"The catastrophe begins with getting out of bed," writes Thomas Bernhard, and that one sentence can be said to sum up his view of human life. If you're of a tendency to agree, you're of a tendency to enjoy the work of literature's answer to anyone obtuse enough to tell you to "Have a Nice Day!" Just be sure to have plenty of Zoloft and Wellbutrin XL on hand because Bernhard is potent stuff.
If "Gargoyles" were a boxing match instead of a book and Bernhard a fighter you could say he came out swinging hard at the opening bell and faded away in the middle rounds...only to come back stronger than ever to knock you out cold in the end. The minimal plot describes a son who, having returned from university for the weekend, accompanies his physician father on his daily rounds through the countryside. The day starts offs with a brutal murder at a local inn and ends with a visit to a mad prince holed up in his mountain estate. In between, father and son check in on a variety of patients--each one of them a "gargoyle," a human grotesque, suffering from one or another of the awful maladies of existence. Hemmed in by illness, grief, loneliness, age, hopelessness, these poor souls are a parade of human misery, the victims of the horrors that flesh is heir to.
The son is the ostensible narrator of these events, but Bernhard has him take a primarily background role, letting the patients and their grim circumstances speak for themselves. This technique culminates in the final one hundred or so pages of *Gargoyles* which are mainly the text of an extended monologue by the novel's most intriguing character: the prince of a large and decaying estate who is clearly on the verge of the sort of insanity that may be the clearest wisdom of all.
It's precisely this extended monologue that proves to be the strongest--and weakest--part of the novel. There were stretches where this speech read like nothing more than the ravings of your typical schizophrenic--gibberish interspersed with the occasional gleam of brilliant insight and dark humor--and, as such, became somewhat tiresome. But just when you start to sense your eyes glazing over, Bernard kicks things into overdrive and the prince's monologue becomes a riveting panegyric of proverb and prophecy that relentlessly hammers shut every door that one might have hoped could lead to an escape from human despair. This `madman's monologue,' which at first seems mind-numbingly arbitrary and inconsistent builds in coherence and power until the novel's finale where Bernhard sets off a nihilistic fireworks display of devastating aphoristic brilliance. It's truly one of the great "mad rants" of world literature--a tour de force performance not to be missed.
Not without its weaknesses, *Gargoyles* is nonetheless a challenging and rewarding novel that manages, ultimately, to be more than a `mere' novel--but an irrefutable testament to the tragedy of the human condition...a tragedy that, incredibly, is not without its share of laughs.