Sometimes it’s best to examine a book after all the noise has died down.
Hatchet Jobs, published in 2004, is a collection of scathing book reviews by Dale Peck, novelist and critic for The New Republic and The Village Voice. Delighted to have some actual controversy in the mundane world of literary fiction, reviewers of Hatchet Jobs gleefully repeated its pithy put-downs (“Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation”) and the juicy rumors surrounding its reception (one slighted novelist allegedly confronted Peck in a New York restaurant, slapped him in the face and asked him to step outside).
Whether you agree with Peck’s methods or not, his reviews are undeniably fascinating, funny, and the perfect summertime read for literati. His primary concern is something that we at The Modern Word often wonder as well: why does almost all literary fiction of the last ten to twenty years seem to suck so bad? Peck places the blame, however, on two of The Modern Word’s most revered authors: James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon.
So what did Pynchon and Joyce do wrong, according to Peck?
In Defense of Joyce
I will say it once and for all, straight out: it all went wrong with Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is less a bildungsroman than a chapter by chapter unraveling of a talent which, if “The Dead” is any indication, could have been formidable, while Ulysses is nothing more than a hoax upon literature. (Hatchet Jobs, 222)
And yes, Joyce, like the other writers I’ve written about here, has his strengths; but it is his failings that have been most successful, most pervasive in their effect. (224)
All readers of Joyce acknowledge his weaknesses. But, contrary to Peck, I think that Joyce’s greatest failings have generally gone without imitators.
Joyce’s Failing #1: making the experimental unreadable. While we can debate the talent of recent novelists like David Foster Wallace, or even The Modern Word’s featured writers, I am hard pressed to name a work of recent fiction that’s as stubbornly incomprehensible as parts of Ulysses, to say nothing of Finnegan’s Wake. Pynchon is probably the most far gone, but even his most baffling passages seem crystal clear compared to the maddeningly opaque prose of Joyce’s later works. Most of the writers who tread in Joyce’s footsteps (Rushdie, Eco, Stoppard, etc.) realize that experiment must be wrapped within an engaging, comprehensible narrative of some kind. H.G. Wells once responded to Finnegan’s Wake by asking, “Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?” And few contemporary novelists, thankfully, make such hellish demands.
Joyce’s Failing #2: references that obscure, rather than evoke. Ulysses takes place on a single day, Bloomsday 1904, but the novel is so laden down with topical Irish minutiae and archaic slang that Joyce may have unwittingly anchored it to the past, doomed to sink further and further from modern comprehension as each decade goes by. This, too, I have not seen much repeated. The footnotes in Infinite Jest may be a pointless slog, but can be readily understood by anyone willing to sit down and actually read them. Overly slangy prose is also a rare occurrence, today. Certain novelists have a penchant for accents; Tom Wolfe loves to draw attention to the varieties of American English, and Rushdie’s characters can begin sentences in one language and end in another. But modern novelists generally use slang as a spice, applied in light dashes to convey a whiff of atmosphere, in marked contrast to Joyce’s suffocating obsession with capturing the spoken word on paper.
In Defense of Pynchon
I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that the U.S. literary world can be divided into two camps: those who think Thomas Pynchon is a very clever guy, and those who also think he’s a great writer. As it happens, I’m of the former camp. (Hatchet Jobs, 42)
As it happens, I’m of the latter camp, but mainly for Gravity’s Rainbow. Peck’s view of Pynchon holds fairly true for Vineland and parts of his other works: very clever stuff that doesn't stay serious long enough to be taken seriously. Peck does acknowledge the unique importance of Gravity’s Rainbow in Pynchon’s oeuvre:
a lot of people are looking for something fresh in literature, and they’ve been looking, a little desperately if you ask me, for at least twenty-five yearssince around the time Thomas Pynchon lobbed Gravity’s Rainbow at an unsuspecting public. (Hatchet Jobs, 103)
Peck is right that one can hardly visit a bookstore without running across the latest “most accomplished novel since Gravity’s Rainbow,” according to the book jacket copy. But Peck sees only the zaniness, the slapstick, and “the same one-dimensional commentary on contemporary society” in Pynchon’s novels. These, in fact, are the parts of Pynchon that recent writers have imitated, but both Peck and contemporary novelists seem oblivious to the deeper, darker aspects of Pynchon’s works, the hallucinatory grandeur of his vision, sentences like, “He is losing more than single Jessica: he is losing a full range of life, of being for the first time at ease in the Creation.”
Peck is unimpressed by “a thirty year writing career [that] hasn’t produced a single memorable or even recognizably human character,” and it is characters, above all, that interest Peck the novelist. His novels, such as Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, introduce a cast of characters and explore marriage, family, abuse, love, and murder as they effect these specific people and places in contemporary America. Pynchon, however, aims to capture a larger picture: history, war, sex, and death as they effect society and the human psyche in general. In the process, Pynchon loses focus on the people, the believable characters, that interest Peck the most.
A Brief Conclusion to a Brief Response
Peck makes a good argument. We at The Modern Word still stand by Joyce and Pynchon, but perhaps Peck is right that twentieth century literature took a wrong turn by following the maps they plotted, because now that I look around, the landscape looks shockingly bleak, empty except for the shadows of our aging titans.