Ever since 405 BC, when Aristophanes, in a comedy entitled Frogs, hit upon the sublime idea of staging a literary contest in the Underworld between two dead writers who loathe each other’s work (Euripides and Aeschylus), the best literary criticism has often been a form of sadistic entertainment—one that uses comedy’s tools (humiliation, ridicule, exaggeration) to comment not on society but on art. There is, of course, an equally long tradition of critics who don’t strive to score belly laughs as they illuminate great texts; that tradition, in fact, begins with Aristophanes’ near contemporary Aristotle, to whose Poetics, written sometime in the middle of the fourth century BC, we owe the first full-scale and intellectually sophisticated attempt to analyze the nature of aesthetic pleasure and to systematize the mechanisms by which literary texts produce that pleasure. (Aristotle’s own text is, it must be said, not the most fun to read: it would be hard to find a less humorous explanation of humor than “Comedy is (as we have said) an imitation of inferior people—not, however, with respect to every kind of defect: the laughable is a species of what is disgraceful. The laughable is an error or disgrace that does not involve pain or destruction,” etc., etc.*)
If a work like Frogs is more fun for audiences, it’s probably because the play, with its ruthless send-ups of the well-known weaknesses of each of the two contestants, satisfies a primitive pleasure that lies at the heart of all comedy: the Schadenfreude-laden enjoyment of the spectacle of someone else’s humiliation and, ultimately, defeat. After a long verbal duel in which each playwright enumerates his opponent’s flaws with devastating accuracy, Aristophanes provides a brilliant climax which hilariously con-flates a literal and a figurative “weighing” of one poet’s work against the other’s: each approaches a scale and utters a line from his work, and the onlookers peer to see whose words are weightier. Aeschylus—whose diction is famously more ponderous (“bundles of blast and boast,” his antagonist spits) than that of Euripides (who prefers airy vers libre)—naturally wins, and so Euripides must remain in the Underworld, while Aeschylus is restored to the world of the living.
It is worth noting that the comic contest between the two writers is repeatedly referred to in Aristophanes’ text as a krisis, a word that can mean anything from “dispute” to “decision” to “judgment”; the verb it’s related to is krino, “to judge.” Those shades of meaning help illuminate the nature of another derivative from krino, the English word “critic.” As the culminating scene from Frogs reminds us, disputes about the values of an artist’s work are decided by a kind of weighing, which leads to a judgment. The person who performs this weighing, this judging, is the critic.
Critics, of course, are also judged: you somehow suspect that most people would much rather see a performance of Frogs than plow their way through the Poetics. It’s not that Aristotle doesn’t make exacting judgments; it’s just that they’re too polite to be much fun. (“An example of inconsistency is the Iphigeneia in Aulis …in characterization, just as much as in the structure of events, one ought always to look for what is necessary or probable.”) Great popular criticism, on the other hand, acknowledges and exploits the cruelty inherent in any critique, which is why we’re still reading Frogs, and still giggling at Aeschylus’ attacks on Euripides. “You, you jabber-compiler, you dead-beat poet,/you rag-stitcher-together, you say this to me?/…I won’t stop, until I’ve demonstrated in detail/what kind of one-legged poet this is who talks so big.”
Talking big—to say nothing of Aristophanic hyperbole, comic brio, and the guilty pleasure to be had in witnessing the humiliation of others—is on offer in a new work of literary criticism by a contemporary writer, the novelist Dale Peck. The book’s title, Hatchet Jobs, tells you a lot about its author’s style. In the summer of 2002, Peck created what he proudly refers to, in the introduction to the twelve essays in his new book, as a “ruckus in the publishing world.” The cause of the ruckus was an annihilating review he’d written of a memoir by the novelist Rick Moody—to whom Peck, in an opening salvo more or less typical of his critical modus operandi, referred as “the worst writer of his generation.” Peck himself is happy to chronicle the notoriety his review garnered soon after its publication:
Let me be honest: my review was scathing…. Cocktail party gossip soon yielded pieces in New York magazine and the Observer, online at Salon and Plastic.com and at least a dozen blogs. Most of the commentary denounced me, not so much for what I’d written as for the vehemence with which I’d phrased it…. The backlash reached its nadir in March 2003, in a massive essay Heidi Julavits wrote for the debut issue of The Believer. In the piece…Julavits called for a literary culture that …resists the urge to indulge in “snarky” book reviewing.
