I enjoyed this book, even as I'm still conflicted about it. (And I'm pretty sure that's not just the Day-quil talking.) There were so many things about this book - in the plot, the characters, even the narrative structure - that felt like stunts, like the author saying lookatmelookatmeeee!, but then he managed to weave them back in and make them make sense. So they were...stunts that were at least somewhat effectively deployed?
So you've got at least three layers of narrative here - unnamed former pornographer/drug addict narrator (stunt: oooh, he said cock
! /titillate) who ends up pretty horrifically burned - which the author relates in loving, gory detail, but he does it with a kind of self-awareness that I find not entirely uneffective. Nameless burned dude is contemplating suicide, but then the psych patient/gargoyle carver shows up, tells him they were lovers in a past life in 14th century Germany, and he learns! to love! again! (or for the first time, as the case may be).
So gargoyle carver schizophrenic (or possibly manic depressive, the narrator/author never fully decides) tells nameless burn dude about their past love/lives, which are intertwined with all sorts of religious symbolism (or possibly Religious Symbolism), including an extended riff on Dante's inferno, and she also tells him several different tragic love stories from Italy, Iceland, Japan, and England.
For 98% of the book, nameless narrator is pretty sure that gargoyle lady is just crazy and not actually telling of actual past lives (or that she's actually been alive for 700 years - not clear), but his doubt ends up kind of charming, as he falls in love with her anyway. And, in the end, when gargoyle lady kills herself as a culmination of all their past lives, etc etc insert symbolism here, I have to give kudos to the book for not making it okay with nameless burn guy, even as he sneakingly starts to believe her story. He's going to carry her death with him always, especially the knowledge that he could have stopped her.
So, yeah. The book balances a fine line between "and it was all just a dream! of a crazy person!" and "it was all really real, you know, for real!", and I appreciate that. I found both main characters kind of irritating, but I think I was supposed to. There are a couple skanky race issues that rear their ugly heads, and at least one of them is dealt with exactly as it should be (it is acknowledged as a skanky race thing, and your feelings about the character who perpetrates the skanky race thing are supposed
to change for the skankiness), although that doesn't quite compensate for a few that aren't
acknowledged as such, I think.
And, yes, while the whole gay-for-pay pornography thing was handled pretty well, I couldn't help but roll my eyes that the one gay love story in the legion of stories told by gargoyle lady was a) the one unconsummated love story, 2) while not the only tragic story nor the only story where one lover killed the other, it was the only one where one lover killed the other out of anger and hate, and c) the spurned gay lover was beaten literally to a pulp by his paramour, then incidentally set on fire by his paramour, but in his dying moments, he saved the life of his paramour's child, and the way the text reads, we're supposed to acknowledge the perfect tragic beauty of the whole thing because the saved child is renamed for the burned, beaten wannabe lover? Um. No. That's not beautiful and tragic; that's horrible
. The beating is described as defying all reason and sense, and the beater's response after the haze of whatever has lifted (in fairness, I should acknowledge that the perhaps-poorly-timed-kiss and subsequent beating to death
occured after a great deal of booze and some highly suspect mushrooms), is simply, "I don't know why I did that. I loved him." FAIL. Not the equivalent of the other stories of tragic love, where the tragedy was imposed from the outside.
But I digress. For a free book I got at BEA2008, I count this one as a total win. Complex in its meta arrangement, more complex in its characters than I was expecting, and it made me want to dig out my copy of Dante's Inferno. Way more than I can say about most of the romance fluff I've been reading lately.