Friday, June 29, 2007

Review of Linda H. Davis's CHARLES ADDAMS: A LIFE and Edward Gorey's Amphigorey Again, LATBR

By Ed Park

Charles Addams

A Cartoonist's Life

Linda H. Davis

Random House: 384 pp., $29.95

Amphigorey Again

Edward Gorey

Harcourt: 264 pp., $35

What could be more preposterous than the cartoonist as babe magnet? In a one-page riff by “Ghost World” creator Daniel Clowes, a lovelorn words-and-pictures man hopes that rebranding himself as a suave “ink stud” will change his luck with the ladies. Oddly enough, would-be ink studs have a real-life model in Charles Addams (1912-1988), the legendary New Yorker artist responsible for indelible scenes of blackly comic menace (and possibly Christina Ricci's career). As recounted in Linda H. Davis' new biography, “Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life,” the thrice-married penman had numerous affairs (with women who mostly indulged his concurrent flings and spoke fondly of him afterward), even romancing the rarefied likes of Greta Garbo and Jackie Kennedy in the '60s. “I love Pugsley and Lurch, but my favorite is Morticia,” the latter said in 1964 about the Addams Family, his popular clan of grotesques, which had just been translated to television. “She and I have a lot more in common than you might think.”

The family's raven-haired, pale-skinned, perpetually slender matriarch was Addams' erotic ideal. His first two wives bore a striking resemblance to her, and in 1943 he told an interviewer, “I think maybe I'm in love with the young looking witch,” whom he had introduced to New Yorker readers five years earlier.

Perhaps the attraction to her flesh-and-blood avatars wasn't just physical: Morticia is one letter away from the person who sees you to your grave -- death and sex in one neat bundle. The former First Lady shared details about her husband's assassination. (“Do you know, she had his brains in her lap?” he marveled.) The day after Nelson Rockefeller expired in the arms of his 26-year-old assistant, Addams (who lived in a neighboring building) bedded her and began an affair, despite the 41-year age gap. (Devotees of Anthony Powell's “A Dance to the Music of Time” might here recall Pamela Flitton's rumored deathbed romp, but the connection is in fact even more direct: Addams had an affair with the pale, dark-haired Barbara Skelton -- the British writer and “femme fatale of the first rank” on whom Pamela is thought to be partly based.)

Addams' colorful love life suggests an unruly force at odds with Davis' respectful tone. She catalogues his conquests and his collection of antique weaponry but emphasizes his warm side -- there are a few too many interludes in which Addams is shown to be good with kids. She avoids psychoanalyzing her subject, who attributed his own lack of therapist gags -- that New Yorker staple -- to his “arrested intellectual development.” Addams claimed to have had a happy childhood; one admirer said the cartoonist had “more friends than anybody I've ever known.” Davis doesn't hazard a guess as to what might have linked his serial womanizing, taste for fast cars and the gift for the sinister he distilled in nearly 5,000 drawings. Nor does she explicate, in any revealing way, why Addams' work stuck in the mind, then and now.

Nevertheless, the biography engagingly details Addams' meteoric rise (he sold his first illustration to the New Yorker at age 20 and was soon in the fold), and his working method comes to life in the early chapters -- his preferred brand of drawing paper, his extraordinarily supple “wash” technique. Most captivating is the glimpse of the magazine's communal spirit: Cartoon ideas often came from other staffers, and the vetting process could be impressively specific. (“[Put them] all in robes;…fix bulging eye; not all bald; suppressed merriment,” read part of one elaborate editorial critique.)