He does not exaggerate: I happened to be staying with friends in Italy early that summer, and I can attest that even there the phone lines and Internet connections were humming with news about l’affaire Moody. Peck claims, in the introduction to Hatchet Jobs, that his initial pleasure in his article’s impact “faded as I realized that people were less interested in what I (or the writers I’d reviewed) had to say than in the possibility of a brawl,” but you can’t help thinking he’s being a tad disingenuous. Anyone who begins a review by stating that someone is the worst writer of his generation is someone who’s interested in the possibility of a brawl.
The notorious Moody review (“The Moody Blues”) has now been collected with eleven other “writings on contemporary fiction” which Peck has written for The New Republic, The London Review of Books, and The Village Voice. The surprise of the book is that its outré title (to say nothing of its cover, a photograph of the brawny, bald Peck wielding an axe) does it a serious injustice. Whatever its rhetorical excesses (and there are many) and its cramped aesthetic vision, it is an extremely intelligent book, and clearly the work of a potentially noteworthy critic—although, to be sure, one working in the Aristophanic, rather than the Aristotelian, mode.
Hatchet Jobs is not, at first glance, the book that you’d have predicted Peck would end up writing, back when his career first began. In 1993 he published a much-acclaimed debut novel called Martin and John, which was really a collection of short stories connected by the conceit, which you learn toward the end (and sometimes suspect that Peck came up with at the end), that one of the characters has written them all. It was a clever book—the work of a young man, to be sure, but surprisingly sophisticated both emotionally and formally. (Although the stories are all about different people in different places and of different classes, the main characters are always named Martin and John, and secondary characters are always Bea and Henry.) Peck’s formal gamesmanship was evident again in his second novel, The Law of Enclosures, whose title derives, in part, from the way in which the first and second halves of his fiction (about a drearily unhappily married couple named Bea and Henry) enclose a starkly written autobiographical section in which Peck suggests the origins of certain themes and subjects that recur in his fiction: domestic alienation and violence, psychological cruelty, alcoholism, spousal abuse, child abuse, homosexuality, premature death.
As it turned out, The Law of Enclosures was a kind of road map for Peck’s subsequent career. His next book was another novel, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye (1998), a sprawling affair about race and sexuality set in a rather suggestively named town (“Galatea”) in Kansas, the state where Peck grew up. It was a book whose cast of characters—an artist, an academic, a black hustler named Divine, an albino black man, a black preacher, and a white Southern belle—suggested tremendous allegorical ambitions. But after that it was as if the startling central section of The Law of Enclosures had exerted a kind of tug on its author, and Peck returned to nonfiction family memoir with What We Lost (2003), which focused on his father’s grim childhood, where once again alcoholism, child abuse, psychological abuse, and poverty were the subjects at hand. Dale Peck Sr. is, indeed, the figure who connects all of his son’s writing: a powerful, frightening, tormented, and punishing father is never very far away in both his fiction and his nonfiction—and, I suspect, his criticism as well.
I am not a great admirer of Peck’s fiction, which I find (perhaps because of the artificial, almost willed quality of its formal and rhetorical schemes) always to be straining rather too hard for effect. This was certainly the case with Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, which collapsed under the weight of its overladen allegorical structures. But even the much-acclaimed first novel seemed to me to seesaw between a strained “lyricism” (“the world accumulated history as each second passed, but I sloughed it off as though my body were coated in wax”) and cliché: “I look at him, confused, staring full on into the bottomless tranquility of his eyes.” Equally conventional, it seemed, was the affected affectlessness of the prose Peck used to describe the traumas his characters suffered—a stylistic tic you found in lots of young gay male writing during the late 1980s and early 1990s. (“I lost my virginity to my stepfather on my mother’s double bed during the afternoon’s heat while she was at work.”) For someone who, in his critical writings, seems to value “passion” highly, Peck doesn’t put a lot of it in his fiction.
These bad habits were more in evidence in the second novel. Critics have raved about the beauty of Peck’s prose, but in his fiction, at least, the diction has only gotten more portentous with time (“this drifting was his only dream, his earliest desire; it was his desideratum”), the writing more overwrought (“the shriek of the alarm had skinned him like an onion, layer by layer”), and the symbolism ever more heavy-handed. In The Law of Enclosures, the unhappy couple are having a new house built, and each one has a different idea of what it should look like, so that in the end it is—like the marriage itself! (as Peck, who is much given in his criticism to caustic italics, might put it)—“an eccentric amalgamation; inside, it looked like two jigsaw puzzles forced together.” Worse, in this novel Peck indulged even more a penchant for what I think of as bossiness: he never trusted his story (let alone dialogue) to illuminate his characters, but instead not only kept telling you what his characters were thinking at every moment, which is wearying, but had them think things that no one actually thinks, except of course characters in novels who need to think them so that we realize that they’re doomed or vulnerable, etc:
The bandana splayed at Henry’s feet as though it were a parachute tied to the body of a toy soldier, and as he looked at it he remembered that even though those parachutes never worked, the soldiers tied to them, plastic, invulnerable, always survived their falls.
