By Alexander Theroux
Fantagraphics Books, 2011 ISBN-13: 978-1606993842
Reviewed by Michelle Mitchell-Foust
Editor’s Note: Who doesn’t love Edward Gorey? His slightly macabre, weirdly funny work in The Gashlycrumb Tinies and other books is beloved my many, including me. This dishy new book by Alexander Theroux gives insight into a man who sounds as odd and original as his singular style. ~Stephanie Brown
The Fantod Chronicles: The Strange Case of Edward Gorey
Edward Gorey hated travel, but he once traveled to Loch Ness, saying upon his return, “I did not see the monster, to my great regret – the great disappointment of my life…” Gorey’s disappointment is understandable, considering his delight in delving into the world’s dark mysteries, a process beautifully drawn by his recent biographer Alexander Theroux.
Theroux elegizes and eulogizes his good friend in The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, a book which is not so much a chronology as it is a collector’s paradise of truisms about Gorey and his work. This approach works so well because Theroux is writing about a culturally voracious man who himself was a collector. The blue glass, Japanese okimono, fabrics, magnets, cat food dishes, “cast-iron hippos, rocks that looked like toads, bells, balls, bowls of many sizes,” became assemblages whose “cumulative effect…pleased Gorey” (51-52). Gorey even collected names for himself because he loved names and “wanted to publish everything under a pseudonym from the very beginning” (8). The writer/illustrator published under Ogdred Weary, Grey Redwoad, Drew Dogyear, E. G. Deadworry, Dedge Yarrow, Orde Graydew, Waredo Dyrge, and Madame Dewda Yorger (among others) in a genre Theroux calls unclassifiable. He characterizes the work as Gorey’s partaking in the “evil-smelling and deliciously booby-trapped world of falling objects, unchaste noises, slipped philters, rusty locks, clanging portcullises, salivating monks, and Brueghel-like loonies with things on their mind creeping around the late-night shrubbery” whose “pictorial accompaniments” radiate irreverence and satire (8).
Theroux begins his Case with commentary on Gorey’s publishing history, and the necessity of his creating Fantod Press, intertwined with the stories of his family and reprints from Gorey’s eerie illustrations. As he fleshes out the character of Gorey, he includes relevant quotations from poets and writers as well as interjecting tidbits of literary gossip (Gorey once had the poet Frank O’Hara for a roommate….) along with his own take on Gorey’s own fervent assertions, such as his opinion that Diabolique was the “most terrifying movie of all time” (93) and that “Geometry belongs to man. Man’s got to assert himself against nature, all the time…. The only really exciting things are volumes and shapes…. Poetry’s got to be made up of images and form. I hate sunsets and flowers. And I loathe the sea. The sea is formless” (47).
On the topic of drawing, Theroux quotes poet and singer Patti Smith, “I look at Jeff Koons’ stuff and I’m appalled.... Somebody like Jeff Koons I think is just litter upon the earth…” (23). Often, Theroux adds his own two cents, as when he says, some lines later in the book, “I know that the genius Andrew Wyeth is today even blasphemously mocked for his realistic drawings and paintings, mostly by fools jealous of his almost unparalleled brilliance” (23). Likewsie, Theroux considers Gorey’s drawing ability “awesome”.
There are moments when Case is a variety of art criticism and times when the biography is applied psychology, as when Theroux tries to make sense of his friend’s obsessions and accoutrement:
I have mentioned rings. What was being said with this wearing so many so often? I mean, he was forested with them. Lush. Almost Solomonic in the traipsing kingship of clank! Who would deny an announcement was being made? After all, a ring is symbolic of something, mainly a commitment, at least as the bourgeois world understands it. Going steady. College. Engagement. Marriage. Or was it preening, a real plea for an aesthetic? Most of the rings he wore were iron, had to be uncomfortable to a degree. I suggest it was an attempt at wanting to belong…. But what was the nature of that identity? It may be argued that Gorey in his dress (mink coat, rings, sneakers – always plimsoll types, etc.) was on the other hand constantly asserting, `I am not like you.’ (33-34).
Even with the discussions of art and writing and psychology, however, we are never barraged by critical idiom in The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. We are instead showered by the words and things Gorey did and did not love. He loved animals, mysteries, television commercials, All My Children, the ballet, Oreo cookies, Bunny Lang and bean bags, some that he sewed for himself. He loved statement (i.e. “He painted his toenails black on the day Gertrude Stein died, then forgot about it, went to the beach and surprised himself with his ardor”) (117). Gorey loved movies. He loved peace, so “for almost lava-lamp comfort kept in several rooms at home bowls of fat green marbles covered with water” (117). He did not love television evangelists, Richard Nixon, the novels of Judith Krantz, and flattery.
Alexander Theroux’s prose strides along as he catalogs, and his poetical details offer the reader those moments from Gorey’s life that epitomize the very human idiosyncrasies that make the human race enviable. Amongst the dichotomies, Theroux writes with tenderness about all the loves of his friend’s life, along with Gorey’s fears, his anti-social proclivities, his sexual non-preferences (Gorey never married, never had a long-time partner, never proclaimed himself heterosexual or gay, never had children).
Theroux manages to reveal Gorey’s nature without sentimentality. The writer/artist’s dignity remains intact. The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, like Gorey’s mind, his house, and his work, is a treasure trove.
Michelle Mitchell-Foust is the author of Circassian Girl and Imago Mundi, both from Elixir Press, and chapbooks Poets at Seven (Sutton Hoo) and Exile (Sangha). She has received the Elixir Press Poetry Prize, and a “Discovery”/ The Nation Award. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Antioch Review. Colorado Review, Rain Taxi, and The Washington Post.