Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Dale Peck’s latest book Hatchet Jobs is a fairly overblown review of a pretty insignificant collection, but he does come to some sane conclusions.
…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.
This pretty much echoes what I said earlier this year, upon first hearing that Peck was going to release this book. Mendelsohn tries really really hard to like Peck’s aesthetic, even going so far as to try to contextualize it within the Aristophanic tradition (*ahem*), but he ultimately comes to the same inevitable conclusion of any fair-minded reader of Peck’s fiery reviews: Peck doesn’t know what he wants from contemporary fiction, and sure as hell doesn’t like what he sees. His criteria remains undefined; his agenda is clearly self-serving.