Superficial wounds that run deep

Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle (Random House, 2008) is a fast-moving, smooth-reading, deceptively happy-ending narration. Taking cues from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, medieval Italian, Japanese, and Icelandic  tales of love, Davidson spins a post-modern tale set in unspecified contemporary North American city, interweaving episodes of gothic and romance literature with present-day scientific knowledge about the effects of burns, schizophrenia, as well as background histories of the major characters.

The novel offers numerous thematic elements whose prominence clearly emerges from the narration: everlasting true love even beyond the unexpected and bitter end, search for encyclopedic knowledge, life with cocaine and morphine dependency (the “snake”), artistic raptures, questions about actions and their earthly and after-life consequences, metempsychosis, need for continuity of human affairs through talismans and special objects. All of these add something particular to the plot.  Having grown up with drug-addicted foster parents, taking advantage of the library to quench his thirst for knowledge, and, later, on account of his good looks and lack of other skills, becoming a porn actor and director: all of these suddenly turn inconsequential thanks to one fateful Good Friday when he is about thirty years old (obvious echoes of Dante). He has a near-fatal car accident in which he is horribly burned (the gory details are spelled out in full) and deprived of his work tool, so to speak. Ending up in a hospital, he contemplates committing suicide as soon as he is released: his disfigurement, his lack of sexual organ, the loss of his livelihood and his film company mean that there is nothing left for him to do but end it all. The narration follows him in his hospital bed; he is taken care of conscientious doctors and nurses, and one uninvited character, Marianne Engel, the anchor which steadies the path of the narration.  She claims to have met the protagonist before (about 700 years before) and to have loved him then. At that time she worked in the Engelthal monastery as a scribe; he was a condottiero brought to the sisters since he was horribly burned. Marianne cures him now as she did then, and she keeps being in love with him through the centuries and now. At the hospital, Marianne’s tales of medieval romantic love, her artistic energy, kind disposition, nutritious food, make him abandon his desire to die. Once he is discharged, she takes him into her gothic-looking house, keeps taking care of him, and secures his future. She sculpts for a living: her grotesque stone sculptures resemble the strange medieval decorations on churches: gargoyles. She also starts to sculpt the protagonist.  Her artistic pursuit is spurred on by three special characters from her medieval life who assure her that she only has 27 more “hearts” to sculpt and then her last heart is to be given to her true love and let free. Having finished these “hearts”, she walks off into the sea never to be found again. Our protagonist passes his life writing his story.

The word “inferno” conjures images of raging fire burning the damned who deserve to be punished, because, in the Catholic tradition, they transgressed specific interdictions and rules.  Our nameless protagonist is not a believer and therefore he does not explain his predicament as a just retribution for his previous drug-filled debauched life.  In the novel, the role of Dante’s voyage through hell is only superficial: the protagonist has entered a hellish type of life, and he tries to understand it.  He too has a Virgil: it is Marianne who leads him – through narration of love stories –  to forget about his disfigured existence. There is no Beatrice, though, to lead him to God. Our protagonist lives his new post-burned life simply as a spectator:  unlike Dante who cries and is moved by the fate of the damned, he is not stirred by what happens around him, he does not seem to feel any gratitude to Marianne, or in fact even love. He is simply with her.              His pre-accident life was full of sex but devoid of love, full of drugs and alcohol but no moral signposts, no ethical concerns, no real friends, no real parents. He did not have healthy feelings of self-love or self-worth, but he demonstrated lots of vanity. The novel is a loud yearning cry for something to hold on to, something that would explain the consequences of one’s actions much like the deserved punishments of the damned in Dante’s Inferno. Alighieri’s epic poem, for a non-believer like the protagonist, is simply an imaginative tale, full of gory details; the connection between the literary work and the society that created it and the human stories underpinned by biblical teachings, philosophical works, scientific observations is totally lost. This is perhaps the significance of The Gargoyle: the protagonist’s cynical attitude of detached observer allows him the only activity that has a semblance of pleasure, that of reading anything and everything. However, this does not make him a wise man.

Every author inevitably toys with his/her readers. It is disconcerting, however, when the protagonist/author is cynically flippant about his readers, as is the case in The Gargoyle. This talking down to the reader happens also at special moments in the story, and it completely destroys the rich imagery that the reader was about to construct. Here are two examples:

“I have no idea whether beginning with my accident was the best decision, as I’ve never written a book before. Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story.  You’re still reading, so it seems to have worked”. (p. 5)

In the middle of a long list of food items, he says “…guglielmo marconi (just checking to see if you’re still reading)” (p. 167.)

