included by it. For the viciously disfigured narrator, listening to the woman and spending time with her, which takes up the bulk of the novel’s narrative, is a strange journey between reality and fiction, between the contemporary world and other worlds that are only merely framed by the past.
A tendency to have film in mind is not exactly a new development in the world of the novelist, and it is always worth remembering how powerfully novels have informed the art of the motion picture over the past one hundred years. Yet, it is also so easy to be dismissive of novels seemingly trying to ape the highly visual and multi-layered continuities of the Tolkiens, the Rowlings and the Pratchetts, precisely because doing so has been all the rage in recent times if one considers the added successes of these novels once translated to film. In short, it would be tempting to call Andrew Davidson out on The Gargoyle and accusing him of writing with one eye already on Hollywood.
However, what is appealing about The Gargoyle is precisely how well Davidson’s ambitious scope remains true to what sets novel apart from film: there is a sense that Davidson takes his time in bringing out the story as much as he seems to work so fervently at it, doing exactly what the character Marianne Engel does with her stonework. For a first novel, The Gargoyle is almost forceful in its emphasis on measured story-telling that intricately marries the intimate with the epic without side-tracking itself with its author’s obvious intensity. And storytelling is the key here: chronological episodes in the novel’s action are paralleled by stories embedded in history, and in fact history is put side by side with the kind of oral tradition that never fails either to challenge history or to provide renewed interest in it. One may complain that in doing so, the novel becomes too talky and actually drags throughout its middle, but there is also a greater mood of expectation and suspense that is ever present and that, even though it is anticipated, still brings forth a culmination of events and tales that mark this novel out as refreshing rather than stale and wan.
While the play with metaphor and lyrical imagery that runs through the novel is necessary, there are moments during the early chapters where it runs the danger of playing itself out too soon and marking the rest of the novel with overkill. While there is no retreating from the fact that this is a flaw, perhaps typical of a first novel, it must also be put into the broader context of what emerges as the novel progresses and builds to its climax. A definite counter-balance is also achieved by the stories that are told in the novel, stories that never fail to charm and maintain the purpose of the very device they serve: juxtaposition. Davidson is almost relentless in drawing parallels that are meant to be merged, and from the terrifying scene that opens the novel, to episodes that use symbolism to paint the similarities between modern life and earlier times, one never feels that he loses his grip on creating a picture that is at once both grotesque and sublime – again, the idea of expressing this through the images of gargoyles and the human narratives that somehow link to them, no matter how testing, is the challenge Davidson apparently set himself and succeeded in. Even the strong, deliberate religious tones of the novel are literary inclusive and not culturally exclusive.
Mercifully, the narrator’s knowledge of a wealth of subjects (very curiously contradicted, perhaps, by his former profession of choice), and of course the author’s, is never boastful or showy, and whereas some chapters begin to employ a few too many familiar tropes to display the author’s awareness of how to operate in different genres (most notably, from horror story to romance), there is never the clear emergence of commentary, of essay-writing or worse, the kind of play between adventure and lecturing that made a phenomenon, for various reasons, of The Da Vinci Code.
The Gargoyle will remain, to some extent, a challenge even on a second read, but already there it stakes a claim to being, in the old-fashioned sense, a novel that successfully operates between being grand and being desperately, hauntingly intimate.