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.