A Novel in Notebooks

A Novel in Notebooks

Review of Peter Selgin’s Duplicity

By Jack Smith, WTP Guest Writer

Duplicity by Peter Selgin (South Orange, NJ: Serving House Books, December 4, 2020; 396 pages; $17.95; ISBN 978-1947175433).

The text of this novel is a found object of six composition notebooks, containing, states one Emeritus Professor Gayton F. Sinclair, PhD, in his Afterword, autobiography mixed with fiction—“one hesitates to call it a memoir, but then one also hesitates to call it a novel.” The author of the notebooks is a former philosophy professor, Stewart Detweiler, who writes to the Reader from the point of view of a has-been fiction writer, Stewart Detweiler, who calls the work his confession. The parallels to Humbert Humbert’s confession in Nabokov’s Lolita are striking.

What confession? The central one concerns the fictional Stewart’s taking the place of his dead twin brother, Greg, a bestselling positive psychology guru (tapping in on the personal happiness craze) writing under the pen name Brock Jones, PhD. This motivational writer and speaker’s claim is that you can reinvent yourself. You can become someone entirely different—anyone. The world’s your oyster. When he wasn’t apprised of the fact that his brother wrote this book, and had even disguised himself with a totally new physical make-over, Stewart felt like his own identity had been wiped out: “For were not our identities — had they not been — inextricably bound? Had we not been ‘the Detweiler Twins?’” When his brother tries to convince him to reinvent himself—to save himself from his spiraling-down life—Stewart breaks off communication and doesn’t see his brother for five years. The next time he encounters him, he’s hanging from a beam in their former father’s lake house in Georgia.

This occasion becomes a ripe opportunity to reinvent himself—ironically, as Brock Jones, PhD. For Selgin, this decision becomes an opportunity to interrogate further the question of identity—in the way singularity relates to the dualism inherent in biological duplication. At one point, Stewart raises a provocative question related to identical twins: “Supposing that all identical twins that come into this world are an aberration. Only one was supposed to be born, the other a mistake.” He was the mistake, he decides, being a loser—Greg, being the legitimate one. Even his mother apparently thinks so, too, since she has created something of a shrine to her successful son. We are forced to consider this theory against the dominant theory in the novel—that of dualism.

One might well wonder at Stewart’s matter-of-fact demeanor in the presence of his brother’s body hanging from a beam behind him. The lake house scenes are marked by much dark comedy, slapstick almost, as Stewart, in handling phone calls from his mother, must remember just who he is, himself or his brother. One might certainly be struck by his dispassionate mood as, imagining himself a surgeon, he disembowels his brother’s body in order to sink him, for good, to the bottom of the lake. Gritty, darkly comic—horror show—drama as he comes off more like a bloody butcher than a surgeon. But one would mistake his attitude as totally detached—or insensitive. After all, he loved his brother; they had a very close, nurturing relationship in spite of their continual competition over achieving success. He does sob at one point. Yet he wants to conceptualize his reinvention of selfhood in a positive light: that in taking the place of his brother, he has given him new life—he has redeemed Greg’s life, not stolen it. Whether or not he personally profits—and he will certainly gain from his brother’s money and fame—this, he concludes, is irrelevant. “Whoever said that to be noble motives need to be pure? What’s pure in life?” Unconscious irony this rationalization—and all the more compelling—given the creepy body disposal we have just witnessed.

Related to the question of identity is, of course, the issue of his brother’s suicide, erasing one of the twins’ selfhood. Why did Brock Jones, PhD, kill himself? How could such a successful man commit suicide? We are reminded of the puzzled query by the “people on the pavement,” in Robinson’s famous poem, who wonder why Richard Cory, “richer than a king,” would take his own life. At first, Stuart thinks it’s because of the depression he inherited from his father, who also hanged himself. But then he realizes that his brother was in serious trouble in regards to a sixteen-year-old girl, Melody Jenkins Baker, and her uncle, Lester Figes. This scenario becomes another interesting link to the plight of Humbert Humbert, who has been charged with pedophilia of an underage girl—though in Brock Jones’s case, he reportedly “never touched her.” Thus, Stewart, having reinvented himself as the successful Brock Jones, PhD, inherits not only his brother’s success—which opens the opportunity to publish his otherwise unpublishable novel, Duplicity, under his brother’s name—but also his brother’s problems, mainly this underage girl—and, to boot, her missing uncle. Did he kill him? The protagonist is clearly over his head and takes his own life. The author of the six composition books hangs himself for real, but why he does so remains a mystery. To what extent is his protagonist an alter ego for the actual author of these composition notebooks? Any dark secrets remain secrets.

