2018-11-29 22:40:50 UTC
By Jennifer Szalai Nov. 28, 2018
Writers are supposed to have a hard time killing their darlings, but there are a few who apparently thrill to the task. In “Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey,” the cultural critic Mark Dery explains how Gorey was always looking to pare things down. Right up until his death from a heart attack in 2000, at 75, he was relentlessly productive — staging plays, producing puppet shows, illustrating books and publishing a hundred or so little volumes of drawings paired with arch, taciturn texts — while taking care to keep it all “very brief,” as Gorey put it, in pursuit of what Dery calls “an almost haiku-like narrative compression.”
But it was by murdering other kinds of darlings on the page that Gorey earned his reputation for the comic macabre. Poisoned husbands, heartbroken suicides, gaunt innocents so consumed by illness that they wander into the street and get run over by a car: Gorey depicted their grisly deaths, and often their hollow-eyed ghosts, in meticulously crosshatched tableaux that resembled Victorian engravings. He even created an alphabet book, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” that dispatched 26 wee ones with matter-of-fact equanimity. (“I is for Ida who drowned in a lake / J is for James who took lye by mistake.”) Dead children became such a Gorey signature that The New Yorker asked him why so many of his victims were young, to which Gorey replied: “It’s just so obvious. They’re the easiest targets.”
Gorey, however, isn’t the easiest target for a biographer, as Dery himself admits. Part of this has to do with what seems to be the enormous gap — or the yawning crevasse, to put it in high-flown Goreyland terms — between art and artist. Even some of Gorey’s most ardent fans assumed he had to be British and long deceased. Such intricate, gothic scenes were supposed to unfurl from the pen of a wan, wraithlike neurasthenic holed up in a garret — not some towering Midwesterner partial to floor-length fur coats and busy days attending the New York City Ballet. There’s only so much biographical material Dery can wrest from the work...