Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thoughts on the Craft -- c.anne.gardner

This weeks column will be a blending of my What Does a Pod Peep read review column and my Thoughts on the Craft column because I wanted to talk about Structure and Technique using some broad strokes while discussing at length Andrew Davidson's first novel and NYT Bestseller: The Gargoyle.

At the start of this book, we have the very mainstream shock and awe first chapter where our unnamed rather loathsome protagonist finds himself at the mercy of a flaming car wreck. His own car in this case, as he was drunk and coked up when he saw the imaginary flaming arrows shoot out from the roadside brush, startling him, and subsequently sending his car crashing down into a ravine. The explosion left our main character with 3rd and 4th degree burns over 90% of his body, including his dick, which was burned off down to a nub. From that point on, the narrative shifts to our protags trials and tribulations in the burn unit of the hospital. We get to experience his treatment with gruesome and disturbing detail, as the author took a substantial amount of time researching this aspect of the story. During our protagonist’s hospital stay, he is approached by a psychiatric patient named Marianne Engle who proceeds to chastise him for burning himself again. She believes that they were lovers in a past life in 14th century Germany.

Now, at this point, I want to make mention that this book seems to have divided readers into the love it or hate it categories, so I want to discuss the “issues” people seem to have with the narrative, and how I personally felt about it, as it is a long book, so you are with it for a while. First off, we have our unnamed protagonist and first person narrator. You just won’t have very much sympathy for him. He isn’t a pleasant person at all -- arrogant, egotistical -- so he is the perfect mainstream fiction trope. Many had difficulty with the fact that the character itself was an archetype: the nerdy book-worm kid who finds himself being raised by meth-addict relatives, later in life only to discover that he is rather gifted sexually, handsome in his own opinion, and so he becomes a porn star, forsaking love and faith for the pleasures of the flesh. Yup, I can see the cliché and a lot of readers took offence to that. Then we have Marianne Engle, the psychotic artist who sculpts grotesques in her basement and thinks she was a nun back in 14th Century Germany and the first to translate Dante’s Inferno (The Divine Comedy) into German. She also thinks that our protagonist was the wounded mercenary whom she fell in love with and saved by forsaking her own vows to God. Again, contradictions aside, many people took offence to the cliché Marianne Engle: angel wings tattooed to her back, not to mention, she conveniently shows up to save him. But we can't call shenanigans here, cause that's fate. However, we can mention the crazy artist archetype, even if I might not personally take issue with it. I have known a lot of crazy artists, and I am one myself at times. The real issue for readers seems to be that both of the main characters here have very few redeeming qualities. Their personalities are coarse, and their world-view is jaded, and many readers just couldn’t connect with either one of them. Me, I like pissed off and fucked up characters who take their cynicism seriously. Those are the sort of characters I like to hang out with, in life and in fiction.

Secondly, the narrative itself was a bit disconcerting for some readers, and the convenient pseudo-autobiographical meta-fiction just pissed some people off. They found it a trite way to excuse the narrative foibles. The justification does make itself know in an intrusive way, but I just felt Meh about it. As for the rest, the book uses a good deal of narrative summary, and so there is very little “in the now” action, and the POV shifts between our first person unnamed narrator to Marianne’s first-person account of their past life together told almost exclusively in a second person narrative voice. Since our primary narrator has only to lie in bed and contemplate suicide, the majority of the book is Marianne sitting at his bedside telling him stories. Stories that our protagonist, in the beginning, has trouble believing, but that disbelief begins to fail him as the story moves along. Personally, I happened to like the storytelling and the very elaborate narrative summary. It felt as if the main character and Marianne were moving in and out of an alternate consciousness, though some of it was a bit long winded and indulgent. But my favourite part of the story happened in the end when Marianne attempts to free our protagonist of his cold heart and the morphine. Here is where Dante’s Inferno (The Divine Comedy) comes back into storyline as our protag, during his morphine withdrawal, travels through an inferno all of his own, coming out at the end with love in his heart and a new world view. Some readers also found that a bit cliché.

Half the time period of the story, our protagonist is in the hospital and the other half he is living with Marianne, bearing witness to her self-destructive artistic mania. She has a very typical story as well, in this life, and in the end she sacrifices herself to save him, just as he had done to save her in his prior life. Many readers found Marianne to be bland, almost motherly in her attitude towards her lover, but she did say in the beginning that she was tired and wanted to rest from life, any life for a while, so her tiredness did come through in her voice and actions to some extent. If giving away all her hearts could give her death, and in death, give her salvation and the embrace of God, who she forsook, well then, her dispassionate matter-of-factness or rather her detachment seemed justified.

I did like the underlying thematic principle even though it’s as tried and true as it gets: Marianne releases the beasts from their stone cages, and conversely, in our protagonist’s case, she needed to chisel the good man out of the grotesque thing he had become, as the fiery wreck had brought his ugliness to the surface so that he would have to confront it. I also like the redemption through love concept. I write about that often myself. I like when the shit character finds his inner goodness. I loved the sculptor and her grotesques metaphor, and I loved the self-inflicted purgatory moral of the story, but some readers felt the intensity was lacking between the two lovers. In reality, they weren’t lovers in this life, so the uncomfortable distance that always seemed to be between them felt appropriate to me. The distance was cautionary. Had they been swooning over each other the whole time, I wouldn’t have bought into the idea.

On to the technical stuff: some readers took issue with the extensiveness of the research and the regurgitation of said research into the narrative. Overwritten and heavy handed are words you might see in many reviews, but I didn’t mind it at all and thought the depth made the whole situation more believable. In some areas, a good pointed cutting would have been wise to eliminate some repetition, but other than that, I didn’t mind the thick prose. I also didn’t mind the rather bland ending either because it was pretty realistic. People, if they change at all, change slowly. There are no grand life epiphanies, no eternal love, no happy ever after, the story ends just like life does in most cases, predictably and with tragedy.

On the whole, I don’t normally read Bestsellers: I just don’t buy into all the hype, but this was recommended to me by a friend, and I liked the premise he described. I loved the shifting narrative, I loved the lush prose, I liked the detail -- except for the endless lists of food items and other such nonsense -- I loved the unsympathetic main characters. I loved the romantic vignettes, I loved the ambiguity -- was Marianne a nutcase or was her lovelorn tale real -- and I loved that the story ended badly in that the love would remain unrequited. What I didn’t like was the constant interjection by the “bitch snake” in the weird and abrupt font. I got it that his “id” was trying to keep control of him, but it was a bit much. This book also crossed a lot of different genres. If I had to classify it for readers, the bulk of the book is backstory, and it has the look and feel of a historical romance with a spiritual love at its centre more so than a physical one. We are dealing with love as faith here and not love as fleshly passion, so don't expect that kind of passion. The plot is an existential and philosophical one; therefore, the pace is that of a meandering walk through time and not what one might consider a page-turner. Sometimes I like it slow, especially if I am expected to appreciate something ugly.

I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't think it was the most fabulous love story ever written. The nerd turns porn-star bit really didn't sit well with me; however, Mr. Davidson's adventuresome technique had me applauding more than once. I like an author who waxes unconventional, and I love an editor who agrees to go along for the ride. I thought it was a fine first novel.

Cheryl Anne Gardner

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