Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: literature

The Unstrung Illustrator; or, Mr. Gorey Writes a Novel

Before vampires became the default emotional porno for teen girls, Emily the Strange rubbed shoulders with Hello Kitty at the mall, and the fantastic cartoon of Beetlejuice introduced kids to the dark side each Saturday morning, Goth subculture must have started somewhere. It’s so established as a scene, so codified as a look, that it’s hard to imagine its beginnings. Who was the first cool girl (or guy) who combed vintage stores for clothes that could look Victorian, who gave themselves kohl-eyes and pale skin when everyone else was tanned and blushed, who found a wholly new way of freaking out old people? How did it start?

The origins can be traced back at least to 1950’s and 1960’s America when, as one interview subject in a documentary about Jim Henson (who had a dark side himself) put it, a “sick humour” came into fashion. That’s when the cartoons of Charles Addams depicting an unnamed family (the mother looked like a glamorous witch, the father Peter Lorre) who lived in a derelict mansion and mildly threatened their neighbours, were popular enough to inspire a TV show. For all their eccentricities, the Addams Family was really about making fun of average people, a funhouse mirror for mid-century suburbia. “It’s the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive,” Gomez says, looking out on a torrential rain storm, making one consider why sunshine should inspire this sentiment rather than a hurricane. And Morticia on the telephone channels June Cleaver: “Oh, we can’t do anything on Friday. It’s the 13th, you know!” The classic 1990’s movies continued this aspect, as the viewer relates to the eccentric Addamses and laughs at conservative, blonde, Republican families.  

In 1953, Finnish actress Maila Nurmi, who was a hatcheck girl on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, drew inspiration from Morticia  Addams’ slinky gown for a costume she wore to a masquerade ball. Spotted by a TV producer, he hired her to host a late night horror movie show, and thus she became Vampira. Maybe her Gothy persona allowed her to be more overtly sexy than was normally allowed on TV. Her acting is enshrined for us in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, often considered the worst movie ever filmed.

Also in 1953, the first book by an artist who would inspire Goths, while always staying separate from them, was published in a limited run by Duell, Sloan and Pearce. Edward Gorey, who had majored in French at Harvard, had no formal art training, but for the rest of the 20th century, averaging one book a year, he would create one of the most atmospheric and beguiling (as one critic put it, wholly improbable but utterly convincing) worlds ever put on the page.

The Unstrung Harp; or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel is both a fitting introduction to Gorey’s world and an unusual one. What little plot there is concerns Clavius Frederick Earbrass, who is “of course, the well-known novelist” writing a book also titled The Unstrung Harp. Mr. Earbrass, like all the men in TUH (uncharacteristically for Gorey, no women appear, neither vamps nor veiled mourners) has an elongated head somewhat resembling a foot. Other than a flurry of illustrations featuring similar-headed personages from the early 1950’s, published recently as postcards, Gorey would never draw people like that again.

Foot-headed men aside, the remarkable thing about the illustrations for TUH is how early Gorey had mastered his cross-hatched pen and ink style. He already had the tendency of including the smallest of details (a mislaid tea-cup, an air balloon in the distance), but still leaving the viewer feeling there is more to discover. While Gorey’s drawing style would change (he increasingly used a bold, blotty ink style which, by the end of the 1990’s, suggested unschooled ‘naive’ folk art), it’s incredible is how little Gorey’s fabricated universe changed in the years after TUH.

Here it is, already fully-formed in 1953, the mysterious, eerie and vaguely melancholy (but drily funny) Edwardian world of country houses, dinner parties, abandoned croquet games, imposing urns, cobble-stoned streets, book-lined studies, early evening drives past ruined fireworks factories, and, despite being given details such as Mr. Earbrass’ athletic sweater always being worn “hind-side-to”, the inescapable feeling that something is being left unsaid.

