Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross, Knopf, 2010
This book started off for me scorching hot:
When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God. At a picnic on the beach, a storm front moved in. David and Alice collected their chairs, blankets, and booze, and when the lightning flashed, David imagined his wife lit up, skeleton distinctly visible as in a children's cartoon, Alice the collapsing into a smoking pile of ash...Anything could happen between here and there. On the edge of the platform, two boys were roughhousing. The train came barreling into the station. An accidental push. Alice, spun round, did a crazy backstroke before she fell. And it was over.... The things that went through his mind! From their window, he watched Alice walk up the street. A helicopter passed overhead. On Lexington, at the building under construction, a single girder was winched into the sky. And David imagined this was the last time he would ever see his wife -- that this was the last image he'd have of her -- and he felt the sadness well up and had the smallest taste of his loss, like the wish when you're young that your parents would die.
Now, if you tell me that you've been married and you haven't, in times of great frustration thought of your spouse's brakes going out while s/he's on the way to the store or falling down a flight of stairs while you're not home, then I'm going to say, You're a goddamned saint or liar.
And it was that blistering honest fantasizing that was coursing through the book's opening that riveted me to the page. Could he really be writing this? I thought. It felt almost chillingly like a hushed confession.
And then somewhere throughout the course of the book, it lost me. I don't mean to say that I failed to follow the plot or that the book becomes incomprehensible gibberish. I mean that where it felt like the book was going in the beginning was somewhere else from where the book ended up going, and not necessarily in that excitement of discovery way, but rather in a meandering sort of lost-the-thread way. Oh for an editorial Ariadne to give Mr. Ross's Mr. Peanut the key to the labyrinth.
And it's not as if the book didn't have big big ambitions. It couldn't have gotten so spectacularly off-track if it didn't have big ambitions. The plot in a, ahem, nutshell:
We learn that David Pepin, who dreams so vividly of killing his wife, is a vastly successful video game designer who has had great success with worlds crafted after M.C. Escher paintings, worlds that fold back within and out of themselves, and that he is writing a novel. What is his novel about? It is about a man named David Pepin who dreams of killing his wife. After Alice Pepin dies for real, choked to death on a peanut that set off her allergies, detectives arrive to begin the investigation asking, "Did he try to get the peanuts out of her seizing throat or did he force them down her himself?"
There the book sets off into discovering who and what to make of the Pepin marriage. We see their meeting, their courtship, their attempts and failures at having children, and this stuff is utterly fantastic. It is moving, it is vivid and yet still hallucinatory at times. It has the frustrations and the closed offedness of a real relationship, that space that is unknowable to anyone not in the relationship, yet Ross peels it back skillfully for us and shows us how universal it is, if singularly alien.
But then we get on to the detectives and the book veers into something not quite so compelling. We learn of one detective, whose wife goes to bed one day, refusing to get out for months, and this is interesting by itself, a decent short story, though clearly related thematically to the rest of the novel. And the other detective, the partner, is Dr. Sam Sheppard, who has, after being released from prison, moved far away from Ohio to become a police detective. And, yes, that is ambitious, to take a real life historical figure and to run with it, to put that person in some new situations that never happened. And along the way we get the story of the Sheppard marriage, its dissolution, and the eventual murder of Marilyn Reese Sheppard. And the stuff with Sheppard is itself interesting and well written, and I can see what Ross is trying to accomplish here, but these threads don't ever seem to bundle themselves together in any purposeful way. They are there, they want to be related, and despite characters and themes that should make this all sing, it just doesn't quite get there.
It isn't as if I can't draw the lines that Ross wants the readers to draw here, the parallels, the fascination with a case that remains somewhat "unsolved" in the public mind, the curious behaviors of everyone involved in the Sheppard case, and how it in many ways parallels the Pepin story. It's just that it feels like Ross had a short story and two novels that he wanted to mush together into something larger than itself, and for me that gelling just never happens.
When we return to Pepin's story -- the book tends to hop around considerably in time, in focus, and in between fiction and reality -- the detectives have captured a man they believe to be the assassin hired by Pepin to actually murder his wife, a man with the unfortunate character name of Mobius. This is the point where in reading the book I groaned. Mobius? Seriously? Such overt winking at the reader is the province of too-clever by half sophomore creative writing workshop pieces. And it was so jarring that it was hard to get back into the book with the same level of enthusiasm or interest. Whatever are we to do as readers in such a moment? How can we regain our footing in this fictional world and how can we trust the author to guide us?
I'm not saying such reaching out through the page to nudge a reader can't be pulled off successfully, but it works best in the hands of a skilled ironist, and Ross is no ironist. In fact, at the moment of making that observation in my reading, the seriousness of Ross's prose and story-telling began to weigh heavily on me. The prose that had danced in the book's opening pages, now felt like a chore to read. Sure, some of the Sheppard stuff is interesting, but get back to Pepin's case, get back to your novel's heart.
As I see it, the author wants a book that is a puzzle, he wants it to be flexible and friable, mix and matchable. He wants to chop up his narrative and serve us first this piece then that, the entire meal a welter of tastes, one after the other, confounding our expectations. Yet the book marches directly toward its conclusion and the infinite loop that should appear to us as readers is instead merely a moment where we read Pepin's novel then we read Pepin's reality, then we read Pepin's novel again. It isn't confusing or bewildering or unsettling the way it should be, it merely comes off as authorial exhaustion and trickery in place of magic.
Which is, frankly, a damn shame as this book had magic in its opening that I certainly wanted to believe in.