In a recent Slate TV Club , I made a passing mention of Mr. Peanut , the new novel by Adam Ross. Like many reviewers, I portrayed the book as hostile to marriage. Ross saw the mention and wrote a great response, which he has allowed us to reprint here. You can find more of his writing at www.adam-ross.com *. And look out for an upcoming DoubleX Book Club podcast on Mr. Peanut next month.
Adam Ross : I get pinged with Google Alerts about Mr. Peanut , reading some and skipping others, of course, but I caught your mention in Slate and had to respond. You wrote:
That’s a lovely point you make about teenage love, Emily, and I would take it one step further. Its beauty and drama lie precisely in the fact that we know it doesn’t last. I’ve just been reading Mr. Peanut in preparation for our future DoubleX audio book club. Marriage in Adam Ross’ novel is a kind of prison; men obsessively fantasize about killing their wives as their only form of escape. Teenage love is just as intense but has a built-in escape and is thus, by Ross’ standards at least, idyllic.
In what I hope is taken rightly, I’d like to take issue with the comment-especially in terms of degree-because it misses what the novel is trying to examine about male anxiety in marriage as well as modern marriage’s dynamism and complications.
First of all, marriage is a kind of prison for anyone who’s miserable in it-men and women alike-and anyone who’s suffered through difficult periods in marriage dreams of escape from it. The most extreme form of this, which we sadly see played out at least once a week on the news, is spouse murder, committed, more often than not, by men, linked as it is to male rage, something Scott Turow incisively pointed out in his review of the book in the New York Times Book Review . However, if you love your partner, the idea of “escape,” of Escher Exit, in David Pepin’s lingo, is in no way simple, since life without your spouse is paradoxically unimaginable. That the men in the novel as, you say, “obsessively” fantasize about “killing” their wives is lazy, with all due respect, and terribly overstates the theme of uxoricide in the novel. Mr. Peanut is not about a man who dreams of killing his wife; that’s jacket copy, to me. Mr. Peanut is about the dynamism of marriage and the distances-some tragic, some redemptive-that marriages travel over time, and those travels ain’t always pretty. David Pepin, the novel’s protagonist, often fantasizes about his wife’s death; occasionally, and only for the briefest instances, does he contemplate her murder. What he wants is relief from marital discord and the repetitive nature of their suffering.
As for the other male characters, Ward Hastroll, for instance, dreams, once, of murdering his wife, but throughout her five-month self-incarceration in bed, struggles mightily (albeit obtusely and ineffectively) to get her out of bed. Assuming you’re through this part of the book, their Mexican standoff is initiated by Hannah, because she’s trying to get him to understand something absolutely necessary and imperative if they’re going to get beyond this impasse and have children. Does Hastroll dream of other women? Yes, of a cocktail waitress who reminds him of his wife when she was younger, but his desire for her (the Other Hannah) isn’t the puerile desire for some nubile “babe”; it’s the desire for a time before all the fraught history he and his wife have suffered and are suffering. He’s trying to arrive at a more mature idea of love. Aren’t we all? OK, statistically speaking, 50 percent of couples are; the rest bail on the institution and then start over.
Hannah’s attempt to wake her husband up, however unreasonable or extreme, is ultimately effective. At the end of the section, Hastroll, exhausted and in despair, says to his wife, “It’s like you don’t exist,” to which she replies, “Now you finally understand.” She’s wanted him to realize that he’s ignored her existence for too long, that she’s become invisible to him, and her self-incarceration is a desperate act on her part to get him to see her once again. This loss of “sight” is, to my mind, in our PDA, Facebooking, distracted society, the beginning of moral hazard and loss of intimacy in marriage.
Things, of course, are fraught with regard to Sheppard, who at only one point in the novel admits that he once dreamed of his wife’s death (i.e., when he tells Mobius about his first thought when he comes to consciousness on the beach). Sheppard’s wife, according to him, shut down sexually after the birth of their first child. There’s primary source material to support this, though it may have been a convenient justification for serial womanizing on Sheppard’s part, because he claimed she gave him free rein to sleep with other women and that the two of them had what was essentially an open relationship. Given my take on Sheppard’s character, that may well have been the case (i.e., that he was a self-justifying egoist). However, his relationship with Susan Hayes, his three-year mistress, is complicated on numerous levels, and points to all sorts of modern marital conflicts. I don’t think I need to enumerate these, but Marilyn was a stay-at-home mother, Sheppard’s high school sweetheart with whom he’d been involved since he was 14 (this is mentioned in the book), and with whom he’d gone through numerous rough patches. Susan Hayes, meanwhile, was someone Sheppard worked with, did emergency calls with, someone with whom he spent the majority of his work days, and the intimacy/sexual relationship that developed between them is something we love watching these days on Mad Men , but isn’t something we necessarily want to think about with regard to our own spouses. For Sheppard, as I portray it, their relationship-his with Hayes-began to shift into something like marriage as opposed to being an escape from it. Or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps she was his motive for killing his wife, if he did. The Sheppard section is fraught with all sorts of ironies, not to mention the fact that he’s an unreliable narrator. But to say that any of these characters see teenage love as “idyllic” would be to utterly misread the novel.
I hope you’ll realize that Mr. Peanut is a novel of regret; it’s narrated by a man, David Pepin, who cannot encounter what is right before him in life directly, but only by way of avatars, by way of the virtual, by way of the recaptured and the aesthetic. By games. He is like Sheppard because he realizes what is right before him, what is necessary and vital to his life, too late-and this, to my mind, is the worst nightmare that could ever befall a person. It’s also a novel of recognitions. The reader reading it may say, yes, I’ve been there in my relationship with my spouse. My hope would be that an honest recognition might prevent that reader from slipping into moral hazard. It’s also his attempt-David’s, that is-to expand his heart and soul by way of an aesthetic enterprise (writing a novel that’s his most complex, inescapable game ever), which is why, of course, Marilyn takes over the book for a while.
I hope you read it with some of these things in mind, and if I am misreading what you’re saying or implying, my apologies, but because the novel’s point of view is largely male, I’d hate to see it broadsided because of its attempt to expose certain aspects of male consciousness and anxiety. But I can assure you of this: It’s a pro-marriage, pro-consciousness book. Its characters tell ugly secrets and think ugly thoughts, but they think hopeful thoughts, too, and a couple of them seize the moment and enjoy enduring or (tragically) brief happiness.
We should all be careful what we wish for.
* Correction, July 31, 2010: The original version of this post listed Adam Ross’s website incorrectly.