Adam Ross’s acclaimed 2010 debut novel, Mr. Peanut, now available in paperback from Vintage Books, is one of the most intriguing pieces of fiction to come along in recent years. It is the kind of book that keeps readers guessing from the first page, and may well leave them still guessing when they get to the last. Those readers who are fond of neatly tied up linear narratives will more than likely find themselves tearing their hair at Ross’s intricately convoluted story of marriage, mayhem, and murder. Those readers content to live with mysteries that they may well never quite understand, but are happy enough with the trying will have plenty of mystery to keep them happily turning pages.
Mr. Peanut’s plot is so rich in complex twists and turns that no summary can do it justice. It works on multiple levels and branches out in different directions, so that it is often difficult to distinguish between dreams, imagination, and reality. Suffice it to say that it concerns the marriage of computer game mogul, David Pepin and his wife, Alice, a teacher of an emotionally disturbed youth with a weight problem and a peanut allergy. Their marriage, despite his assertions of his love for her, is as dysfunctional as anything Edward Albee ever imagined. The narrative doesn’t follow a simple chronological order, but scoots back and forth over the years of their relationship. They met in college in a class on Alfred Hitchcock’s motion pictures, and the book is filled with sly allusions to the director’s oeuvre, many more allusions than this reviewer recognized. David is also writing a novel about his life with Alice, a novel in which he imagines she has been killed, and when she does in fact die, it is not always easy to distinguish between his life and his novel.
Embedded in David’s story are the stories of two other dysfunctional marriages. There are two detectives assigned to investigate the case. One has a wife who has mysteriously taken to her bed and refuses to leave it. The other it turns out is the famous Dr. Sam Sheppard who went to prison for killing his wife and then had his conviction overturned. Pepin and the two detectives are all men who are having problems with their wives; they are all men who seem to find their women enigmatic creatures. They are all men who have thoughts about terminating their marriages in one way or another. It is perhaps easiest to think about the three strains as variations on a theme. In fact in some sense this is the most appropriate way to see the novel as a whole.
For most of Mr. Peanut, the literary ancestors that came most often to mind were the experimental French novelists of the middle of the 20th century who were the creators of what was then called the New Novel, especially the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet’s novels never move in a linear fashion, moreover the reader can never be sure about what is actually happening, what is dream, what is the description of a picture or a photograph, what is wishful thinking on the part of the narrator. Ross’s narrative follows a similar non-linear pattern. Alice complains to Pepin at one point that he looks at life in terms of straight lines but he needs to think of it in terms of cycles. The book is filled with references to the illusionist work of the artist M.C. Escher: pictures where stairs going up turn into stairs going down, floors become ceilings, hands draw each other. He creates a world which doesn’t seem to follow any of the laws of the natural world we live in. The otherworldly Mobius Strip is perhaps the one image from Escher’s work that is the most apt metaphor for Ross’s book. Not only is there a villainous character who is named Mr. Mobius, but the idea of a narrative that is constantly turning in on itself, without anything that can be a beginning or an end seems a very nice description of Ross’s method.
Of course, Robbe-Grillet insisted that it was a mistake to try and make any realistic sense out of his work. Realism was, in fact, what he was trying to avoid. The reader who was trying to find some logical peg to hang onto, some moral or psychological truth to life — that reader was doing exactly the wrong thing. Robbe-Grillet wants a reader who is content to dwell in mystery, to revel in the non-sequitur. Mimetic representation of life was not what he was after; meaning was the thing to be avoided. I doubt Ross goes that far. By the time you get to the end of the novel, there is clearly a reasonable explanation of events that will satisfy many readers; still he does offer other possibilities. In this sense the ending of the novel is reminiscent of John Fowles’ classic The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Life is never neat, and a neat ending to a novel is merely an oversimplification.
Mr. Peanut will frustrate many; many will find it fascinating. Put me in the latter camp. This is book to be read and read again. There will always be something new to think about. Even the title, it has so many ramifications that it boggles the mind. Alice is allergic to peanuts, and perhaps dies from the allergy. She calls the baby she carries earlier in their marriage peanut. The actual Mr. Peanut appears in a commercial on TV the night Marilyn Sheppard is killed. The description of Mr. Mobius is fairly close to the advertising icon. Indeed the shape of the peanut is not that much different from the shape of a Mobius strip. All this may mean something. I suspect it does. If it were Robbe-Grillet writing, we’d probably do well to leave it alone; on the other hand, with Ross, one reading may be too soon to give up.
I may not be able to explain everything that happens. I certainly didn’t catch all the allusions. I may not be sure what it all means. What I am sure of is that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I know I will be reading it again.
Back awhile ago, the Slate Double X Gabfest book club held a discussion about Mr. Peanut. I have it on my iPod. I didn’t listen to it at the time because I hadn’t yet read the book and I wanted to form my own opinions without a little help from my friends. Now that I have read and written about it, I’m going to listen to the podcast, and if there’s anything illuminating I’ll be back with Mr. Peanut redux.