December 10, 2008

Book review: "The Gargoyle," by Andrew Davidson

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The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson
The Gargoyle
By Andrew Davidson
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-52494-0

It's easy to take the low road whenever a subpar book with tremendous hype comes out, to comically trash that book not necessarily for its ludicrous elements but rather that a group of corporate executives decided to spend millions on it anyway. But what if that author happens to be on your friend list at a popular social network for book nerds, so is guaranteed to eventually see your review? And what if he was actually the one to invite you to be friends? And what if it was months and months before his own book ever took off? And what if he turns out to be a really nice guy, and an active member of the literary community, and goes out of his way to help out other authors and always spread the love? What if, say, you're me, and you're about to review Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle, aka "The Little Book That Could," that came out of obscurity earlier this year to become the most heavily hyped new novel of the entire fall season?

Well, if you're me, you take a deep breath, point your car squarely towards the low-road exit ramp, and declare: This book was freaking terrible, and every executive at Doubleday responsible for overhyping it should be ashamed of themselves. In fact, now that I'm finished with it, I'm starting to wonder if "Andrew Davidson" is even a real person at all; if we haven't perhaps all been duped by the greatest literary hoax in history, and that the most hyped adult book of 2008 turns out to have been written by a 15-year-old girl who's read Twilight one too many times. And don't get me wrong, that's not bad if you're a 15-year-old girl, and I don't begrudge 15-year-old girls in any way at all for being fans of Twilight; but when it's a book written by a grown-up and meant for other grown-ups, marketed as a grown-up book within grown-up publications, to have it turn out to be a gooey, badly-written, chaste supernatural romantic thriller is a freaking crime, or at least should be.

I mean, how else to explain so many of the elements found in this book, things that had me instantly rolling my eyes in slacker disgust the moment I came across them, but that I could nonetheless see a whole gaggle of high-school girls wetting their panties over? Sheesh, where do you even start with this thing? Well, how about this, that it's an intense love story where no one has sex; in fact, Davidson even drives this point home in about as obvious a manner as possible, by making our hero a victim of a fiery car crash whose d-ck has literally been burned off. Subtle, Davidson, subtle! Or how about all the bizarre yet stereotypical details just arbitrarily thrown willy-nilly into these characters' backgrounds, without any follow-through or realistic observations about such a detail, or any other evidence that the author in any way knows what the hell they're talking about with that detail, and that they just threw it in because it "sounded cool?" I'm thinking for example of our burned-up hero again, who before his accident had spent his entire life as a sex-addicted, drug-addicted, childhood-abuse-victim gigolo and owner of his own pornography production company; yet after his crash he doesn't exhibit even the first sign of emotional distance, mental withdrawal or psychological manipulation that almost automatically comes with such a background, instead ready to throw himself feet-first into the most sickly-sweet pink-heart teenage-girl romantic relationship one could ever possibly have, with the very first person he sees after coming out of his coma.

And speaking of which, that's yet another sign that this book was possibly written secretly by a 15-year-old girl; because the middle-age woman serving as our romantic interest acts exactly like a 15-year-old girl the entire time, is clearly meant by the author to be admired for it instead of mocked and scorned, and in fact has a lifestyle that would be the wet dream of any goth-wearing, Tori-Amos-obsessed suburban pubescent slam poet and underground comics artist. She's a quirky sculptress who makes a million dollars a year! She lives in an abandoned church and hangs out with rock stars! She eats instant coffee like candy, and sleeps nude on her stone slabs the night before she carves them! She has a special rapport with animals that no one else understands! And to top it all off, she believes herself to actually be 700 years old, the burn victim actually her soul-sworn lover from nearly a millennium ago, who she's been tracking throughout history while paying supernatural penance for a sin against him in her youth! J-SUS C-RIST, GET THE F-CK AWAY FROM ME, YOU STUPID F-CKING 15-YEAR-OLD GIRL!

And that of course leads us neatly to the next major problem with this book; that much like fellow overhyped trainwreck The Historian, The Gargoyle is sold as a contemporary supernatural story but is neither contemporary nor supernatural, the modern-day scenes existing only and solely as a framing device for this wacko love interest to tell these giant, rambling stories about their supposed original passionate romance back in the 1300s, with Davidson going out of his way to show that she might just be mentally ill and making the entire thing up. (And in fact, exactly like The Historian, large parts of the contemporary side of The Gargoyle can be skipped altogether without missing a single important plot development; just start paying attention again whenever you come across the phrase, "Should I tell you more of my story now?") And speaking of which, this is yet another reason why I suspect that this novel was secretly written by a 15-year-old girl, someone whose entire concept of relationships is strictly limited to bland surface-level middle-class suburban nuclear marriages; because how else to explain the exact bland, middle-class suburban existence this couple apparently lives right smack-dab in the middle of the f-cking Dark Ages? They move to the big city...he struggles to find work, while she makes him comfort meals each night...they become friends with their elderly Jewish neighbors...they romantically talk about one day buying their own home. Cheese And Freaking Rice, Davidson, this is not what couples did in the 1300s; couples in the 1300s simply built their houses themselves, rutted around in their own filth after 17 hours a day of backbreaking labor, and desperately tried to squeeze out as many babies as possible before they all died of the g-dd-mn plague!

Whew. Okay. Deep breath, Jason. Okay, I think I've got my entire comical rant out of my system now, which means I can finally get to my most important point; that when all is said and done, in reality The Gargoyle is no worse than any other first novel by any other beginning novelist, the kind you can just picture coming out with little fanfare, gathering a modest amount of passionate genre fans, and sparking just exactly enough sales to guarantee that author's next book contract, at which point they will undoubtedly be just a little better of a writer than they were before, then a little better again, then a little better again. Ultimately I would've liked this book a lot more if it had arrived under those circumstances, and in fact I could've just as easily described this book today as a typical yet decent beach read with a few above-average elements. No, when I go off on books like these -- when most people go off on books like these -- what I'm really ranting about are the knuckleheads at Doubleday who thought that this middlebrow first novel should've been insanely hyped in the first place, who thought that tens of millions of dollars should've been spent on its promotion when there are clearly so many other better books out there that deserve that hype and money more. It's a naked sign of just how much contempt these publishing executives have for their audience, a very clear indication that they don't think they should publish anything "too smart" (or at least hype it), because it'll obviously go right over the heads of the ignorant cash-flush sheep they call their customers.

It angers me when I see a publishing company treat me with this kind of naked contempt, and it makes me want to lash out at them. It makes me want to write these kinds of devastatingly witty, borderline-cruel reviews, just as a way of shouting at these executives, "Stop sh-tting down my throat and calling it chocolate cake. STOP DOING THAT." It's unfair to dump on Davidson, I know, merely for writing the exact book that he should be writing at this point in his career; but when it's one lone critical voice against tens of millions of marketing dollars and an entire multinational hype machine, sometimes that voice simply needs to be extra-loud and extra-mean. That's just sometimes how it is, and Davidson knew this the moment he signed that 1.5-million-dollar Doubleday contract to begin with.

Out of 10: 6.7

Read even more about The Gargoyle: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:08 PM, December 10, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |