Cruel to be Kind: Ladies and Gentlemen, Adam Ross

07/20/2011 4:00 AM |

Ladies and Gentlemen

Adam Ross


Adam Ross’ prose is best in small packages—in short stories, where he doesn’t have the space to stumble over convoluted framing devices. In his excellent but also disappointing debut novel, Mr. Peanut, an unsettling study of ladies and gentlemen struggling with marriages was undone by its pomo coda, in which a character named Mobius harasses a would-be novelist and uxoricide; a moving novel that had been about characters became a too-clever one about its own construction. Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker that it was “as if Ross, not trusting to the strength of his story, gussied it up with fashionable stylistic gimmicks.”

The short stories collected in Ladies and Gentlemen—less dazzling than Mr. Peanut, perhaps, but more impressive—are strong narratives unornamented by gimmick; still, certain pet motifs carry over, like Ross’ obsession with stories. To say that the author isn’t pretzeled by framing devices is not to say he employs none: many of the characters in these stories collect other people’s anecdotes—in fact, they seem to feed on them. A disturbing tale related over dinner in “In the Basement”brings a troubled couple closer. The Vanity Fair reporter in the title story is inspired to dig herself out of a rut by the cautionary tales she solicits from the man beside her on an airplane. Stories affect the ways we live; Ross illustrates how.

“We don’t invent [defining moments],”the narrator of “The Suicide Room”says. “They happen to us.”For these characters, they happen by the designs of an author who, despite a reputation for cruelty—see the book’s George Eliot epigraph—comes across as an eternal optimist, a believer in humanity and its potential for growth. Though this collection takes its name from the last of its seven stories, it might more aptly have taken it from the first, “Futures”: each concerns characters coming to grips with the uncertainty of what lies ahead, with the unhappy stations in life that result from a failure to act rather than be acted upon—characters who only react to life. (“It’s like your life’s a big spin of the wheel,”one character writes to another in “The Rest Of It.”
”It’s like you’ve chosen never to have a choice.”)

Ross’s anxious and melancholy characters don’t get off easy, but he does let most of them off, equipped with new wisdom and thus freed to improve their lot. A traumatic event inspires the main character of “The Suicide Room”to take stock of his life thereafter. “This isn’t to say I necessarily do the right thing,”he admits. “It just means that I can’t say I didn’t think about it.”Any cruelty Ross metes out makes its recipients better people—sager and stabler, able to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference. “Love,”Ross writes in “Middleman,””lives in the future.”So too, we can imagine, do the happy endings, still unwritten.