Thursday, November 4, 2010

Impossible constructions: murderous marital exit strategies manifest in Mr. Peanut

Escher's Relativity, 1953

“When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.” The first sentence is already Hitchcokian, drawing us very calmly toward this floating idea, giving words to deep, dark, utterly common fantasies. The first chapter describes David and Alice Pepin’s marriage, 13 years old, childless, and affluent, thanks to David’s successful as a designer of video games, some of which share this novel’s debt to M.C. Escher, the Dutch artist who “invited and then thwarted you efforts to grasp the whole, at the same time making you feel trapped.” Marriage, its potential for ecstasy, but more pointedly its looping traps, is the theme of
Mr. Peanut (HarperCollins, $32.99), US author Adam Ross’ debut. Ross’ grasp of the pitfalls of marriage, of habit and blame, anxiety and miscommunication, is extraordinary and offers little comfort. The vow states till death do us part. Perhaps, sometimes, it’s only natural for one to want death to hurry up already. The walls are closing in.

Adam Ross

There are three marriages—actually four, once we count the stories within stories in Ross’ Escher-esque design. There’s David and Alice, but David’s secretly writing a book, imagining his life as a crime novel, so there’s also “David and Alice,” and this second Alice may or may not have been murdered by David. She’s found on the kitchen floor, having died from anaphylactic shock after eating—or perhaps being force-fed—peanuts. Investigating Detective Hastroll is convinced Pepin’s guilty, perhaps because he understands the matricidal impulse. Hastroll’s wife is, not unlike Alice, nightmarishly passive-aggressive. She hasn’t gotten out of bed for months and won’t tell him why. “Men dream of starting over,” Ross writes. “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… Sitting in the living room, in his favorite chair, with his wife sobbing in her bed for hours on end, Hastroll understood this dream. Sit alone in the dark long enough, he thought, and it seems worth killing for.”

Hastroll’s partner is Detective Sam Sheppard, as in Dr. Sam Sheppard, who in 1954 may or may not have murdered Marilyn Sheppard, whose case may or may not have inspired the television show
The Fugitive and its subsequent film version. Sheppard was convicted, imprisoned, and then later had his conviction overturned and was released. He died in 1970. In Mr. Peanut, he’s alive and well and on the NYPD payroll, yet still shares his real-life counterpart’s tragic past. In Ross’ most evocative narrative strand, the events leading up to Marilyn Sheppard’s death are described in great detail, especially Sheppard’s philandering, which Sheppard at one point considers part of some horrific karmic equation: “…at times he saw her death as being inextricably intertwined with their love, the terrible and logical conclusion of their togetherness, the culmination of a pattern of behaviour on his part that he’d been conscious of but waited too long to put to a stop.”

There are also characters like Nathan Harold, the sensitive, wise, possibly telepathic “disaster liaison” for United Airlines. Like Mobius, the dwarfish wifekiller-for-hire who prompts Sheppard to tell his story from his holding cell, Harold resembles a character out of Haruki Murakami at his most fantastic, not quite of this world yet vivid, and serving a clear narrative purpose. Both are surprisingly compelling, and their perspectives feel integral to the novel.

Dr. Sam Sheppard

Here’s what doesn’t feel integral: a number of overwritten passages, such as the one describing David and Alice's fateful hike in Hawaii, and the two university professors who turn up at the end to hold forth at considerable length on Hitchcock, marriage, and feminism, needlessly announcing themes Ross repeatedly implies elsewhere. Mr. Peanut is comprised of a rich and eerily resonant pair murder mysteries in service of an even better meditation in marriage. It threads its multiple narratives in a manner that’s intricate and fascinating, though its references to Hitchcock are excessive and simplistic, and it seems to want to be a closed circuit and offer a conclusion simultaneously. I’m willing to forgive everything because Ross’ prose is so precise, his observations so insightful, and his ambition is as laudable as it is overextended. The author is, for the record, happily married with children, and living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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