Wednesday August 11th, 2010

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

peanutRoss’ debut novel describes the marriage of David and Alice Pepin. Alice, who’s allergic to peanuts, is found dead with one lodged in her throat. The cops assigned to figure out whether David is to blame have serious relationship issues of their own. The book, a thorough investigation of marriage with references to video-game design, M. C. Escher, and Möbius strips, has received praise for its prose and condemnation for its cleverness. This dual reaction is found in almost every major review.

In the Guardian, Christopher Tayler writes that “the book’s emotional authority drains away as Ross works up to multiple Atonement-style trick endings, piling up somewhat hackneyed motifs suggestive of recursion (mirrors, Möbius strips).” But: “All the same, it’s an impressive first novel, and there’s no question that the people who signed Ross up had shrewd eyes for talent, a quality he’s jumping with.”

Michiko Kakutani calls Ross a “literary gymnast,” “a sorcerer with words,” who has “David Foster Wallace-like descriptive powers.” And yet? “[T]he novel’s wildly ambitious, Nabokovian architecture — and its author’s heavy use of theme and variation — feels self-conscious and contrived. . . . Mr. Ross has ended up not with a jigsaw picture that clicks weirdly and perfectly together, but rather with a heap of mirror fragments lying jumbled together.” Her conclusion of “dark, dazzling and deeply flawed” is a pretty good summation of the book’s reviews.

Calling Ross a writer of “prodigious talent” on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, Scott Turow says, “Mr. Peanut requires considerable decoding. This can be annoying, a little like going to a dinner party where all the guests seem bright and amiable but insist on speaking another language. Yet over all, the novel is an enormous success — forceful and involving, often deeply stirring and always impressively original.”

Getting the picture? But not all critics are so conflicted. In the Wall Street Journal, Alexander Theroux accentuates the negative: “Mr. Peanut is positively overlarded with excesses, creating a tedium that might rival that of the worst marriage.” Conversely, at Bookslut, Second Pass contributor Richard Wirick comes closest to unqualified praise, writing, “Like [Edward] Albee and [Richard] Yates, Ross has a staggering gift (especially in such a young writer) for portraying marriage as the most universal and yet mysterious, sometimes unfathomable of relationships.” But even Wirick expresses some irritation at the book’s structural tricks, which he finds unnecessary: “Can’t anyone tell a straight-ahead story anymore?”

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95