By John Oliver Hodges
In Duplicity, Peter Selgin’s third novel, Stewart Detweiler, a failed novelist, finds his identical twin brother hanged in the same lakeside house where his philosophy-professor-father hanged himself a decade before. Detweiler disposes of his brother’s body in the lake, and assumes his brother’s identity as a best-selling self-help author. Detweiler soon finds out that his brother may have had good reason to kill himself. His brother has allegedly had sex with a minor, and is now entangled in a blackmail scheme; and his brother may have murdered the girl’s uncle.
In a parallel narrative, Detweiler recounts his backstory as a writing teacher who, fearing one of his students will get a book deal after studying the craft a mere few weeks, makes an effort to sabotage her, which backfires. Poor guy. The harder Detweiler tries, the further he gets from his dream of receiving recognition for his exceptional, hard-earned literary talents.
The plot thickens when the FBI pays Detweiler a visit at the lakeside house, where Detweiler appears to be on a course to join his father and brother by hanging.
How’s that for a plot? Or anyway, a literal plot. According to Detweiler, “Every great novel operates on two levels, one literal, one figurative, with the literal interpretation merely a means toward the metaphoric end.” If this is so, and if only “dimwits” take books like Lolita at face value—another pronouncement by Detweiler—then what, we are compelled to ask, is the metaphoric import of Duplicity? Detweiler’s quest for success, even unto the performance of a gruesome act upon his dead brother’s corpse, metaphorizes the unacceptableness of death for the artist, the irony being that in order to produce a worthy artifact, one must sacrifice life. Detweiler could be out having fun, having sex, traveling the world, living, but no—he slaves away on a lifelong quest to write a book unlike anything else that’s ever been written, “the greatest literary red herring of all literature,” Detweiler calls it, a “narrative that disintegrates—imperceptibly at first, and then like a meteor burning through the atmosphere—into random notes and jottings, a debris-trail of contingent passages, sentences, phrases, images, data, ideas, inspirations, and insights. A novel reduced to rubble.”
All this while the world wants nothing more than “circus peanuts,” Detweiler’s conception of predictable, poorly made writing comestible to the book-buying public. “You know,” he tells his students, “those candies shaped like big peanuts, made of marshmallow, dyed orange, and artificially flavored to taste like bananas.” That’s what the public wants, but, “If you’re a real writer, you’ll starve before you quit. You’ll see all your friends get high paying jobs, watch them raise lovely children in beautiful homes while driving magnificent cars. Meanwhile, you’ll scribble away in your lonesome garret as your health declines and the rejections pile up like snow on Mt. Fuji.”
Having first held the book in my hands, having been captivated by its simple and elegant design featuring a Penrose Square floating and switching positions (an optical illusion) in a lake of mottled blue water, and having read the lofty promises on the back cover, blurbs that include tributes like “astute philosophical work” and “masterful,” I approached my reading with equal parts admiration and skepticism. If this book was to “shed light” on quantum mechanics, as reported, then it had better deliver the goods.
Crucial to Duplicity’s metaphoric end is Detweiler’s eagerness, his apparent need to share his knowledge on literary craft, the tools used to produce work that will give an author life after death. Detweiler’s seemingly guilty confession rises to the level of comedy. Ever candid, Detweiler continually addresses the reader as “Dear Reader,” a reader he nevertheless muses may never even come into existence, may never become “quantumly entangled” with him.
Among Detweiler’s numerous writerly offerings are fresh analyses on bathos, pathos, clichés, point of view, false suspense, words never to use and why you should never use them, space breaks, dinkuses, TMI, implying versus telling, syntax, and diction. As one whose “act of writing is itself the critique,” Detweiler draws attention to his usage, thus repudiating criticism before the fact. Whenever a technique, or any other kind of writer’s tic becomes apparent, he calls himself out with quirks like “note the shift in tense” or “yeah, I know, you’re impatient, wanting me to get on with the story.” In one instance, after using the word “shrug” three or four times over the course of twenty pages, just when the reader is beginning to notice, he interrupts himself to say, “What would authors do without shrugs?” Detweiler applies the same principle in reverse, making a statement about writing and then pressing it into service. For example, one section ends with a comment on simile. The full paragraph reads: “‘A good simile refreshes the intellect.’—Wittgenstein”. Readers are now primed for Detweiler’s next simile, which comes a full page later as: “My heart pounds in my chest like a wire beater thumping a rug.” Detweiler builds the theme up when another full page later he stops the simile after the word “like,” and then offers eight options, some quite hilarious, on how to finish the sentence.
