Friday, April 30, 2010

Pecked to Death

I have a hard time imagining a critic I'd disagree with more than Dale Peck.  In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone agreeing with Dale Peck with any degree of consistency.  In his essay collection Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction, Dale Peck just hates so much: "most of Joyce, half of Faulkner and Nabokov, nearly all of Gaddis, Pynchon, Delillo, not to mention... their contemporary heirs," a category that includes David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead, Jamaica Kincaid, and, of course, Rick Moody.  But that's not all.  Peck, like a small, aggressive child who has just learned the meaning of the word "no," emphasizes his renunciation of these authors over any subtler points he might have to make about their work -- and, like a small, aggressive child, he is more intent on kicking you out of his blanket fort than persuading you to come around to his point of view.  Regarding Pynchon, Peck writes that "the US literary world can be divided into two camps: those who think Pynchon is a very clever guy, and those who think he's a great writer... I'm of the former camp."  Of Rick Moody's work he declares, "My gut feeling is that if you honestly don't believe it's bad, you're part of the problem."  And Vonnegut's old-age slump is the fault of his fans: "It's not the Vonnegut's fans don't believe what he has to say.  They just don't seem to care." 

Peck is not just controversial.  He's profoundly unconvincing.  It's possible to write a negative review, even a diatribe, yet seem as though you're having a good time.  The seduction of negative reviews, in fact, is that derision sometimes seems more entertaining than sincere enjoyment: over there at the grown-ups' table they're laughing harder at the clown.  Yet Dale Peck, like Patton Oswalt's unfortunate heckler, seems doomed to "miss everything cool and die angry."  The writers he reviews not only appear to be having more fun than Peck is; they also, surprisingly, even sound like they have a better sense of humor (and this is based on Peck's descriptions alone).  Peck's bon mots are the province of an unseasoned stand-up comic, veering from da-doom-crash punchlines ("As we say in the East Village, that and $2.50 -- not including tip -- will buy you a skinny mochaccino" and "with friends like this, literature needs an enema") to clumsy attempts at harnessing catchphrases ("As a friend of mine says, That is just so wrong").  Dale Peck seems to not quite get the jokes of the books he reads.  He's quick to take offense, to jump to conclusions, to take things literally.  Even A Confederacy of Dunces comes under his ire ("a book nearly as bloated as its protagonist"), which I find ironic, since if Ignatius Reilly were a book reviewer, he would write a lot like this.

Peck is a master of the unintentionally funny.  His rage, like that of a cartoon character, sends him wheeling off cliffs, tiny fists pummeling the air, or yanking on the fuse of a bomb that winds up detonating in his hands.  Many of the funniest moments here are hilarious not because he's right or wrong, but because of what he inadvertently reveals about himself.  In the Rick Moody essay, he writes, "When I finished The Black Veil I scrawled 'Lies! Lies! All lies!' on the cover and considered my job done."  Let's unpack this statement for a moment.  There are two possibilities here.  Either Dale Peck defaced his own hardcover copy of the memoir (reminiscent of the US patriots who dumped French wine they had already purchased down toilets in the early, heady "freedom fries" days of the second Iraq war) -- in order to, I guess, prove a point to anyone who noticed it proudly displayed in his home?... or Dale Peck is pretending that he did just that in order to, I guess -- sound punk rock?

His persona is larger than life, and larger than any of the points he makes.

And yet, despite all this, I find it impossible to dismiss Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs, if only because of the weird humility that underlies the entire project.  In the Afterword, he writes, "The very extremity of my views does as much to undermine my authority as enforce it, or at least I hope it does, because I am by no means convinced of the hallowedness of my own ideas... These reviews, if not as direct as a barroom brawl, are, I hope, some kind of dialogue with my generation... My hatred of all this teenaged posing has reached such a fever pitch I'm willing to be clownish in my denunciation of it."  The fact that Dale Peck is willing to embarrass himself for the sake of literature, the fact that he's willing to sacrifice his own intellectual credibility "to start some kind of dialogue," is a strangely noble thing, even if it is itself a kind of adolescent posturing.


Anonymous said...

I just got around to reading this, and it seems strangely appropriate--a couple of weeks ago at MSU a tenured (somewhat insane and belligerent) professor ripped apart a pro-life article in the student paper. The article was written by a student, and his "analysis" of it prompted students and other professors to rip him apart, resulting in a giant, sprawling flame war that overloaded the email server for days. And yet all of the diatribes sounded a lot like how you describe Peck...cartoon characters wheeling off cliffs. I've seen flame wars about potato chips that made for more productive discussion.

I'm rambling now, but I feel like everything you've articulated here can be--and perhaps ought to be--directly applied to life, the art of discussion/debate, and academic writing. Maybe I'll refer my students here in the future :)

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks so much for reading, A(djunct! And I'm flattered you'd refer your kids here -- I won't warp their minds too much, I promise :-)