The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Strange Case of Edward Gorey

Author: Alexander Theroux

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, utter pants

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it is a biography (ostensibly) about odd-icon, Edward Gorey.

Availability: Published by Fantagraphic Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As biographies go, I guess you could say this is one. But if you love a good biography, you’re not going to want to read this book. You may not even want to read this review.

But if you, like me, are a Gorey fan, you will both buy this book and read it even after I tell you it’s largely a worthless read. Gorey fans, like all fanatics, want to read anything and everything about the man. I am a moderate Gorey fan. I have one of his drawings tattooed on my body, I have a little shrine set up to him and one day I want to have a collection of Gorey first editions. So even with the status of being just a moderate Gorey fan, I know that had I read a review like the one I am writing before I put this book on my Amazon wish list, I would have purchased it and read it anyway (actually, my copy is a Yule gift from Mr. Oddbooks). Because that’s what an ardent fan does. We collect things relating to the object of our adoration, even if those things are mediocre.

This book has interesting moments but they are few and far between, and those moments are generally content that will not be new to long-term Gorey fans. Still, it was pleasant being reminded of how eccentric Gorey was, how he eventually stopped wearing fur because of his love of animals, how he sewed stuffed animals by hand as he watched television, how he would do work for anyone who asked, even those who could pay very little.

But after one admits that this book has some charm, one can only list its many problems. The first is that in the first fifteen pages, Theroux manages to write in a way that is so alienating that a casual reader might be tempted to give up. I am a reasonably intelligent woman who has devoted my adult life to reading. I fancy that if a reasonably well-educated person with a devotion to books found Theroux’s verbiage cumbersome, then it is safe to say it was, in fact, too much for a biography of a beloved pop culture icon. But who knows? Perhaps the words enchiridion, coloraturas, the French phrase le cercle lugubrieux, and karfreutagian have slipped into the common lexicon without me noticing. If not, they were odd word choices in a biography such as this. This is not the sort of book that can tolerate the interruptions that come when the reader is forced to put the book down in order to look up words and French phrases. But luckily Theroux stops showing off so egregiously around page 15. Still, not a good beginning.

Another problem is that this book would have been far less tiresome had it been a long magazine article because it has so little to say. The only reason the book reached 166 pages is due to sheer repetition. Theroux loves lists, enumerating all the things he found interesting about Gorey over and over and over again. The lists of his shock at the lowbrow media Gorey consumed grew quite uninteresting, especially since it would be hard to say this book follows any sort of real time line. It’s Theroux’s memories as he remembers them and while that can be very charming, when it results in so many interminable and somewhat meandering paragraphs of what Gorey liked and didn’t like, it’s annoying. Recitations of what Gorey liked instead of examples of what he did can wear thin, which is one of the reasons I suspect this book would have worked far better as a lengthy magazine article.

I am not kidding. The lists are all over the book and all over the place. Let me give you an example from the section about the things Gorey liked to collect:

Gorey collected everything. Sad irons. Signs. Dolls. Telephone pole insulators. Masks. Puppets. The statue of an elephant. Big and little seashells. Eggs. Cape Cod candles. Paintings. Odd ashtrays. CDs. He deeply loved chunks of architecture – rare examples of Victorian gingerbread, entablature, cornices, dentil molding, dormer pieces, and so forth Another strange collectible that excited him was decorative finials, for lamps, swifts, curtain rods, pots, Torah finials, newel caps, general blacksmithiana, and cobbling tools, etc. He had a mummy’s hand in a case!

Would it surprise you to learn that this paragraph goes on for another 31 lines, followed by another page and half of this bloodless rendition of the things Gorey collected, with the occasional quote from Marianne Moore to break up the boredom? Does that seem a bit… heavy?

Oh, dear reader, you have no idea how long the lists in this book become and how repetitive they are after a while. Let me give you a few more small examples of Theroux’s lists of what Gorey liked and did not like that clog this book like a wad of greasy hair in a bathroom sink. Here Theroux engages in a flat, lifeless recitation of what it is that makes Gorey eccentric:

Who are you acquainted with, for instance, who has read all of Trollope, all 17 novels, all 47 books, but would not miss a single episode of TV’s All My Children or Andy Griffith in reruns of Matlock? Read Lao-tse with understanding but collected true crime magazines and loved Doctor Who, that improbable science fiction TV series. Cherished Oliver Onions, but watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes and collected current videos? Could speak with total authority on the novels of Theodore Dreiser or Yukio Mishima and yet was word-perfect in the films of English actress Pamela Franklin and could quote chapter and verse from the 1958 film, Fiend Without a Face, in which a scientist materializes thoughts in the form of invisible, brain-shaped creatures which kill people for food? Sat up dutifully by himself to watch movies virtually every night?

