The Strange Case of Edward Gorey
(Fantagraphic Books Seattle 2011)
Scenes from an Impending Marriage: A Prenuptial Memoir
(Drawn & Quarterly 2011)
Edward Gorey was the kind of person tailor-made for legend-making. Lanky, tall, sporting short-cropped hair and a giant Tolstoy-esque beard, he often wandered about wrapped in a full-length fur coat with a pair of dirty Keds on his feet. If you aren’t familiar with his books, drop this review and go find as many as you can—The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Epiplectic Bicycle,and The Unstrung Harp for starters. Each one is a sliver of intricately hand-drawn neo-Victorian macabre humor. They are lovely and detailed, and they seem to come not from a man who lived in the 20th century, on Cape Cod, but from another time and place entirely.
How fitting then that Alexander Theroux’s memoir The Strange Case of Edward Gorey does so much to bolster Gorey’s reputation as everything but a conventional person. Theroux dispenses with standard memoir custom. He often refuses to locate the reader in a particular time or place—we are not told, for instance, where or when Gorey was born or how Theroux and Gorey first met. There are very few events recounted. Instead, Theroux moves between an accounting of each piece of dusty detritus in Gorey’s Cape Cod house (reminiscent of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) and every opinion he remembered Gorey holding, on every subject Gorey cared to opine on. The remainder of the book is filled out with Theroux’s own opinions, and references to an astounding number of subjects, many only glancingly related to the title figure. The quotes of Gorey’s that Theroux produces—and they are generous—are snatched out of the ether and presented without setting. Often the only context is whatever Theroux himself has decided to expound upon.
At one point, early in the book, Theroux launches into a tirade on all the evils in the world, and manages to bring in red and blue states, E. coli, the 2010 gulf oil spill, and rapacious art dealers, all in the same paragraph. At another point he launches into what seems like a brief biography of W. H. Auden, whom he first attempts to link to Gorey, but then admits that the two men were actually very different. This does not prevent him from continuing to relate several good anecdotes about Auden. The result is something much like Nabokov’s Pale Fire where the poet John Shade’s final work is annotated (and completely taken over) by his insane neighbor and possible stalker, Charles Kinbote.
None of this should be taken as criticism. It’s a marvelous and daring thing to try to hold a reader’s attention in this way, and Theroux often keeps the book moving through sheer propulsion of wit and enthusiasm. What should have collapsed into a disjointed mess takes on this manic wonder and strangeness. The book itself reads like an extended gossip column, or the mad ramblings of a drunk socialite who keeps the party enthralled because he just happens to be the most charismatic person in the room, talking about an even more charismatic person no longer present. Here’s a selection, taken at random. It’s the first paragraph on page 62, after a full break in the text:
An epiphany of true despair came to me one night when, looking into Richard Schickel’s biography, Elia Kazan, I wondered exactly what reality amounts to, never mind honesty, when I read: “One night [screenwriter Budd] Schulberg remembered, ‘I was talking about my old man and [Will Rogers, Jr.] was talking about his father, and he said, ‘My father was so full of shit, because he pretends he’s just one of the people, just one of the guys...but in our house the only people that ever came as guests were the richest people in town, the bankers and the power-brokers of L.A. And those were his friends and that’s where his heart is and he was really a goddamned reactionary.’” Will Rogers!? I asked myself, if this is the case with a tree that is (supposedly) green, what of those that are dry?
The next paragraph, without a break, covers Gorey’s thoughts on religion. Theroux’s constant switching of topics, his circling and backtracking, and even his repetition (we learn several times over, for instance, that Gorey enjoyed the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, much to Theroux’s confusion) gives the book a manic, kitchen-sink-and-all feel. The effect is agglomerative. Pretty soon, we feel like we’re getting to know both Gorey and Theroux. And it turns out they’re both interesting.
A good 80 percent of the book covers Gorey’s likes and dislikes. We learn the TV shows he watched, the books he liked to read (lots of Agatha Christie, lots of Victorian literature, a solid helping of soap opera television, all of which Theroux personally can’t stand) as well as the things he collected, the state of his house, his habits and haunts in Cape Cod, his opinions on everything from children (when asked by a prim reporter why he hated children, he apparently replied “I don’t know any children”) to sports (he had none), ’20s movie stars, urns and wallpaper (he had strong opinions about both). What emerges from this aggregation of ephemera is a portrait of two distinct people, who were (unlike Shade and Kinbote) pretty good friends. It’s clear that Theroux highly admired Gorey. It’s also clear that they had vastly different opinions.
Gorey’s work as a cartoonist is some of the finest of the 20th century. His humor was dry and dark, his attention to detail was second to none, and his ability to evoke complex atmospheres with little more than crosshatch was astounding. This book may do little to illuminate the work, but it will certainly tell you a lot about the man. And for the dedicated fan or the casual reader looking for something weirder than your typical memoir, The Strange Case of Edward Gorey is a fast, funny, oddball of a book.
Another memoir out recently from Drawn & Quarterly press is Adrian Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage. Tomine, who is perhaps best known for his New Yorker covers, draws inspiration here from a different set of 20th-century cartoonists: Charles Schultz, of Peanuts fame, and Bil Keane, who draws Family Circus.
Tomine is an excellent storyteller—one of his best covers for the New Yorker was of two people reading the same book on separate subway trains. The perspective is from the train where a woman is engrossed in her book. Through the window, you see the same book in the hands of a man, who has noticed the woman. The mixture of surprise, attraction, and frustration at the impossibility of their ever meeting is readily apparent on the man’s face. The cover is both heartbreaking and funny.
Scenes is similarly funny, though because the subject matter is so hopeful, it’s much more heartening. He makes you like both him and his fiancée as they navigate the frustrations of wedding planning. The book’s style is much less detailed than a lot of Tomine’s other work, keeping the references to weekly comic strips. Still, Tomine is adept at drawing a lot out in a single frame, and his mixture of pathos and humor are very much at play. The story is told in discrete sections, each outlining one of the frustrating details, from designing invitations (which Tomine, as a graphic designer, takes way too seriously) to getting in shape, to choosing a D.J. And at the end, when you find out what the book is actually intended for, it feels both heartwarming and special: a gift to his readers from a funny, very conventional person, who has let you into his life a little. These two books couldn’t really be more different. And yet, they’re both warm and quirky memoirs. In both, the authors present a persona that will make readers feel they want to know the authors a little better.
CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.