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April 21, 2011

Book Notes - Adam Ross ("Mr. Peanut")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Adam Ross's debut novel Mr. Peanut was one of the most innovative books I read last year. Cleverly intertwining three narratives into a discourse on the dark side of marriage, the book is sad, funny, always surprising, and immensely entertaining.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of the book:

"Stories are told and retold, hinge on one another, depend, and connect. That layering, that subsonic, towering buildup, is how Mr. Peanut works, and it is a marvel, right down to its final, doubtable twist. It recalls, in 21st-century guise, the brainy novels of the 1960s and 1970s, almost a cross between John Barth's The End of the Road and Joseph Heller's Something Happened."


In his own words, here is Adam Ross's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Mr. Peanut:


Mr. Peanut initially presents itself as a murder mystery. Did David Pepin, a successful videogame designer, kill his depressed and lethally allergic wife, Alice, by shoving peanuts down her throat? Or did she kill herself? The two detectives, Sam Sheppard and Ward Hastroll, suspect he's guilty, but as they investigate Pepin's conjugal life, they see aspects of their own troubled marriages in his. As the novel progresses, however, the question of David's guilt is subsumed by other mysteries: why, in marriage, do we occasionally dream of freedom from those we love and depend on most? Are all vital relationships cyclical—do we orbit and repeat the same problems—or is real, fundamental change between two people possible?

But the novel is also an exploration of M.C. Escher's art and Alfred Hitchcock's films, and here's where music comes in. As I was writing the novel, certain songs, melodies, and movie soundtracks became vital to my understanding of what I was trying to accomplish. I could no more imagine the novel without these tunes than I could Vertigo or North by Northwest without Bernard Hermann's scores. Some music primed me for writing; some I celebrated with at the end of the day. One particularly complicated ditty was even instrumental in my figuring out the novel's structure. Here goes:


"Sax and Violins" by The Talking Heads

I grew up in Manhattan in the early 80s, so my first live music experiences were with some pretty legendary bands. For example, I sat in the first row during The Talking Heads Stop Making Sense show, not the tour but the movie, chopping the length of my forearm to "Once in a Lifetime" and dreaming of my very own Zoot Suit to wear to Studio 54. I've loved them ever since, and there was a period during the writing of Mr. Peanut when at the end of each work session I'd blast "Sax and Violins." David Byrne's lyrics reveal a deep understanding of the heart in conflict with itself: "Love keeps us together/And love will drive us insane/And we are criminals that never/broke no laws/And all/we needed was a net/to break our fall."


"Wall in Your Heart" by Shelby Lynne

This is from her album "Love, Shelby" which I used to call, "(I) Love, Shelby" because of my several-years-long all-consuming crush on her—and her sister, Allison Moorer, who I've interviewed several times simply in order to be near her (she figured me out after my tenth request in a single year and finally took out a restraining order). Tragically, when Shelby and Allison were teens, their dad killed their mother and then himself, a very Mr. Peanut turn of events. "Wall in Your Heart" is about the determination of a lover to break through the shelled-in heart of her beloved, a thing which all the characters in Mr. Peanut struggle with mightily: "Cause there's a wall/In your heart/That no one can get through/And it's cold and it's dark/And you don't have a clue/But this wall it will fall/If it's the last thing I do/I'll get through/this wall in your heart."


"Wicker Chair" by The Kings of Leon

Nashville, my adopted hometown, is not only the residence of a few country music stars, but also The Black Keys, Jack White, Nicole Kidman—and The Kings of Leon! If legend holds true, this band of brothers got their first record deal singing for an exec a cappella, and this song reminds me of the desperation David feels as he tries to rescue his wife from depression, a disease that he can't love out of her no matter how hard he tries. "In your little white wicker chair/Unsuspicious nobody cares for you/You're so fucked up again/You laugh at nothin' in the pouring rain/Try to tell yourself you're not insane/You fool, I hate you sometimes/Hey, you know it ain't coincidental that you're lost in place/It's drippin' off your face, and you're losin' your precious mind."


"Girl" by Beck

There's nothing like a good serial killer song, and every time I hear it, I think of Dick Eberling, the suspected murderer of Marilyn Sheppard. Was it window cleaner Eberling who bludgeoned Marilyn to death on the morning of July 4, 1954, or was it her philandering husband, Sam Sheppard? Sheppard would stand trial for Marilyn's murder twice, convicted the first time, and exonerated the second. Eberling died in prison many years later, having been convicted of murdering widower Ethel May Durkin—whom he bludgeoned to death. "And I know I'm gonna steal her life/She doesn't even know what's wrong/And I know I'm gonna make her die/Take her where her soul belongs/And I know I'm gonna steal her life/Nothing that I wouldn't try/Hey, my cyanide girl."


"Heaven" by John Legend

This is maybe the greatest song about making up after a brutal fight and it reminds me of the doozy my wife and I had after she read Mr. Peanut for the first time.