Addams' only flaw, as Davis sees it, was his masochistic relationship with his second wife, Barbara Barb, whom he married in 1954. (His third wife referred to her as “Bad Barbara” to distinguish her from her predecessor, “Good” Barbara Day). An aggressive lawyer who looked like a “bimbo,” Barb circulated a fictitious snooty pedigree, lied about her age and could become physically violent with Addams (an African spear once came into play). She rapidly took over Addams' financial affairs, to the alarm of Addams' lawyer, and acted as agent for his artwork , an arrangement that would have repercussions long after their 1956 divorce. This hopeless entanglement, this “terrible dark passion,” is a disturbing but invigorating counterpoint to the sunny portrait Davis otherwise paints. One finishes the book entertained but with the nagging feeling that another narrative wants to emerge, like the Addams cartoon in which a pumpkin is being carved, creepily, from the inside-out.

Along with Addams, Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is the last century's great American illustrator of the macabre. Though they share the same terrain and have enjoyed continued posthumous appeal, no one would confuse their work or approach. Addams was wedded to the single-panel format that was the hallmark of his employer, and each drawing had to score a direct hit as the reader encountered it amid the magazine's myriad attractions. Gorey's productions, full of mystery, were themselves mysterious -- an idiosyncratic array of small-format books, some published by his own Fantod Press, ranging from the 30-page novel “The Unstrung Harp” (his droll 1953 debut, in which an author endures compositional agonies) to “The Awdrey-Gore Legacy” (1972), a thoroughly deconstructed ersatz Agatha Christie novel. Fed by silent movies, eclectic literature, ballet and Surrealism, Gorey conjured topsy-turvy moral tales and inconclusive adventures, conceived of certain works as installments in nonexistent series and wrote ingenious poetry and prose that tasted of a much earlier vintage.

“Amphigorey Again,” the fourth gathering of Gorey's numerous books and occasional jeux d'esprit, has weaker material than the earlier collections: “The Raging Tide's” Max Ernst-meets-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure vibe somehow flags before its 30 scenes are digested, and the 36 contortions of an enigmatic, eyeless creature that comprise “Figbash Acrobate” will try even the hardcore Gorey fan. But most of what's here is worth having. “The Other Statue,” purportedly part of something called “The Secrets,” is a classic Gorey mood piece. The meticulous draftsmanship crowding every frame, along with the hilariously overloaded cast of characters, contrasts with the void that is the story's central mystery: not the disappearance of a cherished heirloom (a wax thingy known as the Lisping Elbow) but the absence of a coherent plot. A seemingly linear narrative reveals itself as a string of evocative non sequiturs. There's rarely a punchline in Goreyland, just an elegant withdrawal into artifice -- here, a title card touting the next installment of “The Secrets,” “The Night Bandage.”

Though it's the drawings that hold us -- the theatrical poses, the bespoke furniture in penumbral mansions, the malicious topiary -- Gorey was also a unique literary stylist. He recounts the escapades of stand-in Edmund Gravel (“the Recluse of Lower Spigot”) first as a parody of “A Christmas Carol,” then in quatrains. He returns to the abecedary form twice in “Amphigorey Again” (not counting the suitably unfinished, Z-fixated closer, “The Izzard Book”), with rewarding results: “The Deadly Blotter” is a tiny detective tale of exactly 26 words. (“Alarming behavior. Corpse. Detective enters.”) The “Neglected Murderesses Series” of postcards by one Dogear Wryde features deadpan one-sentence bios that mix precision and whimsy for maximum tension.

“Dogear Wryde” was one of Gorey's many pseudonyms, and “Amphigorey Again” is dedicated “in fond collaborative memory” to 30 other such alter egos he employed over the years. A good portion of these noms de plumes, male and female, are anagrams of “Edward Gorey” -- Ogdred Weary, Regera Dowdy, et al. This pseudonym business could simply be silliness. But it could also be that Gorey, a lifelong bachelor and presumed celibate -- the sexual antithesis of Charles Addams -- collaborated with phantoms drawn from his own private alphabet because he had no one with whom to share his most intimate life.<

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer.

