Friday, November 26, 2010

Who's a Gargoyle Now?

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (Random House, 2008) 465 pages

The beginning is as lurid and disturbing as the rest of the book. After a booze and cocaine filled ride during which our unnamed protagonist hallucinates that arrows are being shot at him, he drives over a cliff and is trapped in his burning car. He suffers horrible third degree burns over much of his body and is then confined to a hospital to recover for the next eleven months.

A former porn actor turned porn filmmaker, he faces a long and painful convalescence in a burn unit. Andrew Davidson is meticulous in documenting the recovery process, both physical and emotional. This is the most convincing part of the novel.

The narrator is pursued by a relentless inner voice which he sometimes characterizes as the bitchsnake. She expresses all the self-hate and fear that he feels. This internal diatribe is shown in a concrete way on the page by the use of a block of black with white type on it; hence, we always know when she is speaking to the narrator.

Despite a hardscrabble beginning - a mother who died in childbirth, an absent father, crystal meth addicts for foster parents, little or no education - he is literate, razor sharp and articulate. He soon meets his match in Marianne Engel (German for angel if that is not immediately obvious), a psychiatric patient who wanders into his room. She soon tells him an engaging story (or fantasy) about their past lives together set in Medieval times.

Marianne, whom our narrator thinks is either a schizophrenic or a manic-depressive (he can't tell which), spins a fantastic tale of being abandoned at a convent in the 1300s and raised by nuns and of her exhibiting unusual powers of intellect - the ability to understand any language spoken to her. She is conscripted to labour in the scriptorium in the convent.

More fantastic still is the story spun for him by Marianne about his past life. He was a former mercenary, shot in the chest and set aflame. He was brought to the convent for medical care for his burn wounds by a fellow mercenary named Brandeis. Marianne nurses him back to health despite the disapproval of the other nuns - the young Marianne has acquired a few enemies along the way. Eventually they leave the convent together with the blessing of the priest and nun who initially took in and raised Marianne.

My first misgiving about the narrative: How likely would it be that the nuns would permit a young woman, presumably a virgin, with no experience of the outside world to leave the confines of the convent with a wounded ex-mercenary? How would they survive? With what means? They form a life together - he as a stone cutter, she as bookmaker of religious manuscripts. The idea of romantic love as a justification for this sort of reckless behavior is centuries would have made no sense at all to Marianne's protectors at the time.

The present day Marianne has other surprises for our hero: a body covered in formidable tattoos, including angel wings, which she reveals when she strips nude for him in the privacy of his hospital room. There are her innumerable hearts (don't ask) which she is compelled to give away by her Three Masters. She has unexplained wealth which she lavishes on stone carvings of gargoyles, a large house, endless means. She is able to provide a huge feast for hospital staff and patients and cover all of the narrator's medical expenses, bringing a suitcase full of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the hospital - all from her stone carving we are told.

As a porn star, the narrator was promiscuous, very good looking, drug and alcohol-addicted, a womanizer, a sexual volcano and rogue...yet he is also learned and sensitive and articulate. How did this come to be - the contrasting images are at such odds with each other. It's not that it is impossible to be both but how...from such humble and fraught beginnings?
The novel reads like a grotesque nightmare or fantasy (depending on your point of view) where Davidson seems to prey on every man's worst fears - the loss of one's physical attractiveness, the loss of one's livelihood and business pushed into bankruptcy, a complete and devastating loss, even the loss of his penis, burned to a crisp and removed by the doctors after the accident.

And here's the fantasy part: he is approached by a beautiful, mysterious woman (literally named angel) who vows to save him both physically and figuratively with limitless resources and few inhibitions and who transfixes him with a romantic, unbelievable tale of their past love.

Once ensconced in Marianne's home he allows Marianne to minister to him; allowing her to bathe him; administer his morphine; she gives him a credit card, and, she continues with the story of his past life.

The conceit starts to grate - perhaps an emotionally and physically damaged man, with no family or friends, broken by life's circumstances would be entranced by the enigmatic Marianne with her exotic clothes and learned Japanese and tattoos. I, however, find myself annoyed and bored by her fairytale stories about Japanese peasant girls, Italian mercenaries carrying copies of Dante's Inferno and Icelandic boys struggling with their sexual identities. She comes off as disturbed and volatile, not bewitching.

In his new home with Marianne, he often finds her stretched out nude on the stone that she is carving. She works demonic hours - up to sixty hours at a time without a break. Eating nothing, desiring nothing but the completion of her task. Really? That's how stone cutters work? In the nude? Without a break? Without sustenance? Inspired by their art? They neglect their loved ones - almost killing their dogs and neglecting a burn victim who is in their care?

Davidson is a lazy writer reverting to cliches and stereotypes and just plain sloppy plot devices. How is Marianne able to traipse in and out of his room, strip down naked in his room, take responsibility for his welfare when she has been recently released from the psych hospital herself? All of her income comes from stone carving...really? This requires a complete suspension of disbelief. Who the heck is buying all these gargoyles? I just don't buy into it.

Later on a main character is able to pick up a cross bow, never having used one before, and shoot it straight into the heart of another, killing him with one shot, during a snowstorm yet. This same character, who is heavily pregnant, is able to flee her pursuers on horseback, shimmy across a frozen pond, and, survive a near drowning. You know, oddly, when I was eight months pregnant I had trouble navigating my way to the bathroom by myself...

The figures from Marianne's past are such commonplace tropes: benevolent head nun, her protector; the rival in the convent who hates her and her talent; the valiant best friend, a fellow warrior, who saves the narrator from death at the risk of his own life; the beautiful woman of mystery with endless means who will redeem him, the fallen man who is redeemed by the love of a "good woman"...yeesh.

Small but annoying details: when he lists the food that Marianne brings for the staff and patients Davidson spouts a long paragraph of different types of food: neither making it credible or appealing to the reader, merely a long and boring list on page 167 of the hardcover version. How did she bring the vast amounts of food? Where did they put it? Why so much? Why so odd - carp? oxtail soup? Why would the hospital agree to such excess? What does this scene prove or add to the plot?

The resolution of the story of their past lives - the nun runs off with the mercenary pursued by the condotta determined to kill him - is sufficiently gory and sensational but it neither engaged nor titillated me. The book is a disturbing combination of trashy gore and highbrow blather about religious concepts, spirituality, stone carving and medieval printing. Its charm eluded me; its characters irritated; my interest flagged almost immediately once I got into the book.

I leave you with this gem:
I believe in your love for me. I believe in my love for you. I believe that every remaining beat of my heart belongs to you, and I believe that when I finally leave this world, my last breath will carry your name. I believe that my final word - Marianne - will be all I need to know that my life was good and full and worthy, and I believe that our love will last forever.

Huh...who's a gargoyle now?


5Rings said...

boy, you really are grumpy these days when you read.
are you liking anything?

MIchelle said...

But seriously Mr. 5Rings, wasn't it just a piece of salacious trash in parts? Mixed in with highbrow romance and fantasy elements? And no, I haven't read anything I liked for a while. I keep going back to the classics like Wharton and James (perhaps a sure sign of advancing age)...

Valerie Cline said...

Ha! I can't tell you how many times I've felt like this reading characters written by some male writers that just make me want to scream. There was a scene in Blindness that made me feel that way. Very good. I think your thoughts are well worth my time to read on this book. I doubt I'd like it either. What you are saying is bang on and it isn't said enough!

Michelle said...

I think I will be in a minority on this one but I stick by my guns...

Christine said...

It was trashy but fun...trashy fun. I really hope the next book you read ends this, I've got Elle Decor on my coffee table to cleanse my palette.