Dale Peck on Vonnegut

The paperback edition of Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs is out now from The New Press.

I don’t want to party at the Peck-hate carnival kicked off last year by the publication of the hardcover; nor am I prepared — at least not right now — to evaluate the merits of his criticism. But since the accusation most frequently lobbed at Peck is that he never bothers to say what he likes, I was interested to see how clear he is about his respect for Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Peck writes:

Writers who are merely great — writers such as Mailer and Bellow and Roth and Updike — write stories which become part of our dreams, but cult writers are themselves dreamed about. I would like to think that some writers could actually be both, and I would suggest Vonnegut is the most likely candidate for that position, but it has not yet happened, and I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that he is still alive. Perhaps, as he insists repeatedly in Timequake, things will be better when he’s dead; perhaps his followers will stop searching his books for some clue as to how their guru lives, and simply read them. But he seems to doubt it.

And later in the review, he says:

no writer I can think of has been more diligent, nor more successful in pretending, despite what he describes as a limited cache of tools: “twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten numbers and about eight punctuation marks.” This disparagement of language aside, Vonnegut has proven endlessly, almost relentlessly creative in using it to tell new stories in new ways. Vonnegut was the first novelist to attempt to demystify the relationship between author and story within his text, to suggest that stories, be they children’s cartoons or religious tracts, are nothing more than the product of individual imaginations and should be read as such, but this and all of his other formal innovations have gone unnoticed, lost somewhere between the glazed-eyed worship of his fans and the head-patting condescension of his critics (“Vintage Vonnegut!” indeed). And so with each successive story, Vonnegut proved even more relentless in yoking his various inventions to that single theme of futility. His final novels, by which I mean the novels written since Palm Sunday, are as stylistically perfect as any written in the past twenty years, and they are also, for me, almost unbearable to read, because of the sense of hopelessness — perhaps helplessness is a better word — which resonates through every line.


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