Excoriation Blues (Or The Happy Hatchet)

on Monday, February 13, 2012
Those of you who, like me, keep tabs on the wackier margins of the litworld may have heard that the first ever Hatchet Job of The Year was recently awarded to Adam Mars-Jones for his nuclear pounding of After Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. Granted, I've not read the book but the review, originally published in The Observer, certainly was a lot of fun. Check it out here!

We faceless minions who like to crap on about books do relish the odd opportunity to really sharpen our knives. I'll never forget when Andrew O'Hagan flew an ink plane into the tower of Don Delillo's awful post-911 novel, Falling Man. Few people would have cojones to waltz up to God's throne and take a dump on His shoes, so full credit to O'Hagan on that one. (If your memory doesn't stretch back to 2007 click here for a refresher). If only Dellilo had been given the opportunity to repay the favour when it came to O'Hagan's equally embarrassing effort from last year, Maf The Dog. Remember that? Didn't think so. It was the 'memoir' of Marilyn Monroe's dog, and resembled something that might have slipped out of Maf's backside after a particularly disagreeable meal. Either way, it was thrown over the fence of literary attention and promptly forgotten about. Alack alack, God (i.e. Dellilo) was no doubt too busy creating some other great masterwork to bother re-igniting long-snuffed fires.

There is, of course, a particular art to the hatchet job, one that some reviewers ought try to learn. Complete excoriations seem mean spirited if the bile is not tempered with the sharpest of wit. One that has recently raised my ire was David Gates's review of The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Talk about claws-out nasty. Gates doesn't so much review it as demolish every leg on which the book seeks to stand, including ones that I actually think are rather commendable. Am I the only one who finds it weird to slam a book for a possessing a fierce moral conscience, even if that conscience sometimes taints the narrative? And surely convenient contrivances in plot are commonplace even in the best works of fiction?

Weirdly, Gates seems to be waving the flag alone in his detestation. I haven't read the book (I have a moratorium on Holocaust books until mine is finished), but by all accounts it is, at the very least decent and, according to many, very good. Popular consensus amongst readers and bloggers (as opposed to the denizens of literary palaces) swings strongly in Perlman's favour. I'll wait to read it myself before forming an opinion. But for now, suffice to say, Gates falls into the very trap he thinks has slammed shut on Perlman's foot. Wit is the essence of the effective hatchet job. Gates takes Perlman to task for the 'humourlessness' of The Street Sweeper (I'd hate to see him review Cormac McCarthy or David Vann!). And yet, as opposed to when I was reading Mars-Jones or O'Hagan, during both of which I laughed heartily, I didn't so much as smirk with Gates. If it hand't been published in so venerable a paper I'm sure the review would have disappeared without a trace. I suspect now it will be the highlight of Gates's otherwise unremarkable career. Here's hoping good hearts prevail over mean spirits.


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