This list, this litany of things that Theroux recites as if it means anything at all about Gorey’s eccentricity, comes close to rendering Gorey boring. I dare say almost everyone reading this review knows someone with extraordinarily disparate tastes, people who are interesting but at the same time are not geniuses in the way Gorey was a genius. Yet Theroux is so out of touch with people and society that he thinks this rendition means that it indicates eccentricity. More importantly, it shows us a certain snobbery in Theroux wherein he thinks watching Matlock when conversant in Trollope means one is quirky. We’ll see more of that snobbery later in this discussion.

Here’s another list destined to make your eyes glaze. Theroux is still discussing Gorey’s eccentric tastes and interest in lowbrow culture.

He loved Fu Manchu movies, Charlie Chan and the Thin Man series, and The Perils of Pauline. He was word-perfect about the silents and was widely familiar with early Hollywood and could cite the eclat of long out-of-date actors and actresses, people like Hugh Hubert, Veree Teasdale, Reginald Owen, Walter Catlett, Estelle Winwood, Rex Caldwell, Frank McHugh, Aubrey Smith, ZaSu Pitts, and “dahling” Tallulah Bankhead in her Wanda Myro phase, “the fake Serbian princess.” He knew how early films were made and where and who on the sets was bonking whom. Small things were not lost on him, and he had opinions on everything from John Boles’s mustache to Jane Darwell’s dewlaps to Jerry Colonna’s eyes.

Yes, that list of names means nothing to me either and it doesn’t really give me a grasp on Gorey. The book is thick with these lists. Perhaps 75% of the book consists of lists like this. Part of the problem is that Gorey led an inner life that does not lend itself well to biographies, yet I have read discussions of Gorey that manage to draw life out of Gorey’s interests. Theroux just can’t seem to manage it without turning Gorey’s peripatetic mind into some sort of book-length laundry list.

And do you want to know what is worse than those lists? Lists that are just a dump of ideas and names, lists that don’t even try to be sorted.

Gorey also had lots of peeves. He hated brussels sprouts, false sentiment, minimal art, overcommitment to work, being solicited for blurbs, the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the works of the Marquis de Sade (“absolutely paralyzing prose”), churchgoing, Nixon and Agnew, right-wingers, discussions about his own work, prattling and didactic fools, and all Al Pacino movies.

This list goes on and on listing various likes and dislikes, but I feel I should mention that it also describes me, my father-in-law and my third grade teacher, though she may have liked Pacino.

Don’t even ask me about the tangent Theroux took describing W.H. Auden’s life as it compared to Gorey’s because having reread the section three times, it makes no sense to me. Theroux says they had a lot in common but I’ll be damned if the text he writes would lead anyone to that conclusion. They were both men who liked cats and liked being alone and the rest of the comparisons seem quite forced, and what they had in common hardly warranted several pages in this book.

But the best reason to detest this book is that it is not really about Edward Gorey. This book is about how Alexander Theroux interacted with and interpreted Edward Gorey as he pertains to the mind of Alexander Theroux. If one picked up this book knowing nothing about Gorey or Theroux, one would walk away from reading knowing about as much about Alexander as Edward. For example, I know much of Theroux’s political leanings and his opinion about Columbine (an erroneous opinion, too, since he thinks Klebold and Harris were sensitive boys bullied into mass murder). Clearly, that’s a problem. And what one learns about Theroux is not particularly endearing. Discussing Gorey’s natural introversion:

Above all, he enjoyed being alone, something dim, unoriginal, lazy and uncreative people pathetically often have not a clue about.

Note this not a quote from Gorey. It’s Theroux sharing his uncharitable opinions of mankind. That’s right extroverts! You can suck it.

Discussing Gorey’s enjoyment of doing domestic and crafty work like sewing and cooking:

I believe he sought preoccupations in arts and crafts and such menial work as collecting objects and sewing things to take him away from other preoccupations, more serious things, knocking about in his head. Don’t be fooled. No one with that matchless – and mad – imagination was simply Betty Crocker making buttermilk biscuits.

Oh dear… Would anyone but Theroux think cooking and sewing would somehow diminish Gorey unless it was explained away as a means of keeping deep thoughts at bay? Are there really people left in this world who, upon learning that Gorey sewed, would immediately think him a housemaid and dismiss all his work? Reading this gives you a very good idea of what Theroux thinks of work that is not borne from a place of deep intellectualism.

