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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, which is launching in June 2011.

Other People's Words

Nov 24, 2008

5 comments

Louisiana Alba is the author of Uncorrected Proof, which I heart, so I asked if she would write something just for me (and you lit-lovers). Here ’tis:

Italians have a phrase: non mettere le mani avanti, don’t put your hands out in front (to prevent the fall you fear). Let the scholars sort out my fictions. I am trading here on memory and instinct alone, a dangerous line, I know, particularly as I was going to do a piece on Windschuttle and other historical fabrications. Do you know Windschuttle? Does anyone care? No? Then, I best leave him for another time.

Nam Le has just won the Dylan Thomas Prize. This is no small prize and no small feat, I said to myself, then realised I was staring at my own. My feet were the only feet in the room. I was intrigued though I confess I didn’t know Nam Le’s work before I went online and ordered the one copy of The Boat held by the British Library. The book of The Boat. The Boat in book form. It says a lot about the focus of readers in London that it hadn’t been snapped up already. After the Booker Prize shortlist was announced every copy of every book the BL had by every writer on the damn list was in use. Hell, what’s going on? I said at the time.

Nam Le, who is he? When no answers came I could interpret I webbed wider to find out more. I came upon: ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, from The Boat itself.  I read the screen-printed story. Even in the twenty-first century I still find it hard to read fiction this way. Yet Nam Le had me hooked with his first words. The Boat had cast me a line. ‘LHPPCS’ is a fine and good story, as Hemingway might have said. I saw echoes, or imagined I did. Thom Jones’s an-American-in-Vietnam stories, what was Nam Le doing here, a parody of memoir technique developed by a writer come writing-teacher in an Iowa writing school? Many stylistic lines from many American short story writers crossed my eye-line, Le skilfully self-addressing the author, wannabe, manqué throughout. 

Thom Jones is still on that Iowa program I believe. I have long admired his work and parody him in Uncorrected Proof. Judging by ‘LHPPCS’, I feel no less strongly about Nam Le’s capacities, finding the comments of praise I saw this morning true and right down to the last syllable. Hemingway is an apt voice to mention as well, I suspect, for what happens at the end of ‘LHPPCS’ happens to the Hemingwayesque character in The Garden of Eden as well – the writing and story of both characters ending up…No, I can’t say it either.

Let me be frank or… Nam Le. This writing strikes more than one chord, literary and life chords. When I first left Australia, after university and film school, my first assignment abroad was to film a boat full of ex-Vietnamese hitting land in southern Thailand. Pure fate. It was only the second time I had professionally put an Eclair 16mm camera up on my shoulder, only the second time I had used one live full-stop.  As I clambered about the decks of beached boats, sweat running in my eyes, the stench of summer in the Gulf of Thailand all around, somehow I kept the excitement of the waving forms motoring towards me in focus, somehow I maintained the other arrivees close-by in frame, somehow I didn’t end up in that murky Thai seaside drink all sides up. All along I had no idea I would revisit this plot and theme several times in my life.

I move on to Hong Kong filming and producing two more films on escapees from a hell on wheels inside Vietnam, to a fate far worse than the Thai camps, if my olfactory memory of the warehouses along Hong Kong’s Pearl Harbour serves me well. My fourth and last experience is back in Sydney six years later, making a film for Special Broadcasting Service on a need some Vietnamese children developed for writing up their experiences. In a Strange Land, one girl titled her poem, or was it tilted, living out a nightmarish late childhood horror that was Cabramatta, or as some Australians casually called it back then, Vietnamatta. Reading Nam Le brings it all back.

What is Nam Le’s ‘LHPPCS’ all about then? Writing in Iowa? Growing up in Australia? Relationships? Remembering Mum? Revisiting or leaving Vietnam behind? Getting onto livable terms with Dad? Memory in ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ is a wonderfully cruel trick. We live and die by it along with his character in the same instant. Nam Le’s memoir, the memory of his life’s truths as laid out in fiction, is an examination of a fictionalised ‘ex-Boat person’ narrated in such an unadorned air of truth that if the other stories in the collection are even half as good, then I know in truth I am in for even more of this rare treat.

Can’t wait to see what she says after reading the rest! – LM