So, I'm reading The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux. I am a Gorey fan, of course, and his home (now museum) is all of maybe ten minutes from mine here on Cape Cod. In fact, now that I write this I realize that I never posted any of the pictures I took when I took The Cuteness there for some festival (free cotton candy and books--can't beat that!). Well, actually I posted them on Facebook, which is yet another reason why I post here less and less since I am on there quite regularly...but I digress (as usual).
Anyhow, about the book. I am confused. There is certainly a wealth of information on Gorey's character, and believe you me he is a fascinating character. However, the writing is so dense and there is such a chronic lack of commas that the book is nearly impossible to read without having to re-read each sentence two or three times. The sheer length of these sentences are so monumental that they often take up entire paragraphs all on their own. Granted, I'm not exactly innocent of long sentences in my own writing, but these are bordering on ridiculousness. My confusion doesn't rest in the text itself though. What I'm having such a difficult time wrestling with is the author's background. Here's his bio, taken directly from the back of the book:
Alexander Theroux has taught at Harvard, MIT, Yale, and the University of Virginia, where he took his doctorate in 1968. A Fulbright, Guggenheim, and National Endowment of the Arts Fellow, he is the author of four highly regarded novels - Three Wogs (1972), Draconville's Cat (1982), An Adultery (1987), and Laura Warholic, or The Sexual Intellectual (2009) - and of several books of essays, fables, travel, and poetry. He lives in West Barnstable, Massachusetts with his wife, the artist Sarah Son. He has twice been nominated for the National Book Award.
How is it that a man with such a sparkling academic background and publishing history can get away with putting out such thickly written, self-indulgent, and seemingly editorially flawed book? Perhaps the editor felt that having such an academic rock star as an author warranted an extremely light hand in the editing department? Or maybe it's the choice of publisher that is the problem. The book is put out by Fantagraphics Books, which is a publisher who is best known (and respected) as a comic book and graphic novel publisher. Maybe this publisher didn't know how to handle this kind of manuscript but felt it would be a good addition to their catalog because of the subject matter (though I am not aware of the publisher putting out any of Gorey's work).
Oh, did you catch that "self-indulgent" part? Yeah, it is a little. The author often moves away from telling the reader about Gorey and goes off on brief discussions of his own opinions and experiences. Granted these are still presented within the context of the author's interactions with Gorey, but they still seem a bit like intellectual masturbation. Let me offer up an excerpt for example:
I believe I can say he liked my books and even found a lot of my theories cogent and, one would like to think, even compelling. I remember that he agreed with me that there are four distinct sexes: men, women, gays, and female singers - a grouping all of their own as far as vain, tempestuous divas go, all those petty, hard-to-handle singers like Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Maria Callas, and too many others still alive, fierce, endlessly demanding, and complicated intransigents to a one, who, floral beyond words, often spiteful, are given to the kind of legendary conniptions and impossible behavior we tend to associate with the jealous, dominating, but beautiful Queen Grimhelde in Walt Disney's Snow White who disguises herself as an old hag and uses a poisoned apple to "kill" Snow White, the actual stepmother of Snow White, remember - she had seduced and married a widowed king, who had a daughter called Snow White with his first wife, and then after the king died, the Queen ordered Snow White off to work in her castle, forcing her stepdaughter to abandon her title as Princess. I mention this because whenever I did air one of my theories (and there were and are many) Gorey always registered his smirking approval with a bout of exaggerated applause - slow steady hand-clapping - and the comically deflating, "Now shall we have a rum shrub?"
Whew! Did you notice the SIZE of that second sentence? That entire passage consists of only three sentences total! Never mind that the passage wasn't about Gorey at all really, but a brief diatribe on one of the author's pet theories. If I tried to pull that kind of literary shenanigans in my thesis I would have been raked over the academic coals. Then again, I suppose I'm not the one who has taught at Harvard or been nominated for National Book Awards (....yet). Was this supposed to be funny? It's hard to find humor in such humorless and sometimes even slightly abrasive material. And, frankly, a reaction like Gorey's to the author's theory doesn't seem like approval to me, but wild sarcasm that's just a smidge too polite to call the man out on his ridiculousness. Perhaps I'm missing something, but it's really no fun at all.
None of my ranting is to say that I'm not learning anything. Theroux is clearly an expert on all things Gorey, and he's offering up an intimate, yet analytical view of the man that is pretty handy when it comes to exploring Gorey's work. I was always under the impression that Gorey's work was a little more light-hearted, and composed with tongue firmed planted in cheek. This book isn't making me change that opinion dramatically, but it is making be believe that there's maybe just a bit more social commentary at work than I originally thought. Or not, and either way is okay. Theroux states on multiple occasions that Gorey was a man of contradictions, and this is coming through with such clarity that I can almost forgive the stylistic weirdness of the author. Almost.
There is a distinct possibility that the book is beyond me. I mean, I get what he's saying about Gorey, but maybe this guy is just a little too...I dunno...Derrida for me to have picked up the book thinking it would be a straight-forward biography. If that be the case, then I'll just go ahead and admit that I also thoroughly enjoy the pictures.
On the other hand, maybe the author is writing from a place just a generation too far apart from my own for me to fully appreciate the excessive formality and willy-nilly punctuation rules. There is a passage that clearly indicates Theroux is not a fan of the most popular of popular fiction, calling out Stephen King, among others by name. You won't catch me defending Stephen King in this respect (especially after reading On Writing, which I still haven't decided how I feel about it), but I think it's a pretty big clue to why so much of The Strange Case of Edward Gorey comes across so stodgy. It's sometimes hard to remember that it was originally written in 2000, and was revised for this new edition that just came out this month. The man lives only two towns over from me, so I am tempted to go knock on his door and ask if I can spend some time with him so I can understand just what he's trying to do here, but I really doubt he'd welcome my plebeian self into his world, which I imagine to be wood-paneled and book-lined, studded with leather couches, outdated globes, and green glass capped brass lamps and smelling of that fine vanillan scent of old, decaying books.
Don't get me wrong though, I don't want to turn anyone off to the book. It is wildly valuable as a source of information on Edward Gorey the person. However, anyone wanting to check it out should be aware that you'll probably spend a little more time wading through the thin book than you would expect. In other words, I respect the content, but I am a little baffled as to the presentation. I suppose being one of Gorey's only real friends has its benefits, and being able to write whatever you want, however you want is one of those perks. More power to you, Mr. Theroux.