"C'est Le Vent, Betty" from The Betty Blue soundtrack by Gabriel Yared

Anyone who saw Betty Blue in movie theaters in 1986 will probably never forget its highly erotic opening scene followed by main character Zorg's understated first line: "I had known Betty for a week." If you haven't seen it, it's a movie about a love affair between a struggling novelist/handyman and a mentally unstable waitress who slides into a suicidal depression over the course of the film. During its final scene, Zorg lies prostrate in his apartment, in mourning, while this delicate, circular melody plays: a few sad, gentle notes on a piano. Like David in Mr. Peanut, it's only after his love's death that Zorg is able to complete his own novel.


Title Sequence to Rear Window by Franz Waxman

Hitchcock's 1954 masterpiece begins as the three window screens on L.B. Jefferies panes go up, rising like curtains in a theater to reveal his array of neighbors across his courtyard, and accompanying this we hear a jazzy, playful, upbeat score (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZqx4bMs_yE). It happens to be the movie's only music that doesn't directly arise from the characters' actions (an overheard radio commercial, a songwriter playing a melody, a canary chirping, or traffic's ceaseless honk and hiss) a scoreless movie, typical of Hitchcock's inventiveness with sound. In Mr. Peanut, the marriage of Ward Hastroll (an anagram for the film's wife-killer, Lars Thorwald) retells and inverts the Thorwald story from the movie, which I must've watched well over a hundred times while writing the novel.


"The Crab Canon" by J.S. Bach

I have a deep fondness for this composer, a favorite of my father, who began his acting career as an opera singer and had Bach playing in the background near constantly as I was growing up. It was Bach's famous Crab Canon that led me to a near eureka-like breakthrough as I was puzzling out Mr. Peanut's structure.

A canon, for those people who've never studied music, is basically a melody that can have anywhere from one to an infinite number of imitations played after it. Not surprisingly, the initial melody is called the leader, the second is the follower, and it's this latter imitation that either replicates the intervals and rhythms of the first, or somehow mutates them—which is exactly what the stories of the detectives do in Mr. Peanut: their marriages replicate and transform the story of David and Alice's marriage, and vice versa. In musical language, then, Mr. Peanut is a Canon in Three (Pepin, Sheppard, Hastroll) or Three in One; or, as I like to say, Mr. Peanut is the story of three marriages that tell the story of one marriage. Or, in the language of M.C. Escher's art, the stories tessellate—that is, interlock—like Escher's famous opposing images. (Consider, for instance, the background black and white humanoids in "Encounter," which appears at the front of my novel and functions as Mr. Peanut's source code, since each story follows its basic pattern.)

Back to the Crab Canon: what makes it remarkable is that it's a Retrograde Canon, meaning it can be played backward and forward at the same time. In other words, the follower accompanies the leader in the opposite direction simultaneously, a feat which is wonderfully and playfully described in this short film (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUHQ2ybTejU). The degree of mastery required to compose such a complex piece of music simply boggles the mind, and brings me to my eureka moment, which came when I decided to shape the novel like a Mobius band—a surface I first encountered in the work of M.C. Escher but is also the universal symbol of recycling (and thus sustainability).



A Mobius band is a non-orientable surface with one side and one edge that gives the illusion of two-sidedness. So in, say, Escher's Mobius Strip II it appears as if Ant I is walking on the ceiling of Ant II's floor, but really they're on the same side.

This surface seemed to me to be the ultimate symbol for marriage (we agree to wed our lives together, walking on the same side along the band of time) but also suggested, like so many Escher images, the impossibility of escape from relationships' cyclical conflicts, which make us feel, at their worst, as if we're on opposite sides.

Once I came to understand this, I thought I'd try to construct a novel that builds toward the closing of a Mobius band, and which is therefore, by its end, inescapable. This principle helped me bind the three marriages into a unified whole—into a single story—and required a lot of obsessive outlining. Sometimes, I like to think of Mr. Peanut as a video game with no end, no game over, David Pepin's greatest achievement as a designer. Other times, I like to call it A Peanut Canon. What I wonder about but haven't explored is whether or not it would make sense read backwards.


Adam Ross and Mr. Peanut links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Blue Truck Book Reviews review
The Bookbag review
Bookdwarf review
Bookgeeks review
Bookmarks Magazine review
Bookreporter.com review
Bookslut review
Brews and Books interview with the author
Circular Breathing review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
The Composite review
Curled Up with a Good Book review
Dallas Morning News review
Devourer of Books review
Georgia Straight review
Guardian review
Kirkus Reviews review
Lemuria Bookstore Blog review
The List review
Minnesota Reads review
New Yorker review
Observer review
Onyx Reviews review
Philadelphia Citypaper review
Philadelphia Inquirer review
The Second Pass review
Too Many Books in the Kitchen review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review
Wall Street Journal review

ArtsBeat interview with the author
The Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
The Book Lady's Blog interview with the author
Knopf interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Morning Edition profile of the author
Nashville Scene profile of the author
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review profile of the author
The Shelf Life profile of the author
USA Today profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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