By: Rachel Luban
More than once Edward Gorey claimed as his motto, “O the of it all!” Yes, you read that right: “O the of it all!”, sans defining noun. The phrase suits him. He admired Japanese literature for its mastery of omission, a skill he found lacking, as it were, in much Western art. There’s some dramatic center in his work that evades articulation — something that would be melodramatic but for his signature deadpan, absurdity, even Surrealism.
His reviewers and interviewers have nevertheless undertaken the quixotic task of describing his work. They toss words, more and more of them, onto a great heap that ultimately does more to obscure Gorey’s essence than to illuminate it. That was how he saw it, anyway. He likened his work to ballet: “You can describe the externals of a performance–everything, in fact, but what really constituted its core. Explaining something makes it go away, so to speak; what’s important is left after you have explained everything else.” You see I’ve already thrown a few words onto the heap myself, and these well-worn: “deadpan,” “absurd,” “Surrealist,” joining “macabre” (which must tally at number one, though Gorey particularly disliked it), “Edwardian,” “Victorian,” “Gothic,” “ironic,” “gruesome,” and on. It is in this tilting-at-windmills spirit that Alexander Theroux has written The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, a portrait of his longtime friend. He throws many words at Gorey, often the same words over and over, in a litany that demonstrates the futility of getting at his core — at that defining noun in the eccentric writer’s motto.
At least, that’s my best explanation of the truly strange Case. The book’s peculiarities rival Gorey’s in degree if not in charm. The chapterless book comprises many sections of various sizes, and does not attempt any particular structure. Theroux hints at but does not actually venture analyses of Gorey’s meticulously illustrated work; at one point he says the books are about the failures of language, at another he says many “are nothing less than epistemological fables” in which “serious existential questions…are always being asked, even if they are not answered,” but he goes no further in explaining the content of those questions. Anyone hoping for a biography will be disabused of that expectation in short order. The book provides no more than basic biographical detail; Theroux favors more subjective methods. Speaking of the artist’s family, he says, “I believe that I never, not once, heard Gorey ever speak of his mother, well or ill,” then muses on famous figures who seldom mentioned their mothers, extends this musing to characters with absent mothers, then concludes with Shakespeare’s neglect of mothers. This vaguely philosophical meandering characterizes the book.
Whatever his intentions, the book does seem careless. Although it is an expanded third edition of an out-of-print paperback (a fact nowhere to be found in the book itself), errors and oddities persist — “When in doubt, twirl,” was not “one of [Gorey’s] more well-known and often-repeated quotes,” because it was the choreographer Ted Shawn’s. Theroux explains the plot of Disney’s Snow White and bothers to define “flip-book” but leaves obscure historical figures and foreign terms unannotated. The transitions are abrupt: “He gently mocked me,” Theroux recounts in a typical example, “for once confessing to him that I can never watch the last wistful ten minutes of…Roman Holiday without tears in my eyes. He was not a particularly enthusiastic admirer of the medical profession.”
Unfortunately, the laziness that characterizes so much of the book extends to its sourcing as well. Midway through the book, Theroux lifts some lines from Sallie Bingham, a writer he quotes on Gorey’s friend V.R. “Bunny” Lang. Here’s Theroux:
She wore odd clothes, drank heavily, and told people the truth to their faces. She wrote plays and in them named villainesses after herself and often played the roles. To revenge herself on a man she didn’t like, she had thousands of pink labels printed, proclaiming ‘My name is Parker and I am a pig,’ and pasted them up all over the wretched man’s neighborhood. On a smaller scale she wished her cat off on a devoted friend whose inability to say no reduced her life to a shamble dominated by guilt, rage, the cat, and a litter of kittens. It sometimes seems that the vapidity of her friends’ live alone made Bunny’s friendship worth the price she exacted.
And here’s Bingham, describing Lang in a 1975 New York Times review of her Poems and Plays:
Bunny Lang’s hostility was occasionally inspired: to revenge herself on a man she didn’t like, she had thousands of pink labels printed, proclaiming “My name is Parker and I am a pig,” and pasted them up all over the wretched man’s neighborhood. On a smaller scale, she wished her cat off on a devoted friend whose inability to say no reduced her life to a shamble dominated by guilt, rage, the cat and a litter of kittens. It sometimes seems that the vapidity of her friends’ lives alone made Bunny’s friendship worth the price she exacted …. It is not enough to say that Bunny Lang wore odd clothes and told people the truth to their faces.
Entire sentences in Theroux’s description are in fact Bingham’s uncredited work. This is an egregious error, but, like his previous failure to credit six passages from Guy Marchie’s Song of the Sky in his 1994 book of essays, The Primary Colors, this does appear to be an oversight. Asked for comment by Full Stop, Mr. Theroux responded via email: “I can tell you that the short offending paragraph above the direct quote taken from Sallie Bingam was an accidental error in transposition.” But that’s just the trouble: too much here feels accidental.
Theroux repeats himself often, even bizarrely, reiterating the most obvious or well-documented facts about his friend. He tells us three times of the artist’s affection for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He claims (as a joke?) that it “will positively astound the Gorey devotee” to learn that “he never once traveled to England” — a fact that is frequently relayed in articles about the man.
There are some good sketches of Gorey the friend, full of his own slang expressions (“not on your tintype”) and campy performances (collapsing into chairs crying “O vanissima!”). These are the moments that may redeem the book for Gorey fanatics. How delightful to detect a whiff of Mr. Earbrass, the protagonist of Gorey’s first book, The Unstrung Harp: “‘I have given up,’ he groaned happily, ‘considering happiness as relevant.’” And Theroux does have some good proverbs about his friend, the best of which may be, “You could not like or admire Gorey if you had a horror of primness. Nor of excess.”
But his best strategy for revealing Earbrass’s creator, in keeping with his refusal to reveal him, is to invoke other writers’ words to speculate about Gorey’s feelings and opinions. He quotes W. H. Auden, D. H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Frost, Harold Pinter. He uses Shaw, for instance, to explain how Gorey felt that “rapscallions had hijacked suffering into sentimentality” (that line, however, is another good Theroux). He also calls forth a remark Philip Larkin’s wife made about the poet: “He cared a tenth as much about what happened around him as what was happening inside him.” These provide an illuminating supplement to Gorey’s own explanations of himself. Perhaps that’s fitting for a writer so fond of pastiche, for a man so well read and well watched that by the end of his life he could no longer remember what he was borrowing from. But in spite of these lines, I found myself frequently borrowing a line of Gorey’s, a complaint he reportedly made while watching Bobby Deerfield: “Can someone please tell me what this is in aid of?”
The editors of Full Stop contributed research to this review.