Twelve essays by the bad boy of contemporary book reviewing reveal a passionate, committed commentator who definitely has an axe to grind.
So what? Like any truly interesting critic, Peck has a coherent, openly stated aesthetic position that informs everything he writes, including his novels (Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, 1998, etc.). “It all went wrong with Joyce,” he believes: modernism's rejection of traditional character and narrative development was a ghastly mistake, and if he grudgingly concedes its (possible) historical necessity, he sees little but empty posing in the work of such successors as Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, pretentious windiness in the attempts of younger writers like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Lethem to employ modernist strategies yet still fulfill the novel's historic role as a mirror of and comment on society. Peck particularly dislikes Franzen, slapping him down in asides but never providing a full-length analysis that would explain this antipathy. Rick Moody and Sven Birkerts, subjects of the collection's most notorious demolition jobs, probably wish they'd been so lucky. You may never again read Birkerts' pompous prose with a straight face after finishing Peck's dismemberment of it, though you may also wonder if it merits such savagery. Peck argues that it does because Birkerts represents “the lowest common denominator of the American critical establishment” that is his real target, along with almost every prominent author of the past 50 years. (It seems almost deliberately perverse that he writes affectionately about Kurt Vonnegut.) Michael Cunningham is the only mainstream novelist who receives Peck's approval here; the single other favorable piece is devoted to Rebecca Brown, not exactly a household name. Peck's sustained, often brutal dissections of Phillip Roth, Julian Barnes, and David Foster Wallace, among others, can seem pedantic and unfair, but they amply make the point that there's way too much lazy prose and sloppy thinking in modern literature.
“I am throwing away my red pen,” Peck claims in his introduction, vowing to write no more hatchet jobs. That's a shame: his partisan, nastily persuasive naysaying adds a valuable perspective to our cultural debates.