Thursday, July 01, 2004

Picking on Peck

Daniel Mendelsohn writes an interesting review of Dale Peck's book Hatchet Jobs. Mendelsohn liked the humor in the book:

The urgent need to control--to make sure you see what he sees, with no room for dissent--coupled with a desire to seduce are, of course, the traits of a comedian as well as those of a critic, and of course the hallmark of Peck's style is a ferocious sense of humor that, in wildness, parodic ferocity, and machine-gun willingness to hit or miss is indeed Aristophanic. This style is present on every page of Hatchet Jobs, which features essays not only on Moody and Birkerts, but on a fair range of novelists both established and fairly young: David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Colson Whitehead, Stanley Crouch, Julian Barnes, Jim Crace, Kurt Vonnegut. There are also omnibus essays on genre fiction: gay epics, novels about black women. Given the dourness of Peck's fiction, the humor comes as a welcome surprise. He likes to open his pieces with an outrageous statement guaranteed to grab your attention--"the worst writer of his generation" (Moody), "in a word, terrible" (David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest), "it is so bad that I began to suspect he might actually have talent" (Jim Crace's The Devil's Larder)--and, having done so, rewards you with a stream of zippy bons mots for the rest of the essay. During much of the time I was reading Hatchet Jobs, I was laughing out loud. The wit is rarely gratuitous, providing as it does a vivid (if often nasty) sense of what it feels like to read this or that author...
But has reservations about the quality of Peck's criticism:
And yet as much sense as Peck so often makes, there is something awry with this collection, and it's something his detractors have intuited, too, even if they haven't articulated it particularly well. (None, it must be said, are as much fun to read as he is.) There is, to begin with, the problem of overkill. I have no strong opinion either way of Sven Birkerts, and I too thought Rick Moody's The Black Veil was a sodden mass of pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but as I made my way through Peck's lengthy excoriations of these authors, it occurred to me that perhaps it might be wasteful to expend many thousands of words on the complete annihilation of writers who are, when all is said and done, not of the first tier. But here and elsewhere, it's as if Peck can't stop himself--there's something manic about the way he pounces on something trivial, something like a misused metaphor (he does go on about one involving the game of horseshoes), and shakes it like a cat shaking a dead mouse. This excess often has the effect of diminishing, or sometimes even eclipsing, the substantive points Peck wants to make.
And the intent:
Together with his failure to provide a positive picture of what he wants writing to be, the critical metaphors to which Peck resorts--of excision, expulsion, and humiliation ("demotion in status")--suggest what is, in the end, incomplete about his criticism. For if criticism is, as the word's etymology suggests, essentially an act of judgment, it seems to me that Peck's critical writings, for all their intelligence and brio, focus, instead, on what comes after judgment: punishment. There is something punitive about his reluctance to let any flaw pass, no matter how trivial it (or the author in question) might be; his words and sentences fall like the blows of a lash.
And to add to the mix, Mendelsohn gives us a refresher course on Aristophnes and tosses in some psychoanalysis of Peck. It's a chock full review!