This meta-narrative ploy is not new, moreover, it too accentuates the novel’s postmodern construction.

In conclusion, the muddle created by juxtaposing  the past and the present, religious and secular images, imaginative tales and scientific descriptions of medical conditions perfectly illustrates the post-modern emptiness which underlies the result of the attitude “anything goes”. However, the nihilistic condition seems to drain out the protagonist  completely, and he stands out as a disfigured empty shell whose only real companion is a dog and whose only activity is writing. The sole effigies with a “heart” remain the heavy stone gargoyles, creations of an exalted artist.

*The top-right illustration comes from the 1487 edition of the  Commedia; printer: Boninus de Boninis (https://www.frizzifrizzi.it/2017/11/10/tesori-darchivio-alcune-le-prime-edizioni-illustrate-della-divina-commedia-state-digitalizzate/).

Advertisements

One thing the book club taught me (so far)

reading

Thanks to our book club (Literary Ladies), my reading selection has expanded dramatically, because I read books which I would have never come into contact otherwise. Our discussions also prompt many thoughts regarding reading which I have been interested in throughout my life. What follows presents the results of thinking about our two meetings and the conversations we had about the two books chosen.

As far as readers are concerned, there seem to be two main perspectives underlying the act of reading (fiction, but perhaps other genres can be included here too). These perspectives underpin the interpretation of themes, settings, actions, descriptions, and allow for very different types of enjoyment/disappointment/expectations of the book which all contribute to delightful discussions. The two perspectives are mutually exclusive but neither is “better” than the other. Each, however, lets us understand the world differently, although often without any possibility of rapprochement.

  1. Some readers identify themselves with a character. This is reading and thinking/feeling with one’s own mind: the reader looks for validation of her/his own ideas through a character’s language, race, gender, religious affiliation, social class, education, familial status, etc. (Pace Steven Pinker and other psychologists). Clearly, affection for a character of identical background reaffirms one’s situation and makes one exclaim: “I am not the only one that is experiencing these troubles/joys”. Women who went or are undergoing separation from a partner read The Love Warrior and find the “memoir” meaningful as they feel their life experience is reaffirmed since they can identify with Glennon. The book’s content, then, is part of the real world of suffering/joy. It is almost a given that this type of reading makes it much less probable that the readers would actually criticize the character with whom they identify. Conversely, if the readers do not identify (but would very much like to ) with a character (usually a protagonist), they are more likely to criticize the character’s  choices and lifestyle. Those readers who “could not” identify with Leo Gursky in The History of Love were more likely to find his quirks and life choices not understandable.
  2. Some readers suspend their way of thinking and stand back, so to speak, which makes them read and think/feel using the author’s mind. In other words, for them, “reading is thinking with someone else’s brain”, as Schopenhauer apparently claimed. This perspective does not seek to validate any aspect of the reader’s personality through an identification with a character. The characters are perceived purely on the strengths or weaknesses of the artistry of their description and on the intrinsic web of relationships they form with other characters. Readers who did not identify with Glennon of The Love Warrior and who read the “memoir” purely on the strengths of the description were more likely to detect the fact that the author was not entirely honest. This type of reading made it therefore possible to find faults, for example,  with Glennon’s abandoning her family and going off to expensive yoga sessions. As for The History of Love, those readers who found Leo Gursky’s life interesting or poetic, were more likely to find enjoyment and appreciation of the description of his quirks and life choices. This perspective interprets the book’s contents as an enrichment of one’s real life, rather than a confirmation of it; and therefore the farther the book’s content is from the reader’s experiences, the more chance it has to mold critical skills.

These two types of reading, however, leave various questions unanswered. For example, what are the criteria for constructing the countless book classifications, suggestions, lists? Do they measure the contents from the perspective of identity or from the perspective of detachment? Moreover, and, more significantly, the algorithms which are forced on us by the digital technology surely support our “preferred” type of reading and therefore the destruction of the boundaries (identity vs detachment) we as readers fall prey to becomes ever more impossible. Also, do the genres themselves force us to read from one perspective or another, as Edgar Alan Poe suggests? What do you think? You are welcome to leave your reactions by clicking on the “Comment” button below.