Mr. Peanut

Posted on May 9, 2011


When you get a few pages into Adam Ross’s debut novel, you think, ‘Okay, this is a murder mystery.’ A whodunnit. And it is that, but it’s also much more. The novel is a book within a book, and within that, it’s three stories, intertwining and doubling back on themselves, about three men and their wives. The story is at different times riveting, morose, upsetting, and beautiful, though it’s rarely funny (which is okay).

The striking U.S. hardcover edition; it really catches eyes on the subway.

The reading experience with this, by the way, was annoying for me because I borrowed the book from a friend. I constantly found myself wanting to underline passages, or write notes in the margins, but you can’t write in a friend’s book. I dog-eared the best of passages and copied them down for this post, but there are many exchanges between husbands and wives that ring so true, you’ll almost want to save them and reexamine in your own time of need, if things get difficult, should that unfortunately happen. Ross certainly has his finger on the issue and above all else, the book accomplishes a high level of vivid realism with its depiction of relationships, especially the dialogue. For example:

“Tell me what you see?” Alice demanded… “I see a candle,” David said. Seized by sympathy for his wife, he’d gone out and bought her new spiral beeswax candles. Vowing not to mention the gift but wanting to wait for her to notice, he went home, fitted them neatly into their holders and, when it turned dark, lit them all. “I see a crooked candle,” Alice said. “I see wax all over my table.” David looked. Wax spread like a smooth scab over the cherrywood. “Did it even occur to you,” she said, “that at this sharp an angle the candle might drip?” It had, but for some reason he’d ignored it. “I’ll clean it up,” David said.

This doesn’t have to just be about a married couple; I imagine it rings true for any couple. I know it did for me. We’ve all experienced moments just like this—a sweet, quick idea that backfired and became a mini-fight—and I recall at times thinking, even in the moment, as it was happening, ‘How would I write about this?’ and that it would be difficult to perfectly represent it on the page. Ross has done so, though. Here’s another great example: “She told him good-bye, kissed him, and left. In the quiet apartment, he finished his breakfast, showered, dressed, made the bed, did his dishes, and then left too. Did she exist during this time? Did she wonder, ‘Does he?'” Indeed, though I’m not married, I’ve experienced this same curiosity, and even more often have felt it in a different context: about my parents, who live in another state from me and whose kids have moved out, so I sometimes wonder, ‘What are they doing right now? Are they really there?’ That, of course, is another of the book’s strengths: yes, its anecdotes are about marriage, but many of them can apply elsewhere in life. (There are also wonderful moments that accurately portray the grief of losing someone.)

A quick plot overview: David Pepin, the protagonist (I guess), is a video game designer very into Escher (and, we learn toward the end, Hitchcock). When the book opens, his wife Alice has been found, it was death by peanuts (she was allergic), and two detectives are investigating whether David did it. Of course, as you might expect, the story then goes back in time and we see their marriage, but blended with this we also see the marriages of the two detectives: Ward Hastroll (whose wife Hannah has stubbornly remained bed-ridden for months in order to prove a point), and Sam Sheppard, a fictionalized version of the real Dr. Sam Sheppard, who in Ross’ imagining has become a detective as his sort of second life, but remains haunted by the murder (was it him, or not?) of his wife Marilyn. As it turns out, it is this storyline that proves most engaging (Sheppard’s long affair with medical colleague Susan Hayes; Sheppard’s confused memories of the night his wife was killed; Sheppard’s strange conversations with a killer-for-hire given the slightly cringe-inducing name Mobius).

From here, spoiler alert. Abandon ship now if you haven’t finished.

Now, let me address one reaction I’ve seen to the novel via Twitter: that in the end, it’s difficult to figure out or understand. It’s really not. In fact, the ending so clearly draws out for you what was real and what wasn’t that it’s almost facile. (I particularly would not have gone with the bold, all-capped subtitles HERE’S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED and HERE’S HOW DAVID’S BOOK ENDED; it could have been slightly more artful if Ross had shown what was what without demarcating it so simplistically). But, to postulate (if it’s even up for debate): We are to understand that Alice died from surgical complications (as her letter says), and that the following were creations in David’s novel and never happened (at least not in the reality of Mr. Peanut): the incident with peanuts that kills Marilyn; the investigation; and all dealings with Mobius. By that token, Hastroll and Sheppard are also fictional characters in David’s novel (though it’s clear that in David’s reality, Sheppard was still a real person, the same famous person he was in ours, which creates a nice double-meta kind of trick: Ross has written a novel that imagines a character writing a novel who creates a fictionalized account of Sheppard’s story. It’s all Ross, of course). None of this is surprising or hard to deduce. It is spelled out for you.

However, what was difficult, looking back on it: knowing which moments were from David’s book and which really happened. Everything involving the detectives is from David’s book, of course. But as for the interactions between David and Alice, I’m not as sure about which was what. When I try to recall the reading experience, I can pick out a number of episodes between them (his hectic appearance at her school to demand that she go on a trip with him; the hike they go on when they fight and are separated; their stay in Hawaii after her in-flight miscarriage) and have trouble deciding for sure what was real (did David have an affair or not?) and what was created by David. This, of course, is Ross’ clever way of almost ensuring you’ll read the book again (I haven’t yet, but eventually might) and also explains why Scott Smith commented: “You can’t quite believe that its many pieces fit together so snugly.” (Indeed, they do, but that’s what I’m saying—they fit together so snugly that it’s difficult to distinguish, which is neither good nor bad, necessarily.) That being said, I don’t quite understand how Scott Turow, in his bubbly review of the book, arrives at the conclusion that the novel “concludes with three (or is it four?) alternate endings.” There are two—the ending from David’s book and the ‘real’ ending—unless Turow is also including the conclusions of the Hastroll and Sheppard stories as “endings” as well.