The aspect that most obviously separates TUH from the books which came later (which had little more than one sentence per drawing, and often had no words at all), is the sheer amount of writing. Each page has a short paragraph of description and Gorey’s sardonic voice was never better displayed:

“On November 18th of alternate years Mr. Earbrass begins writing ‘his new novel’. Weeks ago he chose its title at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book. It being tea-time of the 17th, he is alarmed not to have thought of a plot to which The Unstrung Harp might apply, but his mind will keep reverting to the last biscuit on the plate.”

 A critic once described Gorey’s books as being like tableaux or stills from a silent movie, with accompanying captures which are at once obvious and vexing, for his tendency to not describe any events not pictured. But TUH does this very thing, when we’re told that Mr.Earbrass leaned out his window into a strong wind for several minutes (an arresting image, one would think), but instead we’re  shown the novelist afterwards in his kitchen, “restoring himself” with a sandwich and glass of milk as he reads what he’s written so far.

“He cannot help but feel that Lirp’s return and almost immediate impalement on the bottle-tree was one of his better ideas. The jelly in his sandwich is about to get all over his fingers.”  

It is appropriate that TUH has more writing then any of his later books, because it is about a writer, the process of writing and the “horrors of the literary life”. One wonders how Gorey, who never wrote a novel, can so knowingly describe the curses that face storytellers.

“Several weeks later, the loofah tricking on his knees, Mr. Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.”

Of course, the plot of the fictional The Unstrung Harp makes no sense, seeming like a parody of Gorey’s work.

“Even more harrowing than the first chapters of a novel are the last, for Mr. Earbrass anyway. The characters have one and all become thoroughly tiresome, as though he had been trapped at the same party with them since the day before; neglected sections of the plot loom on every hand, waiting to be disposed of; his verbs seem to have withered away and his adjectives to be proliferating past control. Furthermore, at this stage he inevitably gets insomnia. Even rereading The Truffle Plantation (his first novel) does not induce sleep. In the blue horror of dawn the vines in the carpet appear likely to begin twining up his ankles.”

The horrors don’t cease when the book is finished; Mr Earbrass must write a clean copy of the manuscript (“not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratching-out, and scribbling, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness”); then, rather than give it to his publishers in London, he considers dropping the book into the river Thames. The cover design makes him apoplectic (“on any book it would be ugly, vulgar, and illegible. On his book it would be these, and also disastrously wrong”) and the reader smiles with recognition that the cover of the fictional The Unstrung Harp is the same as the one in hand. Even his six free copies do not cheer the novelist up as there are “at least three times that number of people who expect to receive one.”

“Buying the requisite number of additional copies does not happen to be the solution, as it would come out almost at once, and everyone would be very angry at his wanton distribution of them to just anyone, and write him little notes of thanks ending with the remark that TUH seems rather down from your usual level of polish but then you were probably in a hurry for the money.”

That little bit of passive-aggressive bitchiness shows a level of light social satire rarely seen in Gorey’s later books, and links him more in tone with his beloved E.F. Benson ‘Lucia’ books, about the gossipy machinations of inter-war English village faux-artistes.

In keeping with a book about words, Gorey closes TUH with a melancholy almost-modernist stream-of-consciousness ode to boredom.


The unsigned intro on the dust jacket of my Harcourt Brace edition, which refers to TUH rightly as a “small masterpiece”, describes the book as a look at literary life, writer’s block, and life in general. “Finally, TUH is about Edward Gorey the writer, about Edward Gorey writing The Unstrung Harp.”  I like this theory, and I love to picture the young Gorey, trudging around New York City in his famous fur coat, writing TUH as an inside joke for his bookish friends Doubleday (who he drew covers for in his early career), and not expecting to create a whole career from his little drawings. Who would have thought there was an audience?

When Gorey inserts himself in his work, recognizable by the fur jacket, the beard and the incongruous tennis sneakers, he’s always referred to as a writer, never an artist or an illustrator. While an appropriate introduction into the world of Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp can also be seen as the road not traveled. If the proportion of words to pictures of TUH had continued through Gorey’s other fifty-or-so books, he may have been as remembered as much a writer as a cultish but talented artist.