Detweiler has yearned to “write something raw and spontaneous, where the structure is dictated entirely by feeling,” a book wherein he confesses all and is thus rewarded by publication and a massive following of readers. The scenario of being rewarded for your efforts with fame and money is precisely what happened to his now-deceased twin brother who, after an epiphany on a plane (that one could drink coffee black, instead of with cream), changed his name to Brock Jones, PhD. In this reinvention of himself, Detweiler’s twin brother’s dreams came true. He cranked out a book called Coffee, Black, that promoted the good news that anybody could be free of the bonds of identity. Coffee, Black was an instant bestseller. In the act of hiding his brother’s body and assuming his brother’s identity, Detweiler takes the central concept of his brother’s book a step farther—he literally steps into his brother’s shoes.
Duplicity, by my estimation, is Selgin’s magnum opus. For years, Selgin has carried off small miracles, from his Flannery O’Connor award-winning debut of short stories, Drowning Lessons, to his innovative memoir, The Inventors. With Duplicity, Selgin lets himself loose onto the page, bringing in addition to his narrative powers a sizable cache of knowledge. Here you’ll see references to Balzac, Baudelaire, Michaux, Gabriele D’Annuzio, Armance, Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, Dazai, and others. In passing, you’ll hear the names of Einstein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Pollock, Rothko, and Miró. You’ll hear Detweiler explain philosophical concepts and apply them to his situation. Did you know that Chopin wrote twenty-one nocturnes for solo piano?
Nocturnes have to do with night, so it is appropriate that Detweiler’s intrigue with nocturnes comes as we near the end of his book. As Detweiler approaches his own night, he obsesses over Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold—the Falling Rocket, a painting denigrated by Ruskin, a man described by Detweiler as “Victorian England’s most influential critic.” Detweiler recounts details of Ruskin’s life, giving us to understand that the critic’s short-sighted dismissal of the painting (one that altered the course of the painter’s career) was likely related to a stroke disorder whose symptoms included cortical dementia and migraines with aura. The painting, with its “spattered fireworks cascading against a grizzled night,” may have induced the critic to describe Whistler as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
In the above anecdote, we see how the defining conditions of one person’s life can shift the direction of an entire culture, a concept tied up with Duplicity’s ever-present thread of quantum entanglement. If paintings such as Whistler’s Falling Rocket can be denigrated and dismissed, only later to receive validation, then our apparent failures may be successes. We have seen it often in the arts, from Van Gogh to Melville to Fitzgerald to John Kennedy Toole, cases where artists become popular later, after they are dead. In showing our failures as successes, we see in action a motif Detweiler spells out in an early chapter of Duplicity: Plato’s Argument of Opposites, “how whatever has an opposite must come from or be a product of that opposite.” The passage on nocturnes, in this context, draws attention to Detweiler’s recurring nightmare of all nightmares where his masterpiece (his life), filtered through the publishing system, goes to press in a form different from the one he created.
Detweiler never states outright that he wants to “live forever,” but what else could he possibly be attempting to do? In Detweiler’s notion of a “disintegrating narrative,” which is not, by the way, how Duplicity ends, the process would amount to the destruction of the author, the opposite of the hero’s mission. Though Detweiler tells his writing students, while drunk, that his ambition is to win the award for “Least Publishable Novel Ever Written by a Human Being on the Planet Earth,” we know it is in jest. If anything can be said to cause the book to self-destruct, it would be Detweiler’s self-reflexivity, a reminder at every turn that this is a book, not real life.
If the desire of the average reader is to be swept away into the dream of the fiction, a gift given by way of a suspension of disbelief, some readers may feel distanced from the action. To illustrate, as we near the end of the novel, Detweiler, unable to sleep, muses over five separate ways to end the book, each ending showing a writer at work and drawing attention to the artifice of the affair. As a result, the reader is tasked with entering a different kind of dream, one where truth is stretched across a larger, more complex canvas. There is a challenge, but one that is sure to pay off handsomely. Detweiler calls his work nonfiction, yet Duplicity is presented as a novel by Peter Selgin who, let us not forget, has a living identical twin—one more instance of opposites (truth/fiction) presented as co-dependent. Like the two sides of the beautiful Penrose Square on the cover, truth and fiction are inseparable.
All said, I take the novel as a treatise on reasonable responses to existence, the rushing prose and attendant conceit of quantumly entwinded spaces indicative of a wish to live through a sacrifice whose object (self) has no guarantees for payment other than the performance of art for its own sake.
But more than that, Duplicty presents a tincture of life boiled down to an essence and smeared across three hundred seventy-seven pages. This is what I look for in literature, and what I find, happily, in Duplicity, an important new book, a book both funny and intellectually engaging, a vital book invested categorically in the craft and love of writing and of words. As a result, we have a page-turner of great philosophical and psychological insight doubling as a writing manual equaling in wisdom many popular texts on literary craft.