At The Heart of the Matter: Love and the Grotesque in Andrew Davidson’s the Gargoyle

Davidson, Andrew. The Gargoyle. [2008] Toronto: Vintage-Random, 2009.

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An uneven book, David Anderson’s The Gargoyle is at first overwhelming in its revelation of Anderson’s research. In multi-layered, fractured narratives told by narrators of greater and lesser naivety, we face German history, Japanese and Nordic myths, Dante’s Inferno, mediaeval theology, modern psychology and psychiatry, social critique, detailed information about the pathology of burns, withdrawal from addiction, and an insight into contemporary pornography. At times, the novel seems a little like what might have happened if Borges and Dan Brown had collaborated. In his essay “The Story behind The Gargoyle,” Davidson outlines how he shortened and shortened the original draft until it met with the approval of a prospective agent, and how it was shortened yet again after “professional editing” (Special Features 12) and yet gain before publication. There were times when I felt that it needed even more paring down.

DSCN0067 - Version 2The basic premise of the work is the redemption of its main narrator and the love story—one that apparently spans several centuries—between that narrator and the sculptor of grotesques, Marianne Engel. As the work develops, one realises that all the stories are one story, the story of love that sacrifices and redeems.  All well and good. This repeated storyline places the work well within the genre of moral fiction—of which I approve—but I found there were moments when it all verged on being just too much: too much detail, too much allusion to other works, too many stories, too heavily metaphoric in its parallelism between the burning away and reconstitution of flesh and the burning away of evil to build a morally improved character. But the various narratives are compelling, so Davidson is to be commended for ensuring that the stories themselves do remain paramount even as he shifts between narratives, times, and places, and distracts us with altered type face. While I was awed by the amount of labour that obviously went into the novel, the work felt just a little self-indulgent.

DSCN0122 - Version 2But perhaps I am too harsh. In its interconnected and framed narratives, its themes, and its detail, The Gargoyle recalls the complexity and intentional grotesquery of mediaeval creations. Think just how “busy” a gothic cathedral actually is; consider the decorative style of mediaeval manuscripts. The novel also recalls a mediaeval sensibility in its focus on redemption of and atonement for sin. Perhaps I should look at this work as a contemporary version of a mediaeval romance. I admit I did (literally) dust off Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and browse in his discussion and definition of romance. In support of such contention, I would argue that Davidson certainly gives us “death, disappearance and revival” (Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton UP 187), in The Gargoyle, and the novel deals both literally and metaphorically with physical and emotional sterility in the situation of the main narrator, the former porn star. Unfortunately (?) the confines of a short book review rather limit my discussion on this point. Suffice it to say that it was the question of whether or not the work fulfils my expectations of romance that ultimately interested me the most about The Gargoyle.

DSCN0012 - Version 3At first, I had my doubts about the book, finding it a little self-conscious and overwrought. However, it is a clever book, a book suggesting that Davidson may become quite an important writer; The Gargoyle is, after all, a first novel. If Davidson had been able to channel Robertson Davies, that master of tightly controlled mystery, allusion, and subtle wit, what more might he have achieved?

The first three images are of grotesques in Wells Cathedral; the last is on the roof of Chethams School of Music,  Long Millgate, Manchester. 

This entry was posted in Newly Read Literary Fiction, Rambles Through Earlier Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to At The Heart of the Matter: Love and the Grotesque in Andrew Davidson’s the Gargoyle

  1. Jean Francois says:

    Thank you, M.V., for another well thought out, and well written, review.

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