Post Script: Part way through writing this, I discovered that Wikipedia has an extensive history of the ‘Goth subculture’ which they didn’t last time I checked. It’s quite interesting, and focuses a lot on punk music, a pioneering aspect which didn’t cross my mind at all, as I am so not a music person. They claim Goths splintered away from punks in the early 1980’s and drew their inspiration for clothing, accessories and concert-decoration from campy horror movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like Gorey’s work, the whole thing was meant tongue in cheek, a bit of a joke, and it’s fascinating to consider how followers take scenes more seriously as they develop through the years.


Amsterdam, Interviews and Edith Wharton

At the end of last summer I flew from Dublin to Amsterdam. I met up with university friends and we wandered the canals, visited Anne Frank’s house, ate pancakes, saw Vermeers and drank lots of beer. I was staying in a hostel called The Bulldog which was in the middle of the tacky Red Light District, where prostitutes wave at you through windows. That sounds like it might be kind of fun, but I ended up thinking it was sad. Immediately every morning I escaped downtown and, map constantly in hand (Amsterdam is a complicated city, built in concentric half-circles) searched for small museums, interesting shops and gay bars. Speaking of which, the Dutch speak English well, but are very blunt.

“Everyone rides a bike here!” I told an older gay guy at a bar.

“Yes,” he said. “I ride my bike every day.” Then he squeezed my thigh. “Hmm, you don’t ride your bike every day.”

But that is not the story I intended to recount.

After Jen and Stu flew home, after I received a bad email from UofT at my friend Liam’s house in Leiden informing me that I failed a third French test (bursting into tears due to emails has been a habit of mine again this week), and I tried to cheer myself up by going to see Away We Go with Dutch subtitles at the fabulous ‘Chinese’ art deco Tuschinski theatre, I went to an English bookshop on my last day.

“Would you like something about Amsterdam?” the shop woman asked.

“No, I’m Amsterdamed out.” Eventually, I chose between The Bostonians by Henry James and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. My only experience with Wharton had been watching the film version of The House of Mirth, with the X-Files’ Gillian Anderson when she was trying for a film career. I began reading it at the airport and felt immediately I had found a kindred spirit.

Published in 1920 but set in the 1870’s, The Age of Innocence is a tragic-comedic satire about Gilded Age New York, when the old Dutch families who represented capital-S Society had to contend with the liberalization of divorce, the changing role of women and the allegedly-classless ‘new’ money of industrialists and foreigners. It is a world where no one says what they mean, a world of “hieroglyphics”, as the narrator observes, but with Wharton you have a perceptive and sardonic guide leading you through.

Back in Dublin, I found the Wharton biography by Hermione Lee at a charity shop, and I collected what other significant books of hers I could find. She also loved fashion and style, detailing what characters wore in the hopes that you’d pick up the same social meanings as she did. The covers of Wharton’s novels often feature elegant turn of the century ladies, either paintings or photographs (sometimes of the author herself), descending stairways, waiting for trains, or ripping up letters to be blown away by the autumn breeze. Sometimes they even feature pictures which are obviously anachronistic (one cover for House of Mirth had a formal woman at an opera house clearly from the 1950’s!) but it was enough for the publishers to just evoke a lost age of elegance, even if it’s the wrong century.

It was this aspect which popped in my mind during my interview at WORN.  Asked for two pitch ideas, a question I had expected but should have been better prepared for, I rambled on about how long trends take to die out (only later did I realize how much the WORN staff reject stories about trends) but then I remembered Edith. I pitched a story about the portrayal of clothing and accessories in Wharton’s novels.

“Edith Wharton!” Assistant Publisher Sara Forsyth said. “I’ve been reading a lot of her!”

‘That was a freebie,’ I thought.

I got the internship.

And a month or so later, my Editor Serah-Marie asked me to grab a book from a pile to review, and the second one down was called Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion. I couldn’t believe it.

“Serah-Marie! This book is on the exact topic I pitched in my interview!”

“Oh yeah, I guess it is.”

