A few weeks back I attended an event in New York called “Revise and Recant,” where a few critics confessed to writing reviews that were too harsh, kind, misconceived, and so forth. The most interesting speaker was Dale Peck, who hadn’t arrived to retract one of his infamous self-declared “hatchet jobs,” but to voice regret that his praise for Thomas Pynchon‘s 2006 novel, Against the Day, never wound up in print. He’d been assigned to review the book for the Atlantic, but by the time he’d filed the review the book had been out for something like a year, and the magazine understandably passed.
So instead Peck published the review on his website, though at the time of the New York event the site appeared to be stricken with some sort of malware that cautioned visitors to avoid it at all costs. Those troubles appear to be cleared up now, so “Heresy of Truth” can now be experienced without fear. The piece opens by delivering some decidedly Peckian spankings to what he calls Pynchon’s “early fiction” (“by which I mean not just the stories but all his work up to and including Mason and Dixon“), but he ultimately cheers Against the Day, in part because it rejects the need to make a grand statement about the world and instead just revels in it:
Such an experience is grueling only if you think of it in Joycean terms, as though each aspect of the novel were part of a hermetic puzzle that will eventually resolve into a single entity. Pynchon’s approach is fast and loose by comparison, half planned, half intuitive—a risky approach whose success or failure depends entirely on execution. I wouldn’t have thought any contemporary writer could pull it off, least of all this one; yet every word-filled page has the splendor of the Great Wall of China, providing the reader with a sense of just how large the finite world truly is, how majesterial an object can be produced by an activity as mundane as bricklaying.
Peck’s praise isn’t quite strong enough to convince me to tackle the 1,000-plus-page beast—his shots at the book’s critics toward the end of the essay make me wonder how much more he enjoyed the book than he enjoyed dismissing the people who didn’t like it much. But the piece does show a charitable, enthusiastic side to Peck that belies his reputation.