Everybody's had a feeling of being burned at the end of a relationship, but in Andrew Davidson's first novel, The Gargoyle, the flames come at the very beginning of the love story, when the book's unlikable, unnamed narrator crashes his car while driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Trapped in the fiery wreck, he suffers third- and fourth-degree burns over most of his body and is forced to spend more than a year in a specialized pressure garment. The experience leaves him scarred, but also unexpectedly changed:
"Only after I was born into physical repulsiveness did I come to glimpse the possibilities of the heart: I accepted this atrocious face and abominable body because they were forcing me to overcome the limitations of who I am, while my previous body allowed me to hide them."
While recovering in a hospital, he meets Marianne Engel, a sculptor of grotesque gargoyles, who tells him stories of past lives in which she claims they were lovers. The settings of her tales range from ninth century Iceland to 13th century Germany and beyond.
Davidson says he had dreamed of Marianne's character — a woman with wild hair and eyes to match — and began writing the novel when a particularly vivid vision ensured he could no longer ignore her.
"This character came to me and said, 'OK, here I am and you're going to listen to me,' " he remembers. "She wasn't going to leave me alone if I didn't."
As Marianne and the narrator learn about each other's past and present lives, Davidson draws the reader into the couple's unorthodox, platonic romance.
"One of the questions that I always ask myself when developing characters is who do they love, why do they love this person and what happened in that relationship?" says Davidson. "If you know who somebody loves, [then] you know who that person is."
Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.
When a first novel launches a crazed bidding war, when the U.S. rights alone are eventually purchased for well above $1 million, you know that the beleaguered publishing industry has seized something it's convinced everyone will buy, clutched it to its heart and wept with relief. Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle does, at first glance, seem a canny jumble of best-selling key elements: mystical puzzles, burn victims, porn stars, Gothic trappings, time-travel and the licking flames of eternal love.
OK, the burn victim and the porn star are the same person. Brace yourself, readers, for puns about "the skin trade." The nameless hero has driven himself off a mountain in a stupor of drugs and bourbon and awakens in a hospital, swaddled in cadaverous flesh. He writhes in the kind of agony usually hastily put in the "indescribable" category, but which Davidson gleefully accepts as a formal challenge. (His extensive research for this book included correspondence with burn victims.) The author's detailed evocations of horrific skin grafts, painful surgical procedures and the latest medical breakthroughs involving maggots make for riveting, if disturbing, reading.
Wasted in body and in spirit, our hero languishes, hoping to gather just enough strength to eventually commit suicide. But then he's visited by a comely fellow patient named Marianne, a sculptress of gargoyles who is possibly insane. She explains that she's 700 years old and launches into a recitation of great historical love stories, including theirs. It seems that in the medieval period, she was a runaway nun, he was a mercenary and they had a thing. Now, just as she carves grotesques from stone, she'll peel the monster from the man.
So far, reviews of The Gargoyle wobble between derision, grudging approbation and probably, envy. The New York Times called it "transportingly unhinged." The London Independent likened it to "World of Warcraft fan fiction." Slated to be published in 26 countries, The Gargoyle may be the stuff of airport fiction, but Davidson's literary bravado is making it one of the more talked-about books of the season.
This reading of The Gargoyle took place in September 2008 at the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York.