“I have to review it!”

“Umm, I think Anna called it…” My face fell. But then she went online and Anna said I could review the book that I was destined to.

And here it is.


Sunday Reflections: I Write Like…

I was immediately intrigued by the website I Write Like. Created by Dmitry Chestnykh, a Russian software programmer, the site analyzes a piece of your writing and, based on sentence structure and keywords, suggests an author whose work it most resembles. According to The Toronto Star, “traffic to the site has soared in recent days, especially after it proclaimed that Mel Gibson’s rants were the stuff of a Margaret Atwood novel.”I seems pretty faddish (the literary equivalent of ‘what would our babies look like’) and I doubted the accuracy of Chestnykh’s program (he admitted that he has uploaded only fifty authors so far).

But I had to submit some of my blog posts to see who it thought my writing was similar to. I quietly hoped that it would call up a hero of mine, like Adam Gopnik, James Wolcott or Cintra Wilson. Although my blog bounces back and forth between first person stories and third person reviews and columns, I think most of my writing has a consistent voice which I assumed Chestnykh’s marvellous invention would uncover.

I cut and pasted my post about The Hills and pressed the tag ‘analyze’.

Drum roll… David Foster Wallace.


So I uploaded my story on being an extra and working with Ken Finkleman (that’s how we say it in the business) and up popped Cory Doctorow. The name reminded me of the author of Rag Time but I knew it wasn’t. So, yeah, didn’t know who that was either. My post on the WORN photoshoot (man, it’s been a fabulous week!) also resulted in Mr. Doctorow.

When I uploaded my review of Douglas Coupland’s Roots collection it spit out Dan Brown.  

I’m choosing to ignore that.

‘Okay,’ I thought. ‘Have to keep going until we have something conclusive.’ Everyone loved my Christie Blatchford rant (or at least, everyone read it, it being my most viewed post to date), so I tried that: David Foster Wallace again.

‘Time for a tie-breaker,’ I said and uploaded my extensive coverage of going to see A Star is Born.

And we had a winner: David Foster Wallace.

Left with no other choice, I quickly bounced to the Ultimate Authority, Wikipedia.

First, the runner-up:

Cory Doctorow, I was very surprised to learn, is a Canadian blogger, journalist and sci-fi writer, and is co-editor of Boing Boing, a site whose weird and wonderful links I’ve been following since undergrad. I love that Chestnykh threw in contemporary bloggers alongside sacred cows like James Joyce. As an activist for liberalizing copyright laws, Doctorow published his first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom under a Creative Commons licence, which allowed readers to circulate the electric version. His new novel Makers is being serialized for free on the Tor Books website. To accept his Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2007, he wore a red cape, goggles and held a balloon. This is a man I can respect.

David Foster Wallace wrote novels, short stories and non-fiction essays, and was a professor at Pomona College in California. His 1996 novel Infinite Jest was chosen as one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest novels. Along with his fiction, he covered tragedies like September 11th and John McCain, and for various magazines wrote articles on tennis, filmmaker David Lynch, cruise ships and pornography.

Wallace’s writing was often concerned with irony. He focused on “on individuals’ continued longing for earnest, unself-conscious experience, and communication in a media-saturated society.” His writing “featured self-generated abbreviations and acronyms, long multi-clause sentences, and a notable use of explanatory footnotes and endnotes.” Long multi-clause sentences? I never!

To him, fiction was about “what it is to be a fucking human being.” He wanted to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” that could help readers “become less alone inside.” At a commencement speech in 2005 he said that,

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day…. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.”

In September 2008, Wallace, who had reportedly suffered from depression for years, committed suicide. Writers as varied as Zadie Smith, George Saunders and Jonathan Franzen spoke at the memorial.

Looks like I have some new books to add to the already-precarious pile beside my bed.

Conversation Overheard on the Ossington Bus

I’m paraphrasing, but I heard a teenage boy sitting behind me say this to his female companion.

