Ah, one of those moments at which I know that my life has meaning, because all my usually scattered interests seem to be connected by what one of my trippier college pals insisted on referring to as “tendrils”: In today’s New York Newsday, Scott McLemee reviews Dale Peck‘s new book, Hatchet Jobs. According to McLemee, the primary effect of the book, thus far, has been “to provoke debate over just how seriously one must take a man who poses on the cover of his own book holding an axe in the posture of a dyspeptic lumberjack.”
Live by the hatchet, die by the hatchet, I always say. Overall, McLemee’s quite even-tempered in his assessments of Peck’s histrionics, managing in fascinating fashion to compare Peck to a mid-tantrum adolescent and T.S. Eliot in practically the same breath:
If [Heidi] Julavits [of The Believer] prefers commentary on books to be the finger-painting of the mind, while [Sven] Birkerts wants culture to be as sober and edifying as an adult-education course, Peck seems to split the difference — making it a gesture of adolescent self-definition, an effort to get as many eyes as possible in the shopping mall of American culture turned in his direction, if only by name-calling in a loud voice. Even when this is entertaining rather than just annoying, the last thing you want is for anybody else to imitate it.
But the demand for attention is only part of it. The adolescent’s performance of self also involves the assertion of an authority that isn’t really available, except from the imitation of role models. In Peck’s case, the model seems to be T.S. Eliot — an incongruous thing, unless you can imagine Eliot swearing like a pirate. But in those moments when Peck’s bad-boy identity has been momentarily sedated (when he is not, for example, suggesting that what David Foster Wallace really needs is to be sodomized with some vigor), his critical voice takes on the tones of someone trying very hard to attain the gravitas of Eliot, circa 1920.
And thus is the literary world connected: Eliot, Peck, Birkerts, McLemee, Julavits, and my pal down the hall, all interlinked in some proto-blog of reading and writing about reading and writing. No wonder literary scholars have taken to the blog form; it’s a literalized version of the link-and-comment we’ve been up to all along.