Much of the backstory of this novel, which the fictional Stewart apologetically includes, has to do with his teaching creative writing, his short-lived romance with one of his students, and his failed attempt to write a commercially publishable novel. As a senior instructor at a writing institute, pitching his narrative to the Reader, he gives considerable advice on what to do and what not to do in a piece of fiction—perhaps mirroring the advice of the actual author of the notebooks, the professor of philosophy, who, earlier in life, published a half dozen short stories, though never a book. His romance with his student ends his teaching position, leading him to greater despair. As to his fiction writing, Stewart has resisted—in several different novels he’s written—the commercial emphasis on plot. Instead he has been after a novel about “nothing.”  His agent demands plot. He avoids it. “To write about nothing is much harder than it sounds. One way to do it, the only way, actually, is to write about everything, since — being equal opposites — everything and nothing are two sides of the same coin (Black/White, Dark/Light, Negative/Positive Love/Hate, Life/Death, Good/Evil.”  He thinks in terms of polarities, of dualities.

As he’s whiling away his time at the lake house, when not writing, Stuart, our protagonist, reads numerous philosophical works that his father had left in the lake house in specially marked places on a bookshelf: philosophy books suggesting myriad forms of dualism.  “Twins/Twin Studies, Dualism, Taoism, Nature vs. Nurture, Mythology, Nietzsche, Nothing, Plato/Unity of Opposites . . . . Radical Dualism, Mitigated Dualism, Cartesian Dualism, Naturalistic Dualism, Moral Dualism, Dualistic Cosmology, Manichaeism, Parallelism, Double-Aspect Theory, Doctrine of Double Effect . . .”

As a whole, Selgin’s work interrogates the metaphysical question of philosophical dualism. Reality is not one, but many— pluralism versus monism. As a twin, Stewart Detweiler, the protagonist, knows this to be an existential fact. He feels voided by his successful brother; when his successful brother kills himself, he ends up voiding his own identity. But in doing so, he has put aside what he himself recognizes as a fundamental truth about human existence and personal identity. A game they played together as children—the Millionaire versus the Peasant, or power versus subservience—represented the dualistic nature of human life:

The Millionaire and the Peasant — they were one, bound together in each of us. One couldn’t exist without the other. Those equal opposite cliches, they represented the antipodal natures existing in each of us: rich and poor; good and evil; dark and light; needy and greedy; raging and calm; winner and loser; weak and strong; triumph and tragedy; love and hate. Each of us is two people. Metaphorically, everyone is a twin.

Many novelists today claim that theme is of no consequence—if there is one at all, let this up to the critics to decide. The story is all. For Selgin’s protagonist—and we can safely assume for Selgin himself—the value of a novel is in its various levels beyond the literal. This is a novel with much thematic substance. If British novelist Will Self claimed that the novel, as a cultural form, is dead, this might well be true of the commercial market, but much less so of small press novels, where literature is kept alive and culturally valued. Interestingly, the protagonist Stewart Detweiler, whose novel is unpublishable in the commercial market, claims: “A novelist’s job is to tell the truth.” Though we cannot equate what a character says with what the author believes, we cannot help but think that, for Selgin, in writing this novel, winner of the 2021 National Indie Excellence Award, philosophical truth—or at least the investigation of truth in its complex dualities—was clearly a premium.

Jack Smith is a fiction writer with short story publications in North American Review, Texas Review, Southern Review, Night Train, and others. His novel Hog to Hogwon the George Garrett Fiction Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 2008. He has published five other novels: Icon, Being, Miss Manners for War Criminals, Run, and If Winer Comes, all published by Serving House Books. He has published reviews in numerous literary magazines, including Ploughshares, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Prairie  Schooner, American Book Review, Pleiades, Texas Review, Mid-American Review, and Iowa  Review.

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