A Review of Peter Selgin’s The Inventors
July 28, 2016 § 3 Comments
By Alexis Paige
I’m a sucker for literature that pursues an unanswerable question, all the better if that pursuit takes some idiosyncratic course, as with Peter Selgin’s new memoir, The Inventors. Recently published by Hawthorne Books, and a finalist for the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize, the Graywolf Press Prize for Nonfiction, and the AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction, the book charts Selgin’s formation of self, or perhaps, selves. This smart, quirky, and insightful memoir explores the author’s formative years by way of the two most seminal men in his life, his “inventors”—his father, a bona fide inventor; and his 8th grade English teacher, an inventor of pedigree. Eccentric, magnetic, and grandiose, these men—and their “inventions” or fictions about their lives—cast a towering shadow over Selgin’s own existential search for identity, which lasts well into adulthood. After his father’s death, the author learns his paternal family was not Catholic as he had been led to believe, but Jewish. Similarly, the writer learns that the teacher with whom he shared an emotionally intimate friendship at 13 (a mutual “seduction,” Selgin calls the relationship at one point) fabricated an identity as a Rhodes Scholar, an adoptee, and later, a Native American. These lies, or fictions, are difficult for the narrator to reconcile because they are mixed with both objective truth (if such a thing exists), and perhaps more importantly, emotional truth. Selgin writes, “You can’t have the truth without lies. Or you can—it may be there—but you won’t see it, it won’t stand out.” The book is in part a catalogue of Selgin’s findings as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of his inventors’ lives (and thereby his own), and it is also an investigation into the slippery nature of truth itself. Pushing beyond that classic memoir question, Who Am I?, the writer’s various narrative selves—boy and man; first-person and second-person—ruminate on the very nature of selfhood, along with its attendant doubts, deceptions, and complexities.
In the Prologue, Selgin announces that the book is written to his younger self: “We’re made of the past. What we remember, or think we remember, or choose to remember, defines us. Like my father and my teacher, each of us, in different ways and to various degrees, constructs a myth about ourselves that we embrace in part to deny contradictory, unpleasant, or inconvenient truths. We inhabit fictional narratives that we come to think of as ‘our lives.’ From memories sifted, sorted, selected, or synthesized—consciously or unconsciously—we assemble the stories that tell us who we are. In that sense, we’re all inventors.” In addition to its overt pursuits, the memoir skirts a meta-argument: If the self is a kind of invention made from constructed myth, so too is the memoir an invention made from the versions of myth that the memoirist chooses to spotlight. After all, a memoir is not a journalistic record of what happened, but rather a subjective account of what the self remembers or deems important, what one has “sifted, sorted, selected, or synthesized.”
Selgin navigates such heady ideas with a playful, even inventive, sense of structure. The chapter titles employ patent application language as an extended metaphor: Exemplary Claims, Description of the Preferred Embodiment, The Prior Art, and so forth. Tucked into the chapters are patent figure drawings of his father’s inventions, along with arcane footnotes and captions that describe antennae, ray tubes, electric motors, colorimeters, and reflectometers, to name just a few. The approach to setting, chronology, and even point-of-view is accordingly associative, which means that the reader follows Selgin’s narrated consciousness as he leaps through decades and states, and as he moves between first-person and second-person narrators, both versions of the self. Such navigation of time calls to mind Sven Birkerts’ admonition about the flattening effect of strict chronology in his craft book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again: “There is in fact no faster way to smother the core meaning of life, its elusive threads and connections, than with the heavy blanket of narrated event. Even the juiciest scandals and revelations topple before the drone of, ‘And then…and then…’”. Selgin’s temporal and structural choices highlight the book’s meaningful design and create a vibrant, textured narrative.
In addition to its architecture, The Inventors’ approach to textual material is a rich layering of authorial modes that include sweeping reverie, crisp snapshots of memory, philosophical musing, epistemological ephemera, and a mix of second and first-person narration. Selgin moves between these modes with grace. The anchoring scene of the first chapter begins with the author delivering his father’s eulogy: “As most of you here probably know, my papa was an iconoclast. He had too many other things on his mind to worry about protocols or conventions.” The ‘you’ of direct address here then slides seamlessly into a ‘you’ of Selgin’s own consciousness. The author narrates the post-memorial gathering scene completely in second-person, which is an interesting choice of narrative distance, especially given the upending secret revealed by one memorial-goer: “Your father was Jewish, she says at last, firmly, smiling and shaking her head like a tolerant schoolmarm coping with an especially slow pupil. On both sides of his family, she says. They were prominent Jews.” The next section of the chapter, set apart on its own page, contains just two italicized paragraphs—written in first-person from the ostensible present: “He was as much my twin as my brother, maybe more so. I can’t mourn him without feeling as though I’m embracing a solipsism, like I’m mourning myself.” And so goes the journey of the memoir, in which the narrator attempts to reconcile his father’s and teacher’s fictions and motivations as a way of confronting his own: “It would take years of therapy for you to ascribe these and other symptoms to the pursuit of gratification by vanity known as narcissistic disorder and to trace its origins back to the day you wheedled a kiss from your kindergarten teacher in exchange for a crayon drawing of the Empire State Building (or was it the Queen Mary?), a fateful transaction that over time evolved into a mode of survival.”
In addition to the craftsmanship of the memoir, I admired the writer’s idiosyncratic mind. Equal parts poet-philosopher, professor, raconteur, and iconoclast himself, Selgin’s narrators are fascinating company. I read eagerly for the company of the brooding insomniac who wonders “Can we ever really know anyone? Can we even know ourselves?”; or for the company of the bored child, which Selgin declares “the most troubling” of dispositions; or the egocentric father for whom even his daughter’s first rainbow comes back around to him: “I thought from now on whenever she sees a rainbow Audrey will remember this trip and think of her daddy.” Ultimately, the memoir yields no easy answers about that nagging question of whether we can really know anyone, and by implication, ourselves. But the book bears witness to the worthiness of the pursuit. Confronting our fictive or inventor natures, Selgin suggests, is the path to discovering ourselves.
Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an assistant editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received two recent Pushcart Prize nominations, and features on Freshly Pressed and Longform. Twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not a Place on Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published in December. You can find her online at alexispaigewrites.com