Viewing an M.C. Escher painting inspires fascination and frustration. My feelings waver between total awe that he is able to fit all these figures into one uninterrupted whole and the feeling that—as remarkable as the picture may be—it's just too perfect, too forced, to work.
Reading "Mr. Peanut" by Adam Ross (Knopf, 2010, $25.95), I had the same kinds of feelings. After all, not only is there an Escher painting on the title page of the book, but the protagonist, David Pepin, is designing, of all things, a video game entitled "Escher X," in which players must navigate through Escher's paintings.
If, at this point in the review, you're already confused, it's OK. I would be, too, because I've realized over the past few days that trying to describe "Mr. Peanut"—like trying to describe an M.C. Escher painting—is nearly impossible, for better or worse.
The book tells the story of three men stuck in failing marriages. Two of them are detectives, Ward Hastroll and Sam Sheppard, investigating the murder of Alice Pepin, the tragically obese wife of David, to whom we are introduced at the beginning of the novel with the following lines:
"When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God."
In the case of Alice, however, we learn that what actually kills her is not a "convenient act of God" but a peanut allergy. Alice dies in her apartment after eating (or perhaps being forced to eat by her killer) a handful of peanuts to which she has a fatal allergy. Allegedly, David witnesses Alice downing the peanuts, and he is a prime suspect for her murder.
The story is compounded when we learn that Hastroll's wife has been inexplicably (and voluntarily) bed-ridden for over five months, while Sheppard was initially convicted of his wife's murder, and spent a number of years in prison before being exonerated.
And so what starts as a story about one man's marital problems becomes a linear spectrum of dysfunctional marriages in three stages: frustration, murder and recovery.
"Either way, like the Escher drawings that inspire the video games David designs for a living, (the marriages are) supposed to interlock to form another pattern, to be dynamic in their interaction. As the novel progresses, the reader should feel a more intense oscillation between the parts and the whole," the author explained in a publicist's interview.
Herein lies both my attraction and aversion to the story. While, like any Escher, it is remarkably intricate and planned-out, the story suffers from too many patterns, coincidences and similarities. Things seem to fit too well, and while it may be what the author wants, the lack of focus on one particular marriage can be discouraging to a reader deciding whether or not to finish the book.
Still, I recommend "Mr. Peanut" because of Adam Ross' ability to capture the intricateness of marriage and love.
In a scene in which David and Alice are swimming in dangerously rough seas off a beach in Hawaii, Ross writes: "Terrible things happened when minor calculations like that were made. ... Somehow he needed to make things up to her. To show her that for as long as they'd been together, for better or worse, she'd always been foremost in his thoughts. Why did he require her absence to realize this?" It is just days after Alice's first miscarriage, and the tension within the relationship, like that of the ocean's current, is captivating.
"Just as Escher's etchings contain forms interlocked with others, so too is every marriage's success interlocked with its potential destruction. Time and circumstance and every other unforeseeable thing can send the happiest couples spiraling into misery and, especially in the novel, potential violence," Ross explained in the interview. "All three marriages in this novel suffer from the instantaneous loss of perspective you can experience by staring at an Escher drawing: they flip from moments of bliss and vital intimacy to conflict and betrayal."
The trick with "Mr. Peanut" is not to get caught in the heady details, but to let the stories of people struggling to figure out how to love one another take hold of you.
Ross creates a fragile picture of marriage encased in a bizarre, unstable tale of murder, video games, history, and of course, peanuts. "Mr. Peanut" will disorient and frustrate you, but, like any Escher painting, you'll find it hard to look away.
Adam Ross will sign and read excerpts from "Mr. Peanut" at Lemuria Books (4465 Interstate 55 N.), June 30 at 5 p.m. Call 601-366-7619 for more information.