Gorey is slowly emerging as one of the more unclubbable American greats, like Lovecraft or Joseph Cornell, but for now his cremated remains lie without a gravestone in a cemetery in Ironton, Ohio (his choices for an inscription, should a stone ever arrive, were his two favourite mottos: “O, the of it all” (sic) and “Not really”). A final revelation, for most of us, is that substantial early works have been found since his death, including the complete manuscript of an early book in Mr Earbrass style, and another extensive but unfinished work entitled Poobelle; or, The Guinea-Pig’s Revenge. He may yet come to us from beyond the grave.
This is Gorey’s first biography, and on the whole it is terrible. Dery laments that “Gorey never spent time on the Freudian couch”, and he is at pains to find evidence of homosexuality in every pen and brush stroke. He thinks that “viewing Gorey’s art through the lens of gay history and queer studies” is clever and helpful — when it is in fact diminishing and patronising, and as bad or as silly as interpreting Picasso in the light of baldness studies, or Toulouse-Lautrec with regards to shortness studies. WH Auden, for example, is called “gay poet WH Auden”. I hate this. Lear and Ivy Compton-Burnett are likewise placed in the ghetto.
There’s no question Dery knows the work extremely well, and has dug assiduously into the life. He’s struggled, a little, to organise his material. There’s a great deal of repetition in this book. We hear (correctly, but too often) how Gorey’s work absorbed or reflected Japanese influences... surrealism and Dada, occultism, Edward Lear, Tenniel, Taoism, the aesthetic of silent film, Golden-Age crime, Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett, Victorian (and previous) morality literature, penny-dreadfuls and ballet. And sometimes, with his earnest Freudian or Derridean analyses and gushing superlatives (‘capstone’, ‘masterpiece’, ‘tour de force’ etc), you feel that Dery might be — as was said of critiquing Wodehouse — taking a spade to a souffle.
And the outsize persona was in some ways a red herring. Other than his memorable attire and committed balletomania, Gorey’s life was, as Dery says, “disappointingly normal.”...
Faced with so much ordinariness, Dery does his best, which proves to be more than enough. “Born to Be Posthumous” is an entertaining account of an artist who liked to be coy with anybody who dared to write about him. “Part of me is genuinely eccentric,” Gorey once said. “Part of me is a bit of a put-on.”...But Dery also knows that a stubborn enigma was essential to his subject’s charm, and by the end of his book, he relents: For all his desire to parse every symbol and clarify every joke, he has to let Gorey be.
It is a marker of Dery’s assiduity as a biographer that with so many of the details of Gorey’s life at best obscure and sometimes concealed that he has still managed to turn out a book that runs to the high side of 400 pages and one that is as engaging and entertaining as this.
Partly that’s down to his engagement with and enjoyment of Gorey’s work (his close readings of Gorey’s texts are full of insight and obvious pleasure). But partly, too, it’s the mystery of the man that he is engaged with that engages. Because, sometimes, as every detective fiction fan knows, the mystery is more interesting than the solution.