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1748 words
SHJ Issue 15
Fall 2016

Creating Identities: Peter Selgin’s The Inventors

by Walter Cummins

Cover of The Inventors by Peter Selgin

Most writers spend hours brooding over an idea they feel compelled to turn into story form, usually a subject stemming from a seminal or even traumatic life experience. They contemplate strategies for presenting it, sometimes over many years. They may eventually put words on a page or even complete entire drafts. A handful may even produce a published book, and even fewer turn out a work that can be called literature.

Such is the case of Peter Selgin’s The Inventors, material contemplated for quite a while, resulting in a stab at a novel and several earlier memoir versions, as well as being touched upon directly and in disguise in short stories. He immersed himself in a process of discovery and rediscovery, shaping and reshaping, selecting and organizing until he finally produced the successful book he had hoped to achieve from his earliest inklings.

I’m fortunate to have at least two of the earlier attempts and the novel on my hard drive to compare with the published result. I’m also fortunate that Peter has been a long-time friend, from the years he was a new writer of exceptional promise, through his earliest publications, to a Flannery O’Connor prize-winning story collection, a prize-nominated novel, an acclaimed essay collection, two books on the craft of fiction, and many excellent stories and essays that have seen that initial promise more than fulfilled.

In addition to reading those previous drafts of this book, I also have spoken with Peter about the people and events that compelled his imagination. That makes me too much an insider of the memoir’s making to be an objective reviewer. But I am able to reflect on the creative processes that resulted in The Inventors.

The memoir focuses on two men who were central to the author’s life, one a never-named teacher first encountered for just a brief period during Peter’s early adolescence, but who became a haunting presence ever since. Not only did Peter ponder him often as an adult, he even made a cross-country trip to Corvallis, Oregon, to seek him out. That journey and adventure around it became the subject of one completed manuscript. In addition, the teacher was fictionalized in a novel called The Man in Blue. The actual person was a dominating personality, at first a guru and role model, yet also a source of deep mystery in the uncertainty of his background and the tales he told about himself.

Who was he really? Peter announces his difficulties in writing about the man, in capturing the essence of his character and their relationship: “For years I’ve tried to write about the teacher, to make our relationship comprehensible—as opposed to classifiable or categorical—to disinterested parties.” Even in the final version, as Peter describes his notebook pages faint in the sunset, he admits that he’s writing in the dark and that digging up the corpse of the past “is a job best undertaken by night.”

The other man, with a seemingly very different role in Peter’s life, his father, Paul, was a daily presence from Peter’s birth to the man’s death when his son was in his forties. Paul Selgin is the literal inventor of the memoir’s title, a brilliant, idiosyncratic personage who concocted important devices in a cluttered backyard barn workshop, while behaving with many obvious quirks. He, too, as his son learns when his father is no longer alive, was also a man of mystery. Much of his personal history was a fabrication.

Both men share the central fact of inventing their lives, at least the lives they projected to those around them. There’s also a question of what they actually believed about themselves, how much they were convinced by their own deceptions.

Yet the final versions of the memoir bring in a third inventor, the author himself, in two senses. Essential for any writer, particularly one of a memoir, is awareness of what is actual and what is made up. Because Peter writes so effectively, his telling resonates as convincingly authentic. But the book concludes with an afterword by his twin brother, George, who contradicts many of the specifics in the previous pages. George grew up in the same house and shared many experiences but remembers some quite differently. Few memoir writers have twins, but most know someone who witnessed the same events. They don’t invite those others to undermine their memories between the same covers.

But the invitation to his brother is much more than a clever device by the author. Rather it lies at the core of the book, which is about the invention of lives—all our lives, not just those of exposed fabricators. More than merely giving an opposing voice to George, Peter makes himself a third conundrum in The Inventors, revealing himself to the point where he confesses an erotic weakness that destroyed his relationship with the mother of his daughter. Unlike the teacher and the parent who escaped into secrets, he tries to be very open as he intersperses autobiographical scenes and memories not directly connected with the teacher or his father, including a number about his relationship with his twin. Yet, the question remains. How much has he invented himself? How much have You? I?

This essential question hasn’t been left hidden in the pages of the book, awaiting the epiphany of an alert reader. Quite the opposite. It’s announced in a one-page prologue that didn’t exist in earlier versions:

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.

I haven’t gotten around to asking Peter if this existential insight was the aha! moment that allowed him to finally grasp the point of the book he really wanted to write all along. Perhaps he just started another draft that grew into the ultimate version of The Inventors.

His presentational method intermingles scenes of the past, those with his father and those with the teacher at various periods of his life, with others about his quests for real information about the backgrounds and identities of both men. But, as important as these multiple narratives, even though occupying many fewer pages, are the brief interspersed vignettes about his present life on a lake in Georgia and visits with his daughter, along with commentaries on the challenges of writing this book, several of which incorporate research into theories about autobiographical memory. Early on, Peter reveals, “The discreet subject of any biography is the biographer.”

As a result, the stories of teacher and father do not come across as ends in themselves, as compelling as they are, but rather are continually placed in the context of a process of reflection and interpretation. The more that is revealed as information, the greater the deeper uncertainties about the nature of identity.

The 2013 version of what became The Inventors was called The Invention of Memory, using a form of the same key word in the title but taking a different approach to the material. It’s much more about the nature of remembering a self than creating a self. Here, too, Peter announces his purpose in a brief prologue:

The point of this book is a simple one: that the past is something we all invent, and from that invented past we invent ourselves. [...]What follows, then, is memory, but it’s also invention: it is what I believe to have been—and therefore is—my past. It may not be my past as someone else remembers it, but that’s someone else’s business, not mine.

In The Inventors, however, the distortions of memory are much less important than the active fabrications of a self, whether through deliberate falsifications or the uncertainties of comprehension.

After an introductory section in which the narrator, Peter, returns to his home town of Bethel, Connecticut, and starts with a walk along the streets of childhood, he then moves on to other memories of the past. But after that opening, the stories of father and teacher and himself are told chronologically, including entire sections repeated in different sequences in The Inventors.

Symptomatic of a fundamental difference between the two tellings is the revelation of crucial information. For example, in The Invention of Memory, Peter doesn’t learn of Paul’s Italian-Jewish heritage until near the end of the book in this scene:

...a strange woman approached you. She was tall, in her late seventies, with glasses, a beak-like nose, and dark gray hair. She walked straight up to you.
Did you know your father was Jewish? she asked.
You said: Who are you?
I was a good friend of Paul’s, of your father’s. I knew him forty years ago.
She had a faint Germanic accent.
He never told you, did he?

In The Inventors, the scene—slightly reworked—takes place at the beginning of the book, immediately raising