Reviewed By Robert Morgan Fisher
- Serving House Books (2020)
- 396 pages
Peter Selgin’s new comic novel, Duplicity, explores familiar territory for the author who—like his protagonist—has an identical twin. This fact is central to the plot of the novel and has shown up in other Selgin works, most notably his 2016 memoir, The Inventors. It is fair to say that identical twins are inherently fascinating, prone to mysterious, intuitive bonds that have long attracted genuine scientific interest. Long after the novelty of being indistinguishable from one another wears off, one of the twins may suddenly try to reinvent themself. This act of self-assertion (or self-preservation?) can happen early or later in life and may well include a forced, acrimonious estrangement such as the one found in Duplicity.
At the novel’s start, Stewart Detweiler, finds himself excommunicated from the life of his equally unhappy twin, Greg—now known as “Brock Jones, PhD.” While both Stewart and Brock once had serious writing talent, Stewart feels Brock has sold out to the self-help genre with a grotesquely glib bestseller titled Coffee, Black. Long before Duplicity’s opening scene, where Stewart finds his brother’s decomposing corpse dangling from the beam of the family’s lakeside A-frame, Stewart understood that Brock’s book was a rationalization of a midlife crisis run amuck. Through flashbacks (including the revelation that their father also hanged himself), our narrator brings us up to speed, however unreliably.
The complication here is that, upon discovering his dead twin, Stewart decides to dispose of the body and appropriate Brock’s identity. What could go wrong? Everything, of course. Despite Stewart’s hope that by absorbing Brock’s life and using that identity to finally get his own novel published (under Brock’s name), brother Brock might somehow thereby redeem himself. Rehabilitate his reputation—right? The problem is, Brock’s life was even more mangled than Stewart had imagined.
Selgin has masterfully structured a complicated narrative in such a way that the reader’s curiosity and intrigue never crumble into confusion. The story swings back and forth from Georgia to New York City, from past to present, tracking both brothers’ eventual implosions. The literary references, asides, and digressions here are sophisticated, stunning, and hilarious. Selgin’s Stewart Detweiler holds nothing back—sneering at the publishing world, his useless agent, and his students’ mediocrity (save for the talented, bombshell female student who, predictably yet entertainingly, seduces him), while at the same time owning up to his considerable defects (pomposity, jealousy, enlarged prostate) in a surprisingly endearing way. He does, in fact, address us as Dear Reader throughout—and gets away with it. There are other anachronistic touches here that work: the cover (designed by Selgin, who is a known quantity in the art world) is a simple throwback to a style used in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Additionally, this subtly serves to give Selgin’s novel the appearance of an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy—i.e. a not yet published book).
It’s the same cover Stewart Detweiler envisions for his own novel:
I saw the cover: a mottled blue sea, the title treading water at its center in austere sans-serif ALL-CAPS, framed by one or two austere rectangles, its only other embellishment a schematic of an impossible object known as the “Penrose Square”: I might even call the book “Penrose Square”—not a bad-sounding title at that. The cover would have much in common with the covers of the old Albatross Edition and Olympia Press paperbacks respectively of the ’30s and ’50s, the latter infamous for its motley mix of serious literature and smut (both, in the case of Lolita); one of those covers whose sublime starkness sets it far apart from all others but that publishers seldom risk.
Even the author name on the front (replete with primitive, M.C. Escher-esque geometric figure—the aforementioned Penrose Square) reads:
a novel by
The message? Nothing here can be trusted. It is, as the title indicates, très duplicitous. Deliciously so, and comparisons to Nabokov (specifically Lolita) are fair and accurate. Duplicity also brings to mind Charles Portis and Patrick deWitt in all the right ways.
The plot thickens, escalates, and devours itself toward the end—Stewart’s charade is more than unsustainable. We’re left with even more questions at the end. The story disappears into an afterword that almost feels like an afterlife. Forget resolution. It’s not on the table.
But . . . did I laugh?
Yes, Stewart—I mean, Peter. I certainly did.
Robert Morgan Fisher won the 2018 Chester Himes Fiction Prize, was shortlisted for the 2019 John Steinbeck Award, and was runner-up for the 2021 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Prize. His fiction and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including The Saturday Evening Post, Upstreet, Pleiades, The Arkansas Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, The Seattle Review, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, The Journal of Microliterature, Spindrift, The Rumpus, and many other publications. He teaches creative writing at UCLA and Antioch University. www.robertmorganfisher.com.