“Like, I don’t know… Lately, I’ve been thinking more about things happening for a reason, y’know? Like signs. Like, for instance, I had this English project to do based on this book, and I really didn’t like it. It was just, like, not my kind of book. I probably read about twenty or thirty pages. I don’t know… have you heard of Catcher in the Rye? Anyways, we had to do this project on it, and I was going to do a video about the main character. And this guy, he wears a hat. Like, a red baseball cap. And I really needed it for the filming, but I didn’t have one. I went online and, like, you could buy one for like forty dollars. But I didn’t want to do that. And then, randomly, after school I went into this dollar store because I wanted a snack. And, this is what I mean by signs, I looked up and I saw the exact red hat that I needed, like it was meant to be. And all I wanted was a chocolate bar. But sometimes it’s like there’s a plan.”

“Wow,” his friend said.

“And I got, like, 95% on the project.”

I can’t know for sure, but I think Holden would love this.

Tale of Two Reading Groups

One of my reading groups has just ended, and the other one revived.

After over two months, our book club finally met again Sunday night. I came directly from an eight-hour shift, unshowered and tie-askew. I prepared myself for the worst as I feared that everyone hated The Satanic Verses and would, correspondingly, hate me. It was just Nina (our sole girl) and I for the first forty minutes, so we gossiped and I made her jealous of my WORN internship and we finished off a pitcher of sangria. Then the boys arrived and we ordered another one.

Patrick, our soft-spoken engineer (and, as it turns out, an industrial artist) was the first to bring up Mr. Rushdie. “Max, it took me two months, and I read the final sixty pages today, but I finished the book… and I didn’t hate it.”

That made it all worth it.

Nina gave us special not-for-sale copies of our next book from her publishing house and I buzzed my way home in order to have a cold shower and rewrite my final column for my Ryerson class, before collapsing in bed around midnight.

This is my life right now.

Last night was our final column-writing class. I stressed out all weekend over my last submission. I wanted it to be good because of what had happened last time. The previous week, when we were supposed to hand in our “perfect” column (one which reflected everything we had learned in the class), I had proudly submitted my ‘Up to You’ story, which I thought was one of the strongest, most emotional things I had written.

And the class destroyed the first two paragraphs; “run-on sentences”; “hiding behind jokes”; “too detailed”; “too long”; “confusing”; “keeps the reader at a distance”. It felt like Lord of the Flies.  The hardest thing to hear was the question “Who did you write this for? Was it for yourself?”

Even in the middle of the massacre, I knew they were right.

“Well, that was the hardest class so far,” I said to my friend Ricki as we wandered out.

“Truthfully, I really liked it and I didn’t notice what everyone was talking about when I first read it,” she said. “But now I see it.”

You don’t take workshops to get praise. You take them to get better.

So, after meeting up with the Gentleman at a Chinese restaurant and allowing myself to be distracted by his rationalization of why he won’t be cancelling his speech at Pride over the anti-Israel scandal (a decision I was proud of), I sat at my laptop in his apartment rewriting the entire beginning of the story. And I made it better. I considered sending it back out to my class, but then I thought that would look crazy and obsessive (“DO YOU LOVE ME NOW?”), and besides, I didn’t do it for them. I did it for myself and for you guys, the readers.

Last night we went around evaluating our ‘voices’. I said that I write the way I talk, which is a strength but also a weakness. For instance, I have to avoid run-on sentences, making assumptions about what the reader knows or cares about, and throwing in extraneous details which would be charming in person but tiresome in writing.

I had sent an email thanking the class for helping me become a stronger writer, and suggesting that we could continue to meet up on our own for occasional workshops, if people wanted. I haven’t got any response yet. But as I was walking to the subway with Ricki, I described the crazy busyness of the last couple of days.  

“You have a book club?” she asked. “Can I join?”

The Satanic Verses

My book club might hate me.