Review of Philip K. Dick's VOICES FROM THE STREET, Los Angeles Times Book Review

By Ed Park

Voices From the Street

A Novel

Philip K. Dick

Tor: 302 pp., $24.95

In “Search for Philip K. Dick” (1995), Anne R. Dick (the third of the visionary science-fiction writer's five wives) recalls a potentially life-changing response to “Confessions of a Crap Artist,” a mainstream novel he had finished in 1959. “Alfred Knopf, himself, wrote Phil a letter saying he was interested in publishing it if Phil would rewrite the last third making the female character more sympathetic,” she reports. “He compared the quality of Phil's prose to that of Salinger, Roth, and Mailer We were both thrilled with this letter. But Phil said, 'I can't rewrite this book! It's not that I don't want to, it's that I'm not able to!'”

In an alternate universe -- of the sort that Dick fluidly conjured in novel after novel -- Phil can do the rewrite. Encouraged by critics, he happily departs the precincts of science fiction, which had nurtured and released 10 of his books, and has a successful career producing highbrow, gently experimental fare. He reworks the territory of soured domesticity (à la Richard Yates and John Updike) in a working-class milieu anticipating Raymond Carver. Decades later, his oeuvre (like Philip Roth's) is lovingly enshrined in our national pantheon.

None of this happens in the real world, of course, save for that last outrageous twist: This spring, four of his best novels will appear in a Library of America volume edited by novelist and stalwart PKD champion Jonathan Lethem. Lauded in science-fiction circles, Dick (1928-1982) gained mass exposure after the movie “Blade Runner,” based on one of his books, was released the year of his death. His carpet-yanking virtual realities have been film fodder ever since -- most recently, Richard Linklater's stunning 2006 adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly.”

But mainstream acceptance was Dick's first novelistic ambition, one that took years to dispel. An early fan of “scientifiction” stories, Dick also read widely outside the genre. In 1940s Berkeley, beginning at age 19, he roomed in a converted warehouse occasionally occupied by literary figures like poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, with whom he struck up friendships. During this time, according to biographer Lawrence Sutin, he was inspired to steep himself in the classics (“I gained a working knowledge of literature from the Anabasis to Ulysses,” Dick wrote in a 1968 “Self-Portrait”), with special attention to modernists like Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos. Sutin notes that from 1951 to 1958, Dick wrote dozens of science-fiction stories and six science-fiction novels, all of which were published, and seven mainstream novels, none of which found a publisher in his lifetime. “Confessions of a Crap Artist,” written in 1959 and published in 1975, is a lean, semiautobiographical divorce drama that nimbly shuttles between points of view. The other surviving mainstream manuscripts gradually found their way to print, and with the publication of “Voices From the Street,” finished in 1953, we have a complete view of the path not taken.

At the center of “Voices” is Stuart Hadley, a handsome, New Yorker-reading 25-year-old and amateur painter who is languishing as a repairman at Modern TV Sales and Service. Called “Stumblebum” by his boss, Jim Fergesson, Hadley is a dreamer with unclear dreams. His marriage leaves him cold, and his wife's pregnancy intensifies his feeling that life has trapped him. (His solution: memory-obliterating pub-crawls.) Taking note of a natty young man, Hadley imagines that his bookcases hold “French novels in French paperback editions. Gide, Proust, Celine”[30] A liberal sort with socialist Jewish friends, he's simultaneously attracted and repulsed by a group of holy rollers led by Theodore Beckheim, a charismatic black preacher -- and also by the “strong, calculating, ruthless, efficient” Marsha Frazier, who runs a haphazardly produced magazine called Succubus that turns out to be anti-Semitic.

Whereas “Confessions” had both a wrenching, violent climax and a sense of humor, “Voices” is obsessed with rage and race and is unremittingly bleak, a mood intensified by its chapterless format. The title suggests James Joyce's polyphonic “Ulysses,” but Hadley is a dominant, unifying presence. Though an early story line centers around an avuncular character named Horace Wakefield, hints of a Bloom-Dedalus dyad get snuffed early. The only deviations from Dick's patient, observant style are Beckheim's tour de force of a sermon and Hadley's violent, drunken ramble, reminiscent of Joyce's hallucinatory “Nighttown” chapter. (At times the novel reads like a hazy, low-rent version of Ayn Rand's “The Fountainhead,” with Hadley's inchoate ambition as above reproach as Howard Roark's will to power; Hadley's one-night stand with the fearsome Marsha is, troublingly, a more vicious version of Roark's rape of Dominique.)

