Guest review: Alice Grundy on Mr Peanut by Adam Ross

Vintage, 9780099535379
(Aus, UK, US)

Reviewed by Alice Grundy

The cover of Adam Ross’ first novel, Mr Peanut, is swathed in praise from no lesser lights than Stephen King and Michiko Kakutani. The title page features a reproduction of Escher’s ‘Mobius’ flagging the role of the double in the plot. All the signs point towards a serious literary work. One which is dark and twisted.

And Mr Peanut is indeed a disturbing book, opening as it does with a husband – who happens to share my husband’s name – plotting to kill his wife, who happens to share my name. David is a successful games designer, working secretly away on a first-person novel. He’s become tired of his life and is struggling in his relationship with his obese wife. Barely 20 pages in, David is sitting in an interrogation room, the detectives having concluded he’s killed Alice. Not least of their evidence is David’s novel in which the protagonist, David, hires a hitman to murder his wife, Alice.

To further complicate matters, David’s questioner is Sam Sheppard, a fictionalised version of the 20th century American doctor who was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, but was then acquitted after ten years in prison. In Mr Peanut, Sheppard has turned detective and judges David to be ‘Guilty, guilty as sin’.

The middle section of Mr Peanut takes place in 1950s America. It retells the Sam Sheppard story from the perspectives of Marilyn, the murdered wife, Richard, the cleaner and Sheppard himself. Ross’ imagining of this time vibrates with as much energy as the contemporary sections, with added tension generated by our modern imaginings of what kind of life Marilyn could have expected if she’d been born as a bright middle-class woman fifty years later. His characters are people we know; their internal lives are fully formed. Each of them is at the centre of their own universe.  The exception to this is Alice who always feels a little under-realised. But perhaps this is intentional given this is a book about marriage, its overwhelming intimacies and irrevocable distances. It seems Alice remains something of a shell because David is never quite able to comprehend all of her.

The novel spirals in on itself, winding tight like a slinky as the final third returns us to David’s meta-fictional project; his novel, and Alice’s remarkable transformation shedding tens of kilos and the days which lead up to her death.

While the plot is twisty and the devices self-proclaiming, I prefer to read an exciting project – a suggestion for the future of the novel – as Ross offers here. For the first time in a while, reading this debut novel made me feel as if I’d struck on something new. Last year, with the release of Franzen’s Freedom and the associated media frenzy over dark-rimmed glasses and Oprah’s Book Club, I was feeling flat about the future of fiction. Certainly Franzen is a master of his craft but I wasn’t excited at the prospect of reading him. I didn’t fly through the pages and wish that I could read them again for the first time to feel that shiver of wordy delight. When the world feels as if it’s collapsing, reading needs to feel essential.

At times it does seem as though Ross’ devices are overtaking their characters or that, at other moments, the plot has been over-exposed – perhaps for fear of losing readers in the complexity – and so the images become washed out. But for the most part this is a genuinely scintillating read. It is not only intellectually stimulating but has that special quality, the reason why we still reach out for greatness, of making time seem irrelevant and the world fall away.

Alice Grundy lives in Sydney and works in publishing by day. By night she edits a magazine for new writing, Seizure.

A mini-diary of Perth Writers Festival 2011

Thursday

On the flight over I read Jonah Lehrer, watch Animal Planet and listen to Philip Glass and Emily Haines. Nathan Scolaro picks me up at the airport and on the drive we discuss some of the festival authors. Nathan asks if I’ve read Armistead Maupin and I say, unfortunately, no. He loves Tales Of The City. I’m chatty and full of energy. I check into Rydges and do some more prep for my sessions. I spend the evening alone.

Friday

I wake at 5am and watch the sun come up, through my 14th-floor window. There are good things about jetlag. I rise and continue to (over)prepare for the day’s ‘Publishing A-Z’ sessions. You can read about how the day panned out here.

Opening night is titled ‘Truth and Fiction’ and ends up being about ‘truth in fiction’, for the most part. It features novelist Anjali Joseph, philosopher Raymond Gaita, biographer Lyndall Gordon, twice Man Booker nominated Damon Galgut, scientist Tim Flannery and Man Asia Literary Prize winner (and cute) Miguel Syjuco. It feels like 10pm already and I start to take notes but it’s hard to do that as well as listen closely, so I give up. Galgut reads a story about a woman who is trying to figure out if her boyfriend is lying or not; Flannery speaks about the benefit of ‘models’ in science, ‘giving us a probabilistic assessment of how things might work out'; Syjuco wisely suggests that perhaps the only truthful fact is transparent artifice (ie. fiction), and that ‘the best literature never makes us think, but teaches us to think for ourselves’. Later at the party there is a discussion between a few of us on Miguel’s choice of the words ‘special place’ for an elephant, and ‘penis’ for a mosquito, in his opening joke. At the party I meet many people, including Andrew O’Hagan and Richard Lloyd Parry. Both are lovely and Parry’s book (People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman) comes highly recommended by Chris Womersley. The wine shakes off the fatigue for a bit.

I’m on the late bus home where a shan’t-be-named author does the robot. There is one more drink at the hotel bar.

Saturday

I wake, too early again, regretting the ‘one more drink’. With powerade and panadol in tow I arrive at the festival ready to chair my session with Kirsten Tranter and Sophie Gee. I’ve recovered sufficiently to steer the ship and steer it competently. The session is full, including people standing at the back. Kirsten and Sophie are supremely erudite, speaking about the classics they’ve studied, enjoyed and taught, from 17th Century Renaissance literature, to Jane Austen, Henry James and even hard-boiled detective fiction.