The one thing I miss about being a student (besides library access and student card discounts) is reading books as a group and discussing them. My Dad has a book club (middle-aged academics who often get distracted by arguing about Israel) but the idea to start my own only took shape when my best friend’s boyfriend Dan expressed interest in joining one. “Why join one when we can do it ourselves?” I asked, almost slipping into the sing-song-MGM-Mickey-and-Judy-‘Let’s put the show on right here in the barn’-voice I am want to do. So we cobbled together a merry band of twenty-something (mostly) former-English students and began meeting at an Annex bar at which we’re already legendary with the bar’s staff. So far, we’ve read Czechoslovakian outcast and sex addict Milan Kundera and witty effete Anti-American Evelyn Waugh. In a short time we had developed a system for choosing books (everyone would have a month) and a friendly, open discussion style. The third pick was my choice and I may have ruined everything.

I have been intrigued by Salman Rushdie and his owlish little eyes since falling in love with the first chapter of Midnight’s Children in high school. Since then, I read his book about The Wizard of Oz and my favourite part of Bridget Jones’s Diary is when she asks him where the toilets are. It was reading Sandra Mackey’s book about Iranian history (titled The Iranians) and learning about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses decided my choice for me. I wanted to have an opinion about the book that was so controversial that Rushdie had to have secret service protection for a decade (and a few international translators were killed over), and I thought my book club should too.

The Satanic Verses is not a short book. Okay, so it’s 561 pages, a fact I may have neglected to tell the club. The title refers a controversial story in the Koran in which the Prophet, in order to convert the people of Mecca, appeared to call on three pagan goddesses and thus corrupt his monotheism. The novel deals with this incident through dream sequences of characters living in the present. Another subplot concerns a wealthy Indian man who becomes enraged and turned on by a possibly-psychotic young woman who claims to be a prophet and eats butterflies. She convinces a large group of villagers, including the man’s wife who is dying of cancer, to go on a suicidal mission to Mecca on foot, claiming that the ocean will part ala Moses. The man follows after them in is Mercedes Benes, preaching rational scepticism to the supposed-prophetess’s faith, and picking up villages as they become disillusioned. This was the most memorable allegory of the perpetual symbiotic relationship between believers and non-believers I have ever read.

But the main plot concerns two Indian actors who, in the first couple pages, get blown up in a plane. Rushdie describes the two of them suspended in mid-air, and then their plummet towards earth, so vividly in multiple places that you feel like you know what it’s like to be surrounded by blue sky with air rushing past your falling body. Inexplicably, neither men dies, but rather have been chosen by some unknown force (of good or evil) to perform some kind of task. One of the men notices an orb of light emanating from his head, while the other grows horn-like bumps on his forehead.

As though this wasn’t enough, the novel is also about Indian-ness and British-ness (and the characters’ devotion or disgust towards the contrasted cultures), the immigrant experience in Thatcherite Britain (a description of a Bangladeshi woman’s disappointing marriage, exodus to England and management of a restaurant was at once so universal and individual that I read it three times), and Anglo-Indian men dating white women (presumably, drawn from Rushdie’s life). Salman is a writer’s writer, with passages that could be described as indulgent and overwrought, but other times I wanted to highlight phrases with a pen and scrawl in the margin “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THIS!”

I knew it was a dense book and so I suggested we take another two weeks when book club members said they weren’t finished yet. I grew nervous as a few of them appeared stuck in the page 150-range, and felt personally responsible for complaints that it was “too long” or that the story didn’t “suck them in”. I told people to come anyways, even if they had read just part of it, as there were more than enough ideas in there to talk about. As I walked in to bar, wearing a vest with a white flower pin to celebrate my surprise at not hating Sex and the City 2, I prepare myself for a barrage of criticism and glares.

Turned out, I was worried about nothing because only Dan showed up. And, although he had also gotten bogged down around page 150, we discussed the book’s themes, the Ayatollah and Salman Rushdie in Bridget Jones and then just hung out and bonded over bad dating stories and the potentials and frustrations of writing in the era of Twitter.

And don’t worry, I’m being facetious: I know my book club doesn’t hate me. Next time, perhaps I’ll pick War and Peace.