Goodness, Theroux really does not like the horror genre. Remember – this is him going on at length and not anything Gorey himself expressed:

The cognitive quality of Edward Gorey’s books, that strange dark art opulently, often contagiously assembled out of his searching mind – the seven-zephyred suavity of his impeccable drawings and exact text – rise in the matter of the macabre so much higher than all of those bulbous not-quites – hideously lacking all the conviction while full of passionate intensity – like Stephen King and Dean Koontz, Robin Cook and James Patterson, and their crapulous, hand-cranked, artless, throw-it-up-in-the-air-to-see-what-comes-down doorbuster books stuffed with high-school hoodoo and toy horror.

I don’t know how this passage affected you, but it annoyed the crap out of me. In many ways, this passage seems like Theroux is trying to defend his friendship with Gorey, a man known to have many low-brow tastes, by saying, “Well, at least he was better than all those other writers.” Also note that this is a good example of Theroux’s style when he is not showing off his erudite vocabulary.

And take this passage, as he is discussing how Gorey could best be described as asexual:

Suffice it to say, Gorey saw no reasons to pretend, but he also saw no reason to proclaim either. Whatever anyone chooses to refer to one – a bent, a gay, an invert, a chap Irish by birth but Greek by injection, etc. – I never saw him with a foop, a joy-boy, a shirtlifter, a poof, a puff, or a tootle-merchant, no one, neither an older man – no “dad” or “afghan” – nor even a younger boy, a cupcake, a capon or a Ganymede.

There are two, far simpler ways to have said what Theroux conveyed in this passage.
1) Though Gorey was likely a homosexual, I never once saw him with anyone who seemed to be a male lover.
2) Alexander Theroux is an utter asshole who thinks he is very cute.

Oh dear lord, why did I need to know Theroux’s opinions on Lucas films? Why?

Once or twice I was truly amazed at Gorey’s inexplicable taste – or lack of it! I remember him saying, “Star Wars is very important,” a film (and its sequels) I myself considered not so much Hollywood trash as a fat, inconsequential farce or ersatz theology and simpleminded New Age bollocks all cobbled together out of a thousand filched sources, including ancient Greek Fable, Buck Rogers movies, naval jumpsuits, Japanese samurai swords, mempo masks, World War I German blaster guns, over-simplified “evil empire” fables, Nazi myths, fascist uniforms, quest literature, and, I’m convinced Xerxes of the Persian Wars marching down through Thessaly to Salamis! Except of course, those were interesting.

We can file this under pointless knowledge about Theroux, Theroux’s intellectual snobbery, and interminable lists! It’s a three-fer!

And given that Gorey was a fan of Agatha Christie, and one of his best works was an homage to her (The Awdrey-Gore Legacy and, though this is irrelevant it may explain my disgust, I have been known as awdrey_gore on a major blogging site now for over a decade), why on earth does Theroux need to let us know he personally dislikes Christie? Why would we care what he thinks? The answer is, we don’t care, and this book is half-ruined with his nasty observations and pointless self-references.

So to summarize, this book is not good. It is actually terrible. The few bits we get about Gorey that could mean something – like he never spoke of his mother – are lost in a sea of irrelevant words. We are confronted by list after list, Theroux’s cultural snobbery and prejudices, and we get to know far too much about Theroux in a biography of another man.

If you are a Gorey fan, you’re going to buy this book. You know you will. I know you will. You can’t help yourself. We have to read and then keep all we read about him. My copy will go into my bookcase with my other Gorey books even though I know I will never read it again. If I were to give it away, there would be a strange itch in the back of my brain wherein I knew my Gorey collection was not complete. But just because you buy it doesn’t mean you need to read it. Those of you who are Gorey fans, maybe read it from a John Waters-esque desire to see how bad it really is. Otherwise, let’s all pretend this didn’t happen. Let’s go recite The Doubtful Guest until this terrible memory fades.

7 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux

  1. I’m calling you out on this one. Having a Gorey tattoo, a Gorey “shrine,” and a desire to own Gorey’s first editions does not a “moderate” fan make. You’re in the top 1% and should just own it.

    1. See, you can’t see the tattoo unless I specifically show it to you AND it is not of The Gashlycrumb Tinies or anything from The Curious Sofa. My shrine has no candles. I also do not dress in Edwardian finery and all my furniture comes from IKEA and I can’t abide clutter.

      But I do have a lot of cats, am severely introverted and I really, really want those first editions…

      Oh man, I’m in denial, aren’t I? Crap…

  2. Oh god, this guy sounds like such a schmuck. Though I was delighted to learn of Gorey’s appreciation for Agatha Christie, whom I’ve adored since childhood!

    1. Oh yeah, The Awdrey-Gore Legacy is Gorey’s homage to Christie. I love her, too.

      I am unsure if Theroux is a schmuck, though I did pretty much call him an asshole for reciting all those homosexual pejoratives. But he surely did not cover himself in glory in this effort. Wow, this book stank. šŸ™

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