The word “primordial” pops up frequently in “Voices,” and it's tempting to read this early book as a Dickian ur-text. Most fascinating is how Dick's major theme -- a playful, terrifying disjuncture between realities -- has leaked into this seemingly solid, realistically rendered setting. The book begins mock-epically, with store owner Fergesson opening up shop in Old Testament fashion (“his seventh day -- a cup of black coffee”). Promoted to manager, Hadley grapples with the dark thought that “he might suddenly blindly, burst out and destroy the safety of his microcosmos. In his archaic fury he might smash, demolish, pull down the only world in which he could exist.” He quickly becomes accustomed to “the permanent reality of the retail store,” but those dark forces swarm in and destroy the status quo. By book's end, he is carving out a second life, starting a whole new world from scratch.

Dick completed one other novel in 1953. “The Cosmic Puppets” (published a mere four years later) is a slim, intermittently spooky book, a minor entry in the PKD canon but one that functions as a mind-bending footnote to the gargantuan “Voices.” In it, New Yorker Ted Barton returns to his Virginia hometown to discover that everything has changed -- street names, houses, inhabitants. The local paper reports that he died as a 9-year-old, and he discovers that the current townspeople operate under a mutual, sustainable delusion. All Barton wants is to get back to the status quo -- a return to normalcy. What follows is a Zoroastrian freakout-cum-battle featuring golems, spiders, moths and gods. If “Puppets” is a lot more fun to read than “Voices,” that shouldn't diminish the real struggle suffusing the longer, lonelier shadow of a book. The struggle lies not just in Hadley's losing bargain with the real world but in Dick's changing notion of what sort of writer he needed to be.<

Review of POPEYE Vol. 1, Los Angeles Times Book Review

By Ed Park


I Yam What I Yam!

E.C. Segar

Fantagraphics Books: 182 pp., $29.95

“Be adequite,” wrote Lindsay Lohan, signing off on her heartfelt missive reflecting on the death of Robert Altman, her director in “A Prairie Home Companion.” The misspelling caused titters in the usual gossip venues, but for a reader of the new collection of E.C. Segar's original Popeye comics, Lohan's variant has its charms. From the start (1929), Popeye has entertained us as much by creatively mangling the language as by drubbing a wide variety of his opponents. Few sentences emerge from the mouth of the weirdly muscled old salt in anything close to standard English: “Insinuate” is “incinerate,” “coincidence” becomes “coincerdents,” and m's and n's tend to cross-migrate if they find themselves in the same word. In a pinch, Segar activates Popeye's most bewildering speech impediment, the replacement of t's with k's. Thus we have “personaliky,” “fisks,” and the oft-repeated “evil spiriks.” (Lohan could rent her idol's 1980 film adaptation for an effective audio version.) These deviations aren't especially funny the first time around or even the tenth, but by the hundredth you might find yourself marveling at this near-mythical sailor's odd charisma and the brisk inventiveness of his creator.

The genesis and success of Popeye, who still appears in newspapers, are as fascinating as his garbled speech. Elzie Crisler Segar, born in 1894, grew up in small-town Illinois, often working as a sort of backstage entertainer, accompanying silent films on the drums or operating the projector. After completing an 18-month comic-strip correspondence course, he went to Chicago to seek his fortune. A meeting with Richard F. Outcault -- creator of “The Yellow Kid,” the first comic-strip character -- led to a short-lived Charlie Chaplin-based comic strip in 1916. Segar followed this with a strip starring a diminutive WWI doughboy and a local feature called “Looping the Loop.” By the end of 1919, he was drawing a strip called “Thimble Theatre” for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. This theater was to feature performances by a cast of thespians including Olive Oyl, but Segar shortly abandoned the conceit in favor of depicting the actors' offstage lives. The focus settled on Olive Oyl and her family -- father, mother, and stubby, money-mad brother Castor -- and Ham Gravy, her nondescript suitor. It took nearly a decade, or some 3,500 strips, for Popeye to swim into view.

