Duplicity by Peter Selgin

Review by Linda Lappin

In this darkly unsettling farce, Duplicity, novelist Peter Selgin lures the reader into the eerie parallel universe of doppelgangers, impostors, and multiple selves, while musing on the nature and the purpose of fiction.

Stewart Detweiler, author of the confession we are reading, a middle-aged misfit whose talent and prospects have fizzled out, currently makes his living teaching creative writing at a second rate school. Though his earlier novels met with acclaim, his recent work has been brutally rejected by his agent, who defines it plotless and boring. A loner, he becomes involved, against his better judgment, with a girl half his age, whom he unwittingly grooms for literary success, while his own reputation declines. He has also become estranged from the only person in his life who really ever mattered:  his twin brother, Gregory.

The brothers’ fates are linked by a mysterious equilibrium: when one’s fortune increases; the other’s dwindles. While Stewart rose to fame as an up-and-coming young author, Gregory stagnated in an academic job, as a professor of Hermetic philosophy, expert in the Kybalion. Then one day, divine providence places Gregory in business class next to a man who asks the stewardess for black coffee. Gregory takes his with milk and sugar, but in a flash of revelation, understands that by changing a habit, we may change our lives; by changing our tastes, we may reinvent ourselves. He too orders his coffee black – and sets in motion a transformation which will catapult him to the peak of fame and wealth in his new identity as Brock Jones, PhD, motivational guru and global best-selling author of “Coffee, black.” Meanwhile, Stewart’s life unravels.

Then one night, Stewart receives a call from their mother, commanding him to drive to Georgia, where she believes Gregory may be hiding in the family’s old lakeside home, long abandoned. Upon arriving, he will find his twin swinging from a beam where he hanged himself, in a dreadful revisitation of their own father’s suicide in that very house.

Instead of notifying the police, Stewart decides to reinvent himself—concealing his brother’s body in the lake and assuming his identity.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds—for the body must be eviscerated so that the gases of decomposition won’t float it back up to the surface. With the help of his brother’s motorcycle and credit card, Stewart’s transition moves forward. Then threatening emails begin to arrive, the FBI shows up, and we discover that Gregory aka Brock Jones was not all that he seemed.

The main plot takes us on a suspenseful rollicking ride with some hair-raising detours along the slippery road to hell. The backstory proceeds ponderously with its recap of  Stewart’s own life as a failed pedant with great expectations, a prostate problem, and a very peevish relationship with the  entire literary universe.  Authors, classics, agents, publishers, readers, writing students, writing workshops, the rules of good writing, the use of the conditional,  the coffee consumed by writers, are targets for Selgin’s deliciously wicked and provocative digression.

Gregory’s suicide at the very opening is the pivotal point for these two layers. After all, Stewart’s agent has suggested jumpstarting his new novel with a body on page one—and this is what Detweiler—or Selgin, delivers. He (Detweiler/Selgin) dreams of writing a book that is impossible to classify. “No matter how many times you open it, or what page you open it to, it feels like you have never read it before…”

With its homage to Nabokov, Gogol, Highsmith, Balzac, Poe, Bellow, Thomas Vaughan, the Hermetic philosopher who was himself a twin, and countless others, this is a cunning rumination on fiction as a mirror held up to life and to the cerebrations of the self.  Ah, but which self? 

Perhaps the Kybalion may shed some light here. Its wisdom claims: “Everything is dual; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.”

“Nothing odd will do long,”  Samuel Johnson once chided in dismissing Tristram Shandy—the first anti-novel we know of in the English language.  Like its early precursor, Duplicity unwrites itself and disappears through its own navel and like Sterne’s beguiling masterpiece of intentional muddles, it’s here to stay.