Thursday, August 28, 2008

Eli Hessberg And I Discuss Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle

A couple of days ago I was searching for coherent reviews of Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle. Four Google hiccups later, I landed on the website of The Literate Housewife. The Housewife had posted her reaction to Entertainment Weekly's Gargoyle immolation, and there was a discussion happening among commenters regarding whether the EW review was right, wrong, or perverse. I find those kind of reviews funny. What would EW have said about Salinger's Nine Stories? "Salinger writes like Brad Pitt smokes: at night, and not very often."

Visit the Housewife's site. The posters are smart, insightful, and rational. There was no screaming, no caps lock ranting, no Jew-baiting (Davidson's not a Jew, but he could be); there was only intelligent debate.

All the way down the page I found the following comment, posted by someone named Eli Hessberg. Hessberg was frothing over the good press being poured over Davidson's first offering. His post was alternately cryptic and biting, and it ended in a snap. It seemed like something that I would write, so I contacted Hessberg, asking him if he'd be interested in debating/discussing, on this site, the merits of Davidson's work. He agreed, and so over the next few days we'll be taking apart Davidson's work with callow, academic precision. Or at least as precise as rusty knives can be.

Here's Hessberg's first comment re: The Gargoyle

Too many similes. That’s it. And forget taking it easy with candy-coated criticism. Davidson sold this book for big money, and it ought to be reacted to/against honestly. The prose is bad. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth. That doesn’t mean that you can’t like the book. Or think that it’s good. And I’m sure that Davidson is a fine person. But his sentences, taken in sum, read like a hardboiled detective novel that’s sat too long on Milton Berle’s beside table. How many puns? How many wisecracks? How many pithy, whispered punchlines? If Davidson were Woody Allen, I could understand. But he’s not a comic novelist. Is he supposed to be a cynic? Fine, he’s a cynic, but not a particularly funny one.

I didn’t like Herzog, but it worked. I thought that Absalom, Absalom! was like reading (on) broken glass, but the depth of the prose was just impressive. Davidson wrote a bad burlesque of a Showtime movie meets The English Patient meets Red Dragon.

That intrigued me. Here's Hessberg's second post, in which, a day later, he reacts to his diatribe:

Reading over my post, I realize that it’s too pointed by half. So thank you for seeing the nascent argument that’s half-hidden by overreaction. The EW review was a capsule joke. It’s the kind of thing you’d hear coming out of Glenn Beck’s mouth. There’s really an opportunity here to produce a rigorous appraisal of Davidson’s work, but you can’t rely on a ‘paper or a magazine to get this one right. Reading the first hundred pages, I saw the influence of countless novels, sit-coms, movies, old radio shows, and famous stand-up routines. Someone could point out the difference between literature and fiction; someone could make the point that this is more of a novelization than a novel. I’d like to read an analysis of Davidson’s use of mysticism, and the possibility that this novel is such a commercial success because of its genre bending. Look at Stealing Dawn. I wouldn’t read that on a coconut husk raft in the middle of the South Pacific. But it sells more than Great Gatsby reprints. So go figure.

But, for some reason, the adulation just bothered me. And it still does. Davidson’s unwittingly done something kinda interesting: he’s written a commercial novel that combines easily digestible insights with a sci-fi love story. It’s like Tuesdays with Morrie and an Anne Rice novel all in one. A good way to make money, but a Marian Engel (CanLit reference; Engel was a mid-tier author of serious, and I mean serious, fiction. See The Glassy Sea, Bear, etc.) he’s not.

Hessberg, surprisingly, is Canadian; he teaches at Kwantlen College in Surrey, B.C. He's the first person I've seen question the Marianne/Marian Engel reference, and he's the first person I've seen use Milton Berle in a review. If only he were a single woman with an Emma Richler shrine, Daniel Richler could finally have a friend. Here's an excerpt from our email discussion.

David: You seem angry about Davidson's success. Why?

Eli: I'm not angry; I'm just confused. I can take the commercial success, but not the critical success. It seems like people are taking this book much too seriously.

David: Why would you say that?

Eli: Because they're talking about learning from it. As if it's teaching them something about life. As entertainment, it's fine. I didn't have fun reading it, but it wasn't bad. I mean, I didn't hate it. It was just okay. But profound? That worries me.

David: What do you think of the print reviews?

Eli: I think they're all bullshit. Good, bad, they're all bullshit.

David: I agree. They're calling this book an "event." This isn't going to sound fair, but The Waves was an event, Babbitt was an event. Look Homeward, Angel. I don't want to compare The Gargoyle to those books, because it's not trying to be The Enormous Room. But they've removed that line.

Eli: Who has?

David: Critics. It's as if these books are being published in a sit-com, in a movie. So, not real, but representing the truths of an emotionless, vapid world. Again, that might not be fair to Davidson, but I don't know how to react to this book. I don't want to hate it so viscerally, but I can't accept it as literature. But as something like The Devil Wears Prada...well, I think I can be happy with that.

Eli: But why would that matter to you?

David: Why would it offend me? Because it just seems too easy. Like an episode of 2.5 Men. It takes fifteen minutes to write, and everyone's driving a Mercedes.

Eli: So write something like that. A Jurassic Park thing. What's that line from that Kubrick movie? "You're an idealist, so I pity you, as I would the village idiot."

David: That's nice. Thank you.

To Be Continued...

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