I’m finally off deadline enough that I can make some progress on my To Be Read pile. Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle was a book I was anxious to read. Now, I admit while I’ve been busy writing, there’s a truckload of stuff I haven’t been paying much attention to. I knew these things about The Gargoyle; People were talking about it — it had push from the publisher; It had an awesome cover and a great title. If I’d known more about the story line I might have waited to buy it. I’m glad I didn’t, though I could have, since it’s been sitting in my TBR since I bought it, like every other book I’ve bought. Oh, right, I also knew it was a debut novel that got a HUGE advance. And, though I cringe to admit it, I had this vague idea there was an actual gargoyle in the book. I was too busy to pay enough attention, all right?
So, finally, I turn in my last contracted book and I can start reading stuff that somebody else wrote. The Gargoyle was my first choice.
Pretty much from page one, this book was difficult to read. The words were gorgeous. Wonderful, evocative. There’s no question Andrew Davidson can write. Fortunately, I have an MA in English and I understand about Books That Are Difficult To Read, having been forced to read a lot of them and even actually ending up being glad. To be clear: I am not glad that I had to read Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure but the last line of James Joyce’s The Dubliners is so heartbreakingly poetic that reading everything that came before that line was worth all the hard work of getting there.
So, I’m reading and wondering to myself whether I am having a Jude The Obscure sort of experience or a The Dubliners experience and in either case whether I can stomach continuing. I put down Chuck Palahniunk when I got to the part about the guy who got his intestines sucked out through his ass, so let that be a guide to my tolerance level. But really, the decision to keep going was not Does Carolyn want to get through at least one Palahniuk novel just because but whether I was reading something that would be worth the pain by the end. Because that experience is transcendent and Davidson writes well enough to make you think he might.
The ONLY reason I kept reading despite the ugliness of what happening on the pages was the beauty of the writing. I kept thinking there had to be a payoff for this kind of horrifying description. I did keep reading.
I have begun to suspect that Literary Fiction is so afraid of being gasp! commercial, that it runs as fast as it can (in the other direction) at the first sign of a plot. What a bunch of rank cowards, the lot of those literary writers. Let me point out to you folks that Toni Morrison’s Beloved has a plot, so it’s not like it can’t be done. The Gargoyle has a plot, too, which was a major relief.
Eventually, The Gargoyle moved out of the relentlessly horrifying and I stopped thinking that I totally supported the protagonist’s plans for suicide.
The gargoyle, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, is more metaphorical than literal. The plot of the book is actually kind of shopworn. Beauty and the Beast is an obvious trope crossed with lovers reincarnated through time until they get it right. To be honest, the latter sort of story has never made much sense to me. If the love is so Great, why are they doomed to repeat it like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day?
A great writer always rises above the shopworn, which is why those popular frameworks will never die. Someone is always good enough to show us how it’s done. Is The Gargoyle that book? Almost.
Damn. Just almost. Before I continue, let me say that there is a difference between pointing out the flaws of a book that basically sucks (Jude the Obscure) and pointing out the flaws in a book written by someone with an amazing talent who one expects to read more of.
The ending of The Gargoyle was touching, but there were missteps along the way that undermined the moment. The conception of the novel was, in my opinion, flawed, and not even the lovely prose could save the story from moments of bathos instead of pathos. When a story begins at such a horrifying low, then the ending had better take you to a terrifying high, and that means the author needs to understand the underpinnings, if you will, of both the lows and the high.
The book is supposed to be a love story. But it’s lopsided. There is ample reason to understand why the protagonist, from his original incarnation to the last, loves the heroine. There is less to none for understanding why the heroine, in any of her incarnations, loves the hero. She is, at heart, the typical Doormat with a Too Stupid To Live moment — a circumstance saved only by the fact that she does not, in fact, live.
There is a long and fairly painful history of Canonical Works written by men who do not understand what it means to be a woman at any time of history. The woman sacrifices …. um…. because? And this book’s flaws are directly related to that inability to really see what it means to be a woman. Steinbeck nailed the Depression for men. He totally screwed up with Rosasharn. He got a Nobel anyway. Yes, he deserved it, but I’m right about Rosasharn. Steinbeck wrote her for a man.
At this point, I’d like to point out again that The Gargoyle does not suck.
But the not so subtle subtext of the iterations of the story told is that women sacrifice themselves and their lives (in every sense) for the man they love. Because God forbid she actually gets to be happy. The men go on doing their brave man thing and mostly live on afterward. And it really bugs me. It does.
Still, I recommend this book if you’re not squeamish. The first third to half was really hard to stomach. Writers who keep on writing only get better, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Davidson does next.