Burying the Hatchet Man

  • Dale Peck. Hatchet Jobs. The New Press. 2004.

Dale Peck cuts a figure both tragic and ludicrous. He posed for the New York Times in flannel shirt, clutching a woodsman’s ax, staring wildly into the camera with hooded eyes. His hair was buzzed in military style as though he were ready for active duty in the Gulf. On the jacket of his book, a second photograph announces his slow fade into knowing self-parody. There he seems to slip away from the camera in coy profile, the ax held lazily over one sleeve of his pastel blue t-shirt. The first image is stronger and more true to a commitment he has already broken. An angry man, a sick man, he writes from the depths of resentment, a feeling so long banished from the quid pro quo culture of approval which suffuses the world of novel-writers and reviewers that its very upsurge promises fresh convictions and ideas.

But, alas, Peck’s new ideas are a hopelessly confused blend of the old. He trashes modernism under the names of Joyce and Eliot, but, in the process, repeats the modernist credo “Work it out for yourself.” He assaults “deconstructionists” only to offer such gnomic gems as “semiotically, syntactically, at the level of the sign and the level of the sentence, from which all narrative proceeds, language waters the seeds of its own failure.” Paul de Man could not have said it better, although he would have disliked the gardening metaphor. Only in Peck’s world could that sentence appear in the same essay that contains the following: “My generation has inherited a tradition that has grown increasingly esoteric and exclusionary, falsely intellectual, and alienating to the mass of readers…” Add it up, and you have to think that Peck has pulled off the equivalent of the Sokal Hoax for book reviewers.

A strong negative voice can be a boon to a culture, like a fire that sweeps through a dead wood, clearing the ground for new, stronger growth. Peck, however, is a pyromaniac let loose in a library, willing to burn down just about anything provided it makes a fine blaze. His writing offers the pose of criticism, the illusion of ideas. He has the advertiser’s love of hyperbole, along with the advertiser’s disregard for truth: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation!” He claims he will “set the record straight once and for all. It all went wrong with Joyce.” This last breathtaking statement, in particular, turns out to be far less transgressive than its tone implies. Peck does not think Joyce himself is evil. The author of Dubliners is fine. According to him, there is a second Joyce who betrays the talent of the first. The enemy Joyce is the master of stream of consciousness, the writer who, Peck claims, “thought he was producing a mimetic account of how the mind worked.” Unfortunately, this Joyce turns out to be a simplification, an invention of some colleges, high schools, and writing programs. The application of William James’s concept of “stream of consciousness” to the efforts of authors as culturally and stylistically diverse as Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner was always meant to be a convenient starting point for academics primarily interested in genre and period studies. Believing he is after the real thing, Peck tilts at a cardboard cut-out which he then blames for being a fraud. If he keeps it up, he will have earned his popularity among the secret despisers of literature, those who hear the word culture and reach for their remote control.

Peck does not endorse philistinism, despite slipping easily into its pose. He is not a democrat when it comes to taste. Like Conrad’s British colonizers, Peck is redeemed from his wanton destructiveness, and the cynic’s charge of profiteering, by the faint glimmer of a single idea. As is the case with most of Peck’s ideas, it is a confused one: He believes in pure, authentic literature, writing which does not represent debased reality or pander to the whims of readers—Plato by way of Oscar Wilde. “New materialism,” he calls it, but in fact it’s neither new nor recognizably materialist (even the name is borrowed from ’30s leftists, who meant something else). He means that language itself, the raw material of writing, should be every writer’s concern. This is so far from heresy, it is doxa. It is also making a fetish out of beginnings. Novelists should not aspire to be journalists, nor should they seek to express or exhibit themselves. They should not pander to a common reader, neither should they seek to educate.

Curiously, Peck’s fiction demonstrates a far greater patience and even an understanding of the very demons he has allowed to possess his criticism. Not the worst writer of his generation by a long shot, Peck is, however, a remarkably insular writer, almost a private one. All good writers write for themselves, but few are as heroically self-absorbed or indifferent to the conventional methods of making readers feel at home as Peck. Neither good writing nor bad writing, Peck’s style amounts to what an art critic would describe as primitive. His novels to date—even Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, his attempt to rework the popular Toni Morrison-like thriller on the favorite race, class, gender themes of college courses—are marked by an unapologetic lyricism, an interest in the magical properties of proper names, an attempt to do the police in different voices, especially the ways different characters articulate love, hatred, and betrayal. Whether from economic motives, writer’s block, or mistaking the advice of his therapist, Peck has seized on these last two passions in his public voice and performed in criticism what he more valiantly sought to explore, articulate, and contextualize in fiction. As a “career move,” it was an unfortunate step. Its consequences are damaging both to critics and writers; not, as the McSweeney’s crowd would have it, because book reviewers ought to be an anodyne audience of approving parents and siblings, but because Peck’s culturally-sanctioned outbursts continue to make hatred seem both pathological and entertaining.

Dangerous, yes; but hatred remains salutary, despite the efforts of liberal educators to convince us of the contrary. It is also unavoidable. Because humans can’t help hating something, however, it is of the utmost importance to know what really deserves our hatred. Too often, we only allow ourselves to hate an imaginary enemy, the weak and harmless, those closest to us or the farthest away. When it comes to hating, most of us are cowards.

Peck is no exception. He knows that he can attack both high modernist literature and contemporary writing because he can. In our present age of fear and suspicion, when many public intellectuals find it a mark of distinction to decry the treason of other intellectuals, writers are easy targets. But the upshot is that Peck has become one more specialist in an age of specialization: the hatchet man. Like the contract killer, the hatchet man’s self-opaque motives and recklessness are easily harnessed to serve another’s more pedestrian desire for oppressive power. Peck experiences the current conditions of the literary market as one extended agony of betrayal. A visit to a bookstore is like going to a brothel in which your former lover services clients before your eyes. In Hatchet Jobs, we witness the transformation of a fantasy into a program. A novelist at work must necessarily believe in a personal literature that exists for himself alone. A critic who allows nothing outside himself to exist wishes the destruction of all literature.

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