Book review: Ormolu and Antimacassars

by Max Sparber

 

Illustrator Edward Gorey, whose strange, crabbed, finely detailed illustrations and blackly humorous accompanying text seems perpetually to hang on the walls of college dorm rooms, died in April of 2000, leaving behind a puzzling body of work. There is, as an example, the strangely popular The Gashlycrumb Tinies, his little abecedarian poem about 26 hapless children and their gruesome fates: There is Ernest, who choked on a peach, and poor Neville, who died of ennui. And, speaking of hapless children, there is The Hapless Child, a bitter morality tale in the fashion of Victorian parlor poetry, which tells of Charlotte Sophia, a wide-eyed, blonde-locked innocent whose suffers a series of indignities, falling victim to abusive boarding school teachers and cruel drunks. Eventually Charlotte perishes, blind and malnourished, beneath the wheels of her father’s car. Clutching his daughter, for whom he had been searching, the father does not recognize her.

Gorey’s collected works, both anthologized and printed in compact, oddly sized book form, usually end up in the humor section of bookstores ñ even with their parade of grave-bound children, Gorey’s books seemed intended as bleak goofs. His was a world of crumbling mansions and impenetrable, callous actions ñ the very stuff of English mystery novels, which he adored ñ but rendered nonsensical and absurd. Whatever evil happens in Gorey’s books, it happens for our amusement, whether it be the dread-inspiring, uninvited presence of a birdlike, scarf- and tennis shoe-wearing creature in The Doubtful Guest or the tragedy of a family crushed by a rock formation in The Willowdale Handcar.

Gorey’s work has been the subject of numerous printed retrospectives, all sounding delighted and baffled by the man’s work in equal shares. Gorey himself steadfastly refused to comment on his own work in any meaningful way. When pressed on the meaning of his work, he dismissed the question. “Ideally, if anything were good, it would be indescribable,” he once told an interviewer.

While Gorey’s works were not beyond description, critics have had to repeatedly reach for antiquated language to find the right word for his illustrations, which seemed set just at the dawn of modernity, when Victorianism was fading and the Twentieth Century was just starting. Karen Wilkin, writing of Gorey’s meticulous line drawings in The World of Edward Gorey, pointed out that “Gorey’s settings, like his period characters, demand words no longer in common use.” She added, “They are rooms where antimacassars protect the upholstery, aspidistras fill the urns, pelmets hang at the windows, and the whatnot is decorated with ormolu.”

 

Gadzookery

 

For author Alexander Theroux, such creaky language is also required to describe the thin, bearded, fur coat-clad Gorey himself. Theroux, a novelist and playwright who authored a popular series of books on colors, was a neighbor and, from the sounds of it, something of a busybody friend of Gorey in Barnstable, Massachusets, where Gorey lived out the last years of his life. Theroux recently authored The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, an unkempt and fascinating series of recollections of the man, and if ever an author was guilty of gadzookery ñ the use of archaism in writing ñ it is Theroux. Perhaps inspired by the mannered, antique world that Gorey created, as well as by the fussy eccentricity of Gorey himself, Theroux has written a book dense with sentences that willfully defy rules 6 and 14 of Strunk and White’s guide to style: Do not overwrite and avoid fancy words. As an example, describing a recurring image in Gorey’s work, Theroux fashions this dense sentence:

“Demireps with eyes rounded by kohl ñ most women in his books, the elegant ones certainly, are as identifiable for their black eye-liner as Claudia Cardinale ñ stare hatefully at children.”

The results are hardly unreadable, however. Theroux is dealing with a fascinating subject, and one for whom he clearly has considerable affection, and so he makes it his task to sift through errant memories and scraps of interviews with Edward Gorey in order to construct a small, warm, weird portrait of the man. While Gorey fans have long known of the illustrator’s obsession with television ñ he was said to watch dozens of hours per day ñ how many knew that Gorey had a great fondness for Buffy the Vampire Slayer? And while Gorey’s love of the ballet is renowned ñ he religiously attended the New York City Ballet, until Balanchine retired, prompting Gorey’s own move to Cape Cod ñ but how many know of his equally passionate love of Oreo cookies? His hatred of fruitcake? How many know that he wrote and directed puppet shows in his waning years? Who, but somebody such as Theroux, who made it his habit to sit opposite Gorey whenever he saw the man at a restaurant, would be able to relate Gorey’s scorching, petty dismissals of popular culture figures such as Martha Stewart (“Get me a big mallet!”), Kathie Lee Gifford (“Her facial contortions would be excessive on Daffy Duck”), or Glenn Close (“sexless as a tea bag”)?

There is a sense of Gorey as a person in Theroux’s book, a palpable sense of his character, which has previously been absent in works about the illustrator. And Gorey, as a person, was a maddening mix of droll eccentric and rueful crank. Theroux steers clear of speculation about anything Gorey himself demurred from discussing (such as his reported homosexuality; Theroux’s presentation of Gorey is as a somewhat hermetic aesthete with little interest in social interaction, but that is provided him the opportunity to spout off; otherwise, the Gorey that Theroux gives us is, well, sexless as a tea bag.)

 

Odd passions

 

Gorey was a frequent demurrer, failing to discuss his private life or even his own work in any consistent way, dismissing the subjects as though they were a horrendous bore. But Theroux gives us a man of odd passions, and Gorey never demurred from discussing his vast, ranging interests, from bean-bag toys to silent films. Gorey was a collector of strange things and a connoisseur of easily dismissed culture, and, as with filmmaker John Waters’ autobiographical essays, with Theroux’s character portrait of Edward Gorey we are given a glimpse into the process by which a witty mind can turn trash into art. Gorey’s stories and illustrations, disconnected from the everyday by their affected antiquity and their perverse subject matter, have puzzled fans for years. Theroux searches for the source of Gorey’s art, and finds it in soap operas, popular movies, and trashy mystery novels ñ unexpectedly common sources. At the end of his book, Theroux recounts a brief discussion in which he quizzed Gorey on his inspiration: “I asked him, awkwardly, as I recall, why he thought that stark violence and horror and terror were the uncompromising focus of his work.

“‘I write about everyday life,’ came Gorey’s simple reply, out of a shadow.”

 

The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, Alexander Therousx, Fantagraphics Books, $8.95.