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.
Miss Olympia is an emotional, hunchbacked albino dwarf, and the complex narrator of this wonderful novel. In the present, Oly secretly watches over the remaining members of her carnival-of-freaks family: her daughter, Miranda, and her mother, Crystal Lil. Why her observance and care is secretive is revealed through a long, rich, detailed history of the Binewski family, which makes up the bulk of Geek Love.
The Binewskis were a carnival family – and a deliberately constructed band of freaks. Papa Al Binewski and Mama Crystal Lil experimented with drugs and other methods to create malformed children. Their greatest successes were Arturo, the Aqua Boy (sprouting fin-like limbs); Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia; and a baby boy, Fortunato, nicknamed Chick, whose power was too awesome to even be revealed to the public. Chick looked like a ‘norm’ and so held a complex position in the family – being simultaneously envied and chastised, abused and berated, particularly by Arturo (or Arty).
Much of the drama in the novel comes from the intense emotional connections, undercurrents, and power-plays within the family – particularly in relation to the potently jealous though rapturously charismatic and manipulative Arty. Arty, through the course of the novel, even ends up with his own cult of followers: emotional ‘freaks’ who choose to remove body parts to become externally what they are on the inside. Oly’s life is devoted to Arty, she loves and slaves for him. She is affected by the hurt he inflicts on others but always returns to his altar. Later in life Oly is still susceptible to the pull of a different tortured and destructive being, but is wiser to the origins of the woman’s sympathy.
Oly was luckily blessed with an engaging show-voice and so escaped the fate of another ‘useless’ Binewski experiment – a child who wasn’t quite freakish enough and who expired when a pillow ‘fell on her head’. Several failed survivors – at fetus or infant stage – were also on display in jars on the Fabulon Carnival showgrounds.
It’s tempting to tell you every wonderful little thing about this book but so much of the joy in reading it is the compelling way it’s structured so that you know a conflict, a resolution, a conflict and a big resolution are due – and then it is constantly and joyfully surprising just how the author makes those conflicts and resolutions unfold. There are moments of laughter, horror and knowing. There is emotional engagement (and struggle), there is sexual tension, there are moments where you have sick in your throat. There is also a complete immersion in the smells, colours and sounds: ‘The sky above Molalla was aching blue but I walked from Arty’s tent to our van in the same air I’d sucked all my life. It was a Binewski blend of lube grease, dust, popcorn, and hot sugar. We made that air and we carried it with us. The Fabulon’s light was the same in Arkansas as in Idaho – the patented electric dance of the Binewskis.’
Little Chick is a heart-breaking, memorable and magical character. But it’s not just the family featured in the novel. Dunn holds together a cast far larger: Fabulon workers like the redheads, the pin-cushion kid, the nurse, the legless McGurk, a reporter who begins as an outsider and is then pulled in, and a terrifying man with no face.
Geek Love was a National Book Award finalist in 1989. From what I’ve been told (by my lovely partner who recommended the book to me) it is not so easy to get these days, but it is somewhat a cult classic – and I can absolutely see why. Besides the absolute richness of the world and story, its cohesiveness and compelling nature, the writing itself is inventive, surprising and delicious:
‘I have certainly mourned for myself. I have wallowed in grief for the lonesome, deliberate seep of my love into the air like the smell of uneaten popcorn greening to rubbery staleness. In the end I would always pull up with a sense of glory, that loving is the strong side. It’s feeble to be an object. What’s the point of being loved in return, I’d ask myself. To warm my spine in the dark? To change the face in my mirror every morning? It was none of Arty’s business that I loved him. It was my secret ace, like a bluebird tattooed under pubic hair or a ruby tucked up my ass.’
Geek Love was Dunn’s third book and after that she was working on a fourth novel, called The Cut Man. That novel has still not been released, though a fantastic excerpt appeared in The Paris Review this year, called ‘Rhonda Discovers Art’. Try not to want to read more! Though it seems a long time between novels, Dunn has been busy with nonfiction books, magazine writing, radio and more. There’s an extensive interview with her, from 2009, here. When my partner was in New York earlier this year he attended a show which was a tribute to Geek Love and included a spoken word rendition of one of his favourite Dunn poems. You can read about that here (scroll down to mention of Geek Chic). Geek Love itself took many years to write and I think it shows – it’s truly something rich and delicious. If you haven’t checked out Geek Love and like freaky, lovely, meaty things – do.
When a man is fired from his job in the story ‘A Glutton for Punishment’, he realises he has enjoyed the failures in his life. The character in this – like many of the other characters in Richard Yates’ Collected Stories – runs over a conversation in his head, with his wife, before the actual conversation takes place. Reading this book is having a conversation with failure – your own projected shortcomings (gone over in your head), the misfires of your past, and the failures of everybody around you (including those who fail to perceive said failures).
Yates is often called a ‘depressing’ writer, but most of these stories are as equally humorous as they are sad. ‘The Best of Everything’ is about a couple on the day before they wed. Revealed to the reader are their niggling doubts – all the things we know will become stalwart issues in their marriage, itches turning to reddened sores – such as the way the man says ‘terlet’ for toilet; the way he needs his mates; and the way he doesn’t notice her new negligee. It’s humorous because anyone who has been in any kind of romantic relationship will recognise the compromises, and will smile at their depiction. It’s sad for much the same reason – because these unfortunate perceptions ring true.
Another joy of these stories is Yates’ charming, unencumbered (very American) prose. Unlike something like The Catcher in the Rye, the language doesn’t feel dated, here, but drags you back a few decades while simultaneously making you realise how much is the same (in intimate human relationships). Even Yates’ later stories (none are actually dated here, which is a tad annoying) have this element of ‘politeness’ – a façade of ‘getting along’ when there is ohso much bubbling beneath the surface. Many of the characters do seem resolved to their fates, despite moments of piercing aloneness, such as the characters in the tuberculosis ward in ‘No Pain Whatsoever’; or Ken, in ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’ – who accepts the fact he is perpetually over-eager and physically awkward.
There are a couple of stories set in the TB ward. Yates himself spent time in one after the war. Other settings include domestic spaces, offices and in military training facilities and war zones (though combat is not explored). The stories are set mainly in the state of New York – the city and its affluent suburbs; London; and LA. The LA story ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ is another one of my favourites, and all because of this:
‘By the time Jack had taken to drinking heavily and not writing much – not even doing much of the anonymous, badly paid hackwork that had provided his income for years, though he still managed to do enough of that to meet alimony payments – and he had begun to see himself, not without a certain literary satisfaction, as a tragic figure.
‘His two small daughters frequently came in from the country to spend weekends with him, always wearing fresh, bright clothes that were quick to wilt and get dirty in the damp and grime of his terrible home, and one day the younger girl announced in tears that she wouldn’t take showers there anymore because of the cockroaches in the shower stall. At last, after he’d swatted and flushed away every cockroach in sight, and after a lot of coaxing, she said she guessed it would be okay if she kept her eyes shut – and the thought of her standing blind in there behind the mildewed plastic curtain, hurrying, trying not to shift her feet near the treacherously swarming drain as she soaped and rinsed herself, made him weak with remorse.’
Some of the stories are from the point of view of children, such as ‘Doctor Jack-O-Lantern’, where a disadvantaged, lonely new kid, Vinny, both seeks and pushes away the care his teacher bestows on him. Her caring is so alien and difficult for him it causes him to act out. It’s incredibly moving (as most of them are) and so skillfully rendered – you’re right there in the microcosm of this classroom with its smells, strange intimacies and dangers.
In fact, one of Yates’ biggest strengths is the way he gets you in so close to the characters – so close you can hear their thoughts and plans and see their hearts ticking – yet simultaneously at a distance so that you may see how they are perceived in the greater scheme of things. Yates suggests both compassion and pity through this kind of writing – and not just for the characters on the page, but for the person sitting next to you, and even for your own stupid, small (and often joyous) existence.
I love this book. I have talked about it to everyone as I’ve been reading it. I found all my friends in it. I found myself, uncomfortably, romantically, sadly, truthfully, in it.
Sally says to Jack in ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’: ‘Why don’t you just come over here so we can sort of fall all over each other.’
It’s a book to sort of fall all over… again and again.
You might like to revisit the ‘Read and Seen’ review of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, by myself and Mr Celluloid Tongue.