February 27, 2004

But have you read Q? Oh yes, Q.

I went through the proofs of Dale Peck’s upcoming Hatchet Jobs yesterday. Although crawled through might be the more accurate term—Peck is a writer you end up reading slowly, drudgingly. The method is this: glance at a paragraph, get bitter, read it again, go smoke a cigarette, watch some Jerry Maguire or similar palliative, smoke again, and consider that much of what you had previously thought about reading and writing fiction was wrong or horribly silly. Peck’s hatchet is meant, apparently, for the secret heart of his reader; no matter how much you want to be on his side—and I wanted to be on his side—he’ll make you wince at some squalid fictional bias you’ve squirreled away somewhere, deep down. It comes at a different point for everyone, I guess, but for me, this was my hatchet passage:

The single most important literary convention of the twentieth century was the double-spaced paragraph break. That gap could stand for anything: sex, sleep, a tedious taxi journey between apartment and opera house. It was the reason why, on the one hand, twentieth-century literary fiction was so much shorter than what preceded it—a double-spaced break could elide the passage of hours or years without troubling the reader, who filled in the gap with personal experience—but, on the other hand, it was also why most so-called departures from realism tended to reinforce the very suppositions that made realism possible in the first place.
I confess to much fondness for that gap, and my first thoughts were toward weakly obvious counterexamples: Tolstoy’s ruthless fast-forwards through time, Chesterton’s reduction of a character’s life to a single sentence. But no, those are different things. Modern fiction really does shy away from fleshing itself out, confident that evocative hints do better than descriptive calcifications. For Peck, the consequences: “Until it seemed that there was more conceptual air than text in virtually every major work written in the eighties.” Oy.

One complaint: Peck is prone to sweeping pronouncements on names, without giving his reasons. When he says that Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation, he summons up 6,000 words in support. Fine, but too often we get passages like the following:

It’s hard to think of a contemporary British novelist who [“connects”]. Rushdie? Not really, though Zadie Smith is doing her Oxbridge best to fix that. Ian McEwan? The man’s books smell worse than newspaper wrapped around an old fish. Martin Amis? Well, Martin Amis isn’t really British any more, is he? Perhaps the salient question isn’t why Julian Barnes is such a bad writer, but how the current crop of British novelists managed to ruin the British novel. The idea that Julian Barnes is the successor to Laurence Sterne is nearly as unbearable as the idea that Margaret Dabble is George Eliot’s heir. And how has Fielding been watered down into A.S. Byatt, and Defoe bastardized into Jeanette Winterson? At least there’s Alan Hollinghurst, who is as pleasantly proficient as Forster ever was.
This tells me nothing. This is cocktail party chatter aimed to stun, not to provoke. I suppose every serious literary commenter has their instant ‘shocking’ opinions—Joyce’s quip that D’Annunzio was the greatest Italian writer. It’s the stuff cocky undergraduates are made of—as a book reviewer in college I used to make offhand remarks about Don Delillo’s mediocrity, and once casually mentioned the ‘evident’ (!!) superiority of Heinrich Mann to brother Thomas. The ruse is embarrassing, in hindsight. Why should anyone have trusted me? But hey, why should we trust Dale Peck? The line from Fielding to A.S. Byatt (who I certainly think wonderful) is not at all clear. It could be that I am too dense to see the link; Peck makes me feel that way all too often. But otherwise, this is just juvenile skeet-shooting, serving no purpose but indulgence.

Although… once you start seeing the names enough, in different places, with different quips attached to them, you can slowly build up a vague sense of what Peck thinks of the author in question. From snatches here and there on Jeanette Winterson, I get the sense that Peck dislikes her frivolous attempts to be clever, etc. But it’s a very hazy sense, and how Winterson relates to Defoe is unclear—perhaps this is no more than a whimsical go at playing Harold Bloom (who creates those 'surprising' connections rather well).
-- Brad Plumer 4:59 PM || ||