Monday, April 18, 2011

Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross

I reached for this novel after reading two reviews of it in the New York Times.  Both reviewers acknowledged that it is flawed, but they agreed that it's a highly creative and audacious first novel, and they praised Ross' portrayals of marriage in the middle years.  One of the reviewers -- a novelist himself -- attended a writing programme with Ross, and he recalled their august teacher shuddering at the thought of writing about the institution of marriage -- often done, rarely done well, he claimed.  

It's a difficult plot to summarize, since it has three threads, and it shifts back and forth between decades. The primary character, David Pepin, is the founder and president of a virtual reality game software company, who is also in the process of writing a novel about his own marriage.  The reader quickly loses her footing: Is the narrative really happening, or is it a chapter of David Pepin's novel within Adam Ross' novel? David's wife is Alice, who has been battling her weight and depression for years. In the early pages, Alice falls over dead after eating a plate full of peanuts, to which she is allergic. The police wonder, was this a suicide, or was it murder?  Was David trying to fish the peanuts out of her mouth to save her, or was he forcing them in?  They find a draft of his novel, in which he wonders what his life would be like if Alice were dead.  

Each of the three threads of the story focuses upon a marriage:  David and Alice Pepin, and those of the two detectives investigating the case of Alice's death.  This is the aspect that the reviewers lauded, and I agree, Ross captures the mid-life marriage ennui without falling into a pit of cliches.  In avoiding those cliches, though, has he also steered too wide of realism?  I think a lot of wives in their 40s will empathize with Alice as she battles her obesity, and her self-image takes a further battering after five miscarriages due to a clotting disorder.  The story, however, is told from David's point of view, so we only see Alice's tantrums and frustration through his eyes.  He loves her. He wants her and needs her and is genuinely mystified as to what is going on in her head.  Simultaneously, he fantasizes about her death.  Not killing her per se, but what his life might be like if she just... died.  Likewise, one of the detectives cannot fathom why his wife came home from work one day, went to bed, and hasn't gotten up in the intervening five months.  He fantasizes momentarily about smashing her head with a brick -- maybe her exposed brain would give him some idea of what she was thinking.  These husbands desperately want to know what's going on with their wives, and the wives are either unable or unwilling to tell them.  

I would very much like to discuss this book with people who have soldiered through the middle years of marriage.  What about the novel rang especially true or false to them?  Which of Ross' characterizations were most astute?  And which just seemed wrong?   As someone who can't assess this from my own experience (being perennially single), I don't think I fully appreciated what the critics hailed as the most effective aspect of the book.  I was content to finish it and put it down.  And to remain single.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.