In the afternoon I meet up with a writer friend from Perth and we’re joined by others. In the evening I attend the Text Publishing drinks and am treated to being sandwiched between three writers with science backgrounds: Tim Flannery, Bernard Beckett and Toni Jordan. I meet Flannery and Beckett for the first time and they’re equally intelligent and kind. I stay relatively quiet, and absorb. After just one G&T, I’m done. I’m in bed by 10.

Sunday

In the morning I share the stage with Lev Grossman, Geordie Williamson and James Bradley (Grossman and Bradley pictured left). John Harman is our chair. We are speaking on the ‘death of print’, and it’s the kind of panel where the audience tuts and murmurs. I have so much adrenaline going on when I’m on stage I don’t take everything in, but I think we all agree that print and ebooks will coexist; and that we both are and aren’t in the middle of a revolution. I only don’t really agree with Geordie when he says he thinks the medium will shape the material. He brings up enhanced ebooks, etc. Maybe I’m an optimist, but my thought is that with dedicated ereaders (where you can’t just click through to a browser etc.) the reading experience doesn’t change much at all, it’s just a different capsule for a book. But his point about the first books looking like manuscripts (until they found their own form) was a good one. Nonetheless, I think there’ll still be a place for ‘book’ books.

There are so many factors shaping the publishing industry, we barely touch on many of them. It’s really a big topic for a one hour session, but it’s also a topic that could (and does) go in loops, and it’s all opinion and speculation. My main thought is simply: don’t panic.

I’ll add that this panel is great for me, too, in that I admire the work of the three other panelists. While my aspirations might not be precisely to be in positions like theirs, James and Lev, in particular, show me it’s possible to write novels (and literary, genre novels at that) and balance that writing with reviews and long-form articles and criticism. And I have to add, I had no idea Geordie was so young and so charming. He’s one of those rare people who possesses a deep memory and sharp intellect; he references history, politics and literature (completely without pretension) in conversation. I look forward to having more conversations with him in the future.

I hang around the festival on Sunday, have a nice chat with Mark Tredinnick in the Green Room and record an ‘Off the Shelf’ with Sarah L’Estrange from Radio National. I sit in on Geordie Williamson’s session with Simon Armitage – simply because I’m not at all familiar with the poet/novelist/lyricist/musician’s work. Armitage reads beautifully the poems ‘The Shout’, ‘Causeway’, ‘The Christening’, ‘An Accomodation’ and others. Some funny, some dark, and some song like. His new collection is a departure from his others, apparently, in that they are story poems. He was looking for something to ‘refresh’ his voice. Teaching at Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the US was an ‘expansive’ experience, as was reading James Tate’s story poems. He says there still seems to be an interest in poetry in Britain, among the ‘common reader’, and that is who he writes for. One of his first influences was Ted Hughes, read at age 14: ‘whole worlds were opening up.’ He discovered that it was ‘magical’ and ‘miraculous’ that the letters of the alphabet could be put in the right order and that would ‘make something electrifying happen in a reader’s mind’.

Sunday evening I chair an intimate session in the darkening Sunken Gardens at UWA. Toni Jordan, Brenda Walker and Sophie Gee share their ‘desert island’ books. Brenda gives an eloquent description of Anna Karenina, then speaks of Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies and touches on Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Sophie has chosen favourites Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Mrs Dalloway. Toni’s choices are books that would keep her engaged and sustained, ones that are more challenging (and thick): Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. We get the audience to join in and share theirs and Toni writes them down for me. I might publish that little list on the blog soon.

Back at the hotel, there are about ten or twelve of us around a table. I chat mostly with Antony Loewenstein and Chris Womersley. It’s great to catch up with Antony and hear about the projects he’s working on – worthy projects, books about human welfare and human rights.

Monday

I finally sleep to 7am. I do some work in the hotel and go for a walk at lunch time. Everything is closed because of the public holiday. I head to the festival in the afternoon and James Bradley introduces me to ‘Damn You Autocorrect’. I cry with laughter.

There is a reception and Dennis Haskell rattles off some statistics about our dire publishing industry, and gives a tribute to Hazel Rowley. Geordie Williamson encourages me to drink more wine before the Andrew O’Hagan closing address. When we get in to the auditorium, Geordie says ‘let’s live-tweet this one’. ‘Okay’, I say, thinking it will be fun to do it in tandem with the Australian‘s chief literary critic. Half-way through I realise Geordie has no signal and I’m on my own. O’Hagan is a fantastic speaker on the complex role of the west, but I become a little lost when he starts telling the people of Perth they can become a ‘new west’. That wine has gone straight through me and I have to squeeze past people and miss the ending.

Dinner follows, and I get to meet Adam Ross (author of Mr Peanut). For the millionth time at this festival I’m privy to a conversation between men about their small children. Gives me mixed feelings of alienation and youthful happiness. Good to know these things about smeared poo and no time to work before deciding to have any of my own. The dinner (on King St) is delicious – tender lamb, polenta mash, parmesan.

Tuesday

As we ride to the airport we discuss Kirsten Tranter’s wonderful article for International Women’s Day on the disparity between male and female reviewers, and male and female books being reviewed in the Australian mainstream pages. I’m sitting next to Fiona McGregor and we’ve just had a conversation about transgression and consumerism and I feel that warm feeling that comes at the end of a festival, of having spent time with intelligent, talented and politically-minded people. Of having learnt a thing or two.

Thanks to the authors on my panels, and those of you I got to speak to in between things. It was such a great pleasure. And thanks so much to everyone who came to my sessions and to those of you who said hello at the end – it’s lovely to meet the people who read this blog. Hope you continue to enjoy it.