Thus he doesn't appear in the first 100 or so strips in this gratifyingly dense collection (which kicks off a six-volume reprint project). The initial story line centers on Castor's unwanted pet -- the rare, doting “whiffle hen,” Bernice. She's boxy but endearing, looking like a displaced resident of Segar contemporary George Herriman's “Coconino County.” For a long stretch, Castor Oyl tries to kill off Bernice in nearly every strip, like a more murderous Ignatz Mouse. Once he's made peace with the indestructible fowl, Castor is offered dizzying sums of money for her by various competing agents. It turns out that stroking her head bestows gambler's luck, and Castor prepares to fleece a casino on distant Dice Island.

The date is Jan. 17, 1929. Castor spots Popeye and asks if he's a sailor. The one-eyed, rolled-cuffed, astonishingly ugly figure responds in five feisty words (“ 'Ja think I'm a cowboy?”) that perfectly announce his unshakable identity and suggest an entire lifetime already lived -- and lived hard. The menacing slouch, the anchor tattoo on a stubbly arm, the rather alarming puckering at the crotch of his pants -- Segar could be forgiven for not realizing that this grotesque whimsy would be his ticket to pop-culture immortality. (Segar would have less than a decade left to manage “Thimble Theatre”; he died of leukemia in 1938.)

Though Castor is calling the shots, Popeye proceeds to steal the show in the following episode, when Snork, a disgraced casino employee turned deranged pursuer, unloads 16 bullets into the stout seaman. “Snork at Sea” is a furious, page-turning tale utterly different in tone from the light-hearted adventures of Bernice or the subsequent pair of mystery stories in which Castor and Popeye play detective. It's a good indication of the flexibility that “Thimble Theatre's” format afforded Segar. As Coulton Waugh noted in his 1947 history “The Comics,” the bulletproof interlude “is the first hint that Popeye has entered the company of Paul Bunyan and other folk heroes invested with supernaturalism,” yet curiously he remains (unlike Superman) identifiably human. In his next appearance, after an absence of nearly six weeks, he's seen shooting craps, and he regularly gambles away anything he gets.

Perhaps the very name held the seeds of the hero's success: popular “I.” A man of little patience, immune to education and allergic to introspection, he nevertheless has an irreducible personal philosophy, one that removes the pesky cogito bit from Descartes and triples what's left: “I am what I am an' tha's all I yam!”

But what is he? Segar establishes Popeye as both an unbeatable warrior and a magnet for verbal abuse, thus granting him an instant moral dimension. He's called everything from a “shipwreck in the face” to a “dishfaced mud fence,” and if you scrutinize his features, you may start to see things you wish you hadn't. But his sheer ugliness becomes part of his appeal: There's a moment of comic-strip satori, several dozen pages in, when you realize the depth of emotion that's somehow conveyed by that perpetually sour, nearly immobile face, with the pipe jammed in at a fantastically steep angle.

Reading the saga from the start, it seems likely that the imminent Depression became a crucible for fans' ardor. Popeye is self-sufficient, at times fatalistic; he's a survivor, an admirable figure, with or without money. It's a strange experience to see Castor's Dice Island scam giddily unfold in the strips of March 1929, sacks of cash flying out the window as quickly as he can win them. And this is the beauty of such a comprehensive project: In the strip that ran on Black Tuesday, Castor and Popeye learn that they've invested all their Dice Island millions in a nonexistent “brass mine.” Popeye's reaction -- his mantra -- seems entirely appropriate: “Well blow me down.”<