For our book club selection last month, a friend offered up the book The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson. She had read it earlier this year, and she was curious to see what the ladies in my book club thought of this rather unusual story. The narrator, who is never named in the book, is a fast living former porn star and current porn producer. He's basically lived his entire adult life drinking heavily, driving fast, and having lots and lots of sex. All of that changes one night when he starts having hallucinations (visions?) of archers shooting at him as he drives down a winding mountain road. Before he knows it, he is trapped in his car at the bottom of a steep ravine, slowly burning to death. When next he is conscious, he discovers he is in the burn unit at a local hospital, a place that will be his home for the better part of a year. A couple of months into his recovery, a stray psych patient walks into the room and acts as though she knows him. Her name is Marianne Engel, admitted for delusions related to schizophrenia. An artist by trade, she carves large, menacing gargoyles. And as she explains to our narrator, she's been in love with him for 700 years.
Davidson knows well how to use descriptive language-perhaps too well. The entire first third of the book is a bit hard to get through-not because the story is bad, but because he describes, in great detail, the gruesome and violent acts perpetrated on the narrator's body, first by the fire itself and then by the seemingly barbaric but ultimately effective treatments he requires to heal. The whole novel has a gloomy air, which suits the rather dark story perfectly. Marianne believes herself to be a 14th century nun, who has lived for so many years because she must pay for sins she committed for and on the narrator's character. Over the course of the book, as their modern day relationship progresses, we are treated to flashbacks told by Marianne that explain how she knew the narrator in a previous life. Moral emptiness and redemption are ideas explored throughout the novel, both through the narrator's cynical views on his previous and future life (he has an especially elaborate and violent end at his own hand all planned out for himself) and through the contradiction that is Marianne's character. She actually creates ugliness, in the form of the grotesques that adorn both her workspace and churches all over the world, in order to undo the evil she feels she has done. Is she truly a 700 year old nun, or are the voices that she hears coming from the stone a function of mental illness? Ultimately, the reader is left to decide. Whether she is "saving" herself, or merely delusional, the impact she has on the narrator is profound, and he finds himself feeling more whole in his ruined body than he ever did when he was beautiful.