The Gargoyle is a story about redemption. It’s disgusting and awful at times, explicit in others, and yet this book contains some of the most beautiful stories of love and fate that I’ve ever read. The story begins with the narrator remembering his brutal, gruesome car accident that left him with third- and fourth-degree (yep) burns all over his body. During a drug-fueled car ride, our narrator hallucinates a volley of burning arrows plummeting to earth toward his car. He swerves, nearly hitting a truck, swerves again into a ravine, and the car catches fire, slowly cooking our narrator alive before help comes to save his ravaged life.
In the hospital, the unnamed narrator toggles between recounting the sexual and drug-filled escapades of his pre-accident life and his excruciating medical procedures in the hospital. With his father a deadbeat and his mother dead in childbirth, he was raised by his indifferent grandmother. When she dies as well, he ends up living with a trio of meth addicts, before they die in a meth lab explosion. Sensing a pattern? Our narrator eventually becomes a very active porn star, before founding his own porn company. Clearly, he hasn’t been winning at life.
The graphic descriptions of his medical procedures are fairly revolting.
The doctors removed my wasteland exterior by débriding me, scraping away the charred flesh. They brought in tanks of liquid nitrogen containing skin recently harvested from corpses. The sheets were thawed in pans of water, then neatly arranged on my back and stapled into place…There I lay, wearing dead people as armor against death.
Awful, right? And that’s pretty tame compared to all the gruesome details the narrator chooses to include in this backward, near-perverted bildungsroman. He even had a penectomy, aka surgery to remove his charred penis. His malformed body has turned him into a living gargoyle, a grotesque lump of flesh instead of a man.
The combination of the narrator’s previous life and his revolting medical procedures in a hospital make for feverish reading. It’s like a car crash, you know? I just couldn’t look away, even though I found myself hating the narrator. But still, there was a humanity within him that was sensible in the text. Completely morally bankrupt, planning a careful, gruesome suicide, the narrator still evoked in me some nuggets of compassion. I wanted him to be able to start over.
Enter Marianne Engel. A few months into his stay at the hospital, a young patient from the psych ward floats into the narrator’s room with a bevy of astonishing tales. She has known him for 700 years. He’s been burned twice before. The last time they knew each other, he was an injured mercenary and she, a denizen of a German monastery called Engelthal, nursed him back to health. The face of the narrator’s salvation is a beautiful young girl, slightly off her rocker, a sculptor of grotesques, a believer in fate and reincarnation, in love and redemption. The narrator must allow himself to believe not only in her stories, but in her, and in himself. It’s engrossing, and it just keeps getting better.
As disgusting as the first section of the novel is, that’s how much beauty is present in the rest of it. Marianne Engel continues to visit the narrator, regaling him with stories of their past lives and all the ways they’ve been separated from each other throughout the centuries, in different locations and different eras. Borne along the waves of Marianne’s lush narration, we visit medieval Germany, Japan, Italy, and a Vikings-era Iceland. Marianne Engel is a positively magnetic personality, a character full of faith, quirks, enchantment, and full of profound truths–a character that I easily fell in love with. I even came to admire the narrator, as he puts his trust in Marianne and begins to heal not only his body, but his distorted soul. His transformation is spellbinding.
As are the stories themselves. This genre-bending novel is part romance, part historical fiction, part fantasy, and each story (within the story) is executed with precision and grace, researched to the point of exhaustion, and built so beautifully my senses came alive at each reading, and re-reading, of a sentence. The settings themselves become characters, and my heart ached with longing to visit each. It’s a novel of immense, overwhelming beauty, enough beauty to match its ugliness and smother the disgust I felt while learning about skin grafting with the remains of corpses.
You are mine, I am yours; you may be sure of this. You’ve been locked inside my heart, the key has been thrown away; within it, you must always stay.
I’ve heard many people complain that this book was over-hyped, that Andrew Davidson can’t write, that it’s overwrought, that they can’t believe a $2 million advance was paid for the manuscript, etc., but when I read this book, all that criticism falls away. No, it’s not perfect. It’s annoying at times and at others the love story seems ridiculous, but in some ways you have to suspend your disbelief–somewhat like the narrator did when he met Marianne Engel–and fall in love. It’s a novel about fate, love, and the always-present possibility of redemption. The way this book is written and the message it conveys about love and faith is one of the reasons I fell in love with reading and with stories in the first place. It’s both frightening and comforting at the same time.
Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.
Davidson, A. The Gargoyle. (2008). New York, NY: Doubleday.