Bu the way, another example of the complication of divvying up reality vs. David’s book is that, though Mobius is a construct of David’s novel, Ross (well, David, I suppose) does go so far as to have Mobius, from a jail cell, ask to read David’s (his own) manuscript. So already, right there you have David creating a character in his book that is aware of David’s book. So, boom: a book (David’s manuscript that Mobius reads in jail) within a book (David’s book in which that happens) within a book (Mr. Peanut).

Another common response to Mr. Peanut that I’ve read is the notion that the book condemns marriage, or worse, vilifies women. In fact, last July, Ross responded to a post by the Slate Double X ladies, arguing that the book is pro-marriage. (By the way, Ross is a great example of authors embracing Twitter. They’re not all quite so gung-ho—Gary Shteyngart, for instance, has no interest—but much like Colson Whitehead, Ross (@escherx) tweets actively, retweets fans, clearly has a Google alert for mentions of his work, and engages with readers. Perhaps he’ll even comment on this blog post.) I would not call the book particularly pro-marriage, but it certainly isn’t anti. More important, I’d say, is to assure people that it is not misogynistic. When a coworker spotted me reading this in an elevator, he said simply, “Mr. Peanut, huh? Hmmm.” and I said, “It’s about a guy who may or may not have killed his wife.” He said sarcastically, “Nice.” The two women in the elevator with us nodded in agreement, as though they were appalled by the concept. Now, I don’t fault them for that response, but the book is actually, in the end, optimistic (though very sad for David in particular). Here’s a great example of its wisdom:

It is possible, he thought, to be completely happy in marriage—though you must be willing to hold on when your ship was lost at sea and there was no guarantee of rescue. They had both held on, at times by means unbeknownst to the other that might not look to an outsider like holding on at all. It is possible to be completely happy. And just as surely that happiness could pass. It was a fact.

Of course, it’s also macabre, and Ross clearly relishes the chance to get gory, as when Hastroll fantasizes about killing his wife Hannah (all three men, at different times, imagine doing so, which is what has fueled some accusations that the book is misogynistic): “He turned on the shower, deposited her corpse into the tub… sawed off her arms at the shoulders, her legs at the hips, her head at the neck. The blade produced a horrid smell.” Yes, upsetting, sure.

But in the end, Ross’ claim is that even if men think about it (and hey, perhaps the wives do too; he doesn’t argue otherwise, he merely only has the space, and perhaps the experience, to give the male perspective), they don’t truly want to do it. David, of course, doesn’t kill Alice, and Ward doesn’t kill Hannah (quite on the contrary, her insufferable ploy works and they have a happy ending), and even Sheppard, in Ross’ imagining, gets a pass. Or at least, it isn’t resolved whether he killed Marilyn or the pervy painter did. And we’re left understanding that even if he did kill her, he was in a haze, some altered, unconscious state, and it was a horrible mistake.

I believe, also, that much of the book’s wisdom is just upsetting to some people thanks to how raw and brutally honest Ross is, as with this bit, which I imagine was hard for, say, Ross’ wife to read: “Men dream of starting over. Not even necessarily with another woman. They dream of a clean slate, of disappearing, of walking off a plane on a layover and making a new life for themselves in a strange city.” But Ross doesn’t even suggest that they do start over, either by murder or by leaving (though some do, of course), and he goes so far, I believe, as to suggest that they are mistaken to think such an abandonment would really give them a fresh start or make them happy. In this way, he’s pro-relationship, pro-marriage, but painfully realistic and unflinching.

The novel, too, is painful at times, but it’s also engrossing, rewarding, and thought-provoking. It’s worth reading, and working through, and then, probably, reading again.

[UPDATE, 5/10/11]

For what it’s worth, I managed to find the Tumblr page of Gary Fisketjon, who is Ross’ editor and a Knopf legend that edited Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and two of my very favorites: Ray Carver and Tobias Wolff. He hasn’t posted for a year and only posted twice, but interestingly, the first post, which is from a year ago when Mr. Peanut came out, is all about the confused criticism. He points out some of the same common gripes that I’ve mentioned (gripes that we both think are simplistic and unfounded), and adds that anyone annoyingly pointing out how the real Sheppard would be too old now to have become a detective (duh, it’s fiction!) is “not doing even a cursory job with their homework.” He also adds this jab: “Helen Keller herself could tell within just a few pages that this is something other than straightforward narrative realism.” Indeed.

[UPDATE, 5/11/11]

Adam Ross has indeed posted a response to my review at his own site. He graciously commends my views and interpretation of the ending, but adds that there is another level I missed. The events I have characterized as fictional, happening within David’s book, are, he warns, “not just David’s book.” As examples of hints, he points to the Escher drawing from the front of the book, and to one particular passage: “Pepin wrote: There are two of us, of course, David and Pepin, interlocked and separate and one and the same. I’m writing my better self and he’s writing his worse and vice versa and so on until the end.” Interestingly, Ross writes on his blog that only one person he has met on book tour had correctly teased out the exact ending on his first read.

Posted in: DBR Blog