Looking back, I see that Peck’s bullying tendency to hog the microphone was a kind of clue to where his talent really (or so it seems to me) lay, which is nonfiction—memoir, criticism. The only really authentic writing in his first two books is the brilliant central section of The Law of Enclosures, where Peck the scathing critic takes over from Peck the affected novelist. Here there is total authority, as opposed to mere pushiness—and real invention. (There is a chapter in which he imagines inhabiting—entering, really—the body of his father, whom he wishes to understand, orifice by orifice.) In this central section, too, the emotions—above all, grief for the author’s mother, who died when he was three—seem authentic rather than learned or (as with much of the AIDS material in Martin and John) obligatory, and for that reason achieve genuine lyricism:
But only when she is forgotten, and I am forgotten, and everyone who has ever read this is forgotten, only then will the wound of her loss be closed and the world be, once again, whole.
That’s something you don’t mind being told.
There’s a line in Hatchet Jobs in which Peck lambastes the critic Sven Birkerts (the object of particularly devastating ferocity) for being too controlling: “Birkerts,” he writes, “wants to do more than merely bring books to readers. He wants to tell readers how they should be reading them.” But this, of course, is what Peck himself has kept doing in his fiction, where the impulse doesn’t belong; it was only when he’d relaxed into nonfiction that he found a style that was natural to him, a voice that was truly strong.
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:
Reading Birkerts, especially when he writes about contemporary novelists or the Internet, I feel like I’m watching an old man tapping his foot to a phat beat, maybe even letting himself lip synch…. And when he’s writing about his beloved early-twentieth-century moderns, it’s as if the channel has switched to a polka station and the old man gets up and parties.
Only occasionally does the humor fall flat: “With friends like this, literature needs an enema. Ooh, that was probably a bit much, huh?” (Well, yes.) There is, too, a rangy imaginativeness to Peck’s critical prose that allows him to illustrate the points he wants to make far more vividly than most critics can. For instance, he very astutely describes the main character in The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead’s first novel, as “weirdly emotionless, simultaneously three-dimensional but without substance, like a figure half materialized on the transporter deck of the Enterprise.”
The humor and stylishness would be worth little without intelligence and acuity, and of each Peck has a great deal. Hatchet Jobs has much of interest to say about both individual authors and certain fashionable trends. (“Let’s face it, cancer has become, in narrative terms, less a fatal disease than a gift, a learning experience, a personal triumph.”) He gets the feel of Kurt Vonnegut’s cult-figure popularity just right (“Writers who are merely great—writers such as Mailer and Bellow and Roth and Updike—write stories which become part of our dreams, but cult writers are themselves dreamed about”). The famous takedown of Rick Moody’s narrative self-indulgences is as deadly accurate as it is amusing. “Moody,” he writes,
starts his books like a boxer talking trash before the bout, as if trying to make his opponent forget that the only thing that really matters is how hard and how well you throw your fists after the bell rings.
I respect Peck’s intelligence and talent too much to reduce him to a “gay writer,” but Hatchet Jobs offers every evidence that what you might call an “outsider” sensibility has informed his reading of certain authors, even those he considers to be “great” (as, for instance, he does Philip Roth). The results are often both stimulating and searching. Peck liked Roth’s American Pastoral a good deal less than I did—as often, he can’t seem to see anything positive in books in which he’s found anything negative—but it’s hard to deny the brilliance of the critique that he offers, in his essay “The Lay of the Land,” of the misogynistic current in Roth’s fiction. He achieves his critique, in part, by ingeniously teasing out the implications of Roth’s title, noting that the earliest American writing consisted of settlers’ “pastoral” descriptions of the virgin land. Then he goes on to observe that
the land-woman had to be subdued, and subdued it was, both physically by its colonists, and figuratively, in the three and half [sic] centuries of literature that have been produced here [in which] a feminized landscape is traversed, mapped, contained. In our country, the pastoral is a false tradition, an invention, a written convention, a way of writing about a subject originally designed to woo money from investors who had no knowledge of what was being written about; similarly, Roth’s pastoral is equally faked, a lost paradise that never existed but nevertheless had to be invented so it could be eulogized in his novel.
It’s a stark point that comes across all the more powerfully for lacking any whiff of special pleading.
That Peck’s criticism is blissfully free of political (or politically correct) agendas is just as evident, and even more striking, in “Stop Thinking: The (D)evolution of Gay Literature.” This essay contains what is, to my mind, the single best critique of the curiously flat quality of much “gay-niche” fiction to appear in recent years. “A novel which aspires to social criticism, Peck observes of Ethan Mordden’s How Long Has This Been Going On?,
ought to depict the society it criticizes…. If as a novelist, exposing homophobia is your mission, then it seems worthwhile to point out that there’s only so much one can learn about homophobia by looking at gay people; eventually you have to examine the homophobes, and that means looking at straight people. Think of the interaction between Jews and Gentiles in Saul Bellow, between blacks and whites in Toni Morrison… [but] Mordden’s characters are reduced to wailing and flailing their way through an Us-Against-Them world in which They are unusually absent. As a strategy, it seems a bit like playing racquetball in a court with no walls, and that same image could describe the progress of Mordden’s narrative: each scene gets one good whack, and then it rolls off into the distance.
Here as in so many of these essays, Peck takes on a potentially tricky subject, but precisely because he’s a brawler—temperamentally unafraid to take aim and swing—more often than not he scores a palpable hit.
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. There’s a fascinating passage in which Peck, who thinks very ill of Julian Barnes’s Love, Etc., criticizes the author’s plotting:
In between these two plot points is what appears to be the traditional scenic connective tissue, but even though it clearly delineates the route from there to here…it omits, like a road map, the mountain ranges, out-of-date billboards, and fleeting eye contact with the blonde in the Lexus that distinguish an actual journey from a line on a piece of paper: the traffic jams, the overpriced gas, the toll booths and speeding tickets, the rickety crosses with faded flowers commemorating a highway fatality, the good and bad weather, the good and bad coffee…. For all Barnes’ mechanical delineation of Oliver’s seduction …the key question of attraction is never addressed, and in the end the only discernible reason Gillian invites Oliver in is because Barnes programmed her to do it.
This is a wonderful bit of writing, but two things strike you: first, that by the middle of the passage you (and, you suspect, Peck) have temporarily forgotten just where this metaphorical road trip is headed, and second, that what’s really going on here isn’t so much criticism as a kind of performance—it’s as if Peck wants to show you not what’s wrong with Barnes, but how good a writer he, Peck, is.
The pervasive sense of an underlying competitiveness can sometimes be invigorating, but too often leads to cheap ad hominem attacks. “Need somebody to slog through a second-rate translation of Mandelstam’s journals or The Radetzky March,” he scoffs, “and produce two thousand words to fill that big slot in the middle of the book—for not very much money to boot? Birkerts is your man.” What Birkerts is getting paid is beside the point; “not very much money” is snotty, and has no place in serious criticism. He claims at the end of his book that he wants his reviews to be “some kind of dialogue with my generation,” but what kind of dialogue can you have, really, with someone who’s shouting—and kicking?
Indeed, construction, as opposed to destruction (however entertaining), is not one of Peck’s fortes. It must be said that after twelve chapters of hacking away with his hatchet, he doesn’t leave much standing, and you start to wonder just what it is he does think is worthwhile. Peck says again and again that he thinks it all went wrong with Joyce: “Ulysses is nothing more than a hoax upon literature, a joint shenanigan of the author and the critical establishment”; on Joyce he blames the current debased state of the novel, stranded (as he believes it to be) between a naive realism, on the one hand, and a postmodern formal gimmickry “that has systematically divested itself of any ability to comment on anything other than its own inability to comment on anything.” As far as Peck’s concerned, “both of them, in my opinion, suck…. I think the modes need to be thrown out entirely.” But what he wants to replace them with isn’t clear: although he does occasionally betray certain tastes (“the traditional satisfactions of fictional narrative—believable characters, satisfactory storylines, epiphanies and the like,” and mumbles something about a “new materialism,” he refuses to say what a new “mode” would look like:
My goal was never to offer an alternative model to the kinds of writing I discuss here, because it’s precisely when a line is drawn in the sand that people begin to toe it and you fall into the trap of reification, of contemporaneity, an inability to react to changing circumstances.
Given the authority and vehemence of everything that has preceded them, this is evasive.
In a way, “inability to react to changing circumstances” may be said to characterize Peck’s own position, as much as it’s possible to figure out what it might be. Like his colleague at The New Republic, the estimable and excellent James Wood, Peck seems to want more novels like the great nineteenth-century novels: serious, impassioned, fat, authoritative. But you can’t write nineteenth-century social novels about twenty-first-century global culture, because the form and preoccupations of the nineteenth-century novel are different from those that might properly interpret the twenty-first century: whatever you think of the self-referential gamesmanship of authors like David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, their desire to write books that reflect their own inability to comment on anything but their own inability to comment on anything is a reflection of the anxieties—and realities—of the world in which we actually live. You can call all you want for a return to what is, essentially, a Victorian “materialism,” but it’s like calling for the return of sixteenth-century Venetian opera or Greek tragedy.
Or, for that matter, Greek comedy. Peck seems, indeed, to be aware of the underlying unsoundness of his aesthetic ideology, because he prefers to do the Aristophanic thing: focusing less on working through a coherent aesthetic than on his showing off his own dazzling performance—while, of course, getting rid of the wrongdoers. He dreams breathlessly of “the excision from the canon, or at least the demotion in status, of most of Joyce, half of Faulkner and Nabokov, nearly all of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo.” This fantasy again betrays a surprising intellectual naiveté: canons aren’t drawn up like shopping lists—they grow organically, just as genres and styles do, out of the soil of the culture that produces them.
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.
Or, as he himself put it, of a hammer. In The Law of Enclosures there’s a remarkable passage in which he discusses his relationship with his frightening, powerful father, and the psychological dynamics at play are interesting enough to make the passage worth quoting in full:
Your gifts are fists and curses, your punishments kisses and caresses, and I have grown bitter with your love and sweet with your hatred. You are my god, my father, but I am your bible: I turn your flesh into words, and words have always outlasted the gods who fathered them. I have built you up and I have torn you down, and I can do either again, or neither, or both. Words are my wrenches, words my hammer and nails. Words are my fists, my liquor, my food, and words are my women. With my words I will protect you. I will save you as you have saved me. I save you forever, and for everyone, and for eternity. Dear father, I am saving you now.
Dynamics of power, punishment, and pain between a younger and an older man have recurred in Peck’s work from the beginning: Martin and John contains two arresting descriptions of S&M sex, one of which ends with the younger man begging the older to penetrate him with a shotgun. It is difficult not to see, as the origins of this fascination, the extreme Oedipal tensions at play in the passage from The Law of Enclosures, too: the obsession with power (Peck’s as well as his father’s), the son’s fantasy of being able to punish or save, the constant threat of physical violence both by and against the father (“fists” occurs twice). All this is worth noting only because of its implications for Peck’s criticism: it’s hard not to feel, in his book reviews, a ferocious kind of acting-out going on. The “hammer and nails” Peck mentions in the passage above seem intended not so much for construction, as one is tempted at first to read the passage, as for a crucifixion; and indeed, you sense that what Peck the critic really wants to do isn’t so much to judge a writer as to nail the guy. (In this context, it is surely interesting that the writer he singles out for unambiguous praise, meant to serve as a kind of capstone to the collection, is a woman, Rebecca Brown, who wrote a memoir of her mother’s death.)
There’s no denying that all that hammering yields a lot of pleasure for Peck’s readers; but it’s not the road to serious critical work—if, of course, that’s what Peck wants. (Two pages into Hatchet Jobs, he declares that he “will no longer write negative book reviews”—“I am throwing away my red pen”—a showy gesture which suggests that his foray into criticism wasn’t much more than a performance after all.) Even Aristophanes—who was, we should remember, a comedian and not a critic—seems to have been made uneasy by the sadistic aspects of criticism. “I cannot judge them any more,” his Dionysos apologizes when the word-weighing is over. “I must not lose the love of either one of them./ One of them’s a great poet. I like the other one.” The lines remind you that loving and liking are as much a part of criticism as are hating and hacking; and that the impulse underlying good criticism ought to be affection for literature rather than animus toward writers. After his novels, after his memoir, and especially after Hatchet Jobs, we know pretty well whom Peck has hated, and why. Now it’s time to say goodbye. The serious critic, after all, is measured—and judged—as much by what and how he praises as by what and how he blames; and he should be as stimulated by the pleasure he gets from his reading as he is by the pain.
Aristotle, Poetics, translated with an introduction and notes by Malcolm Heath (Penguin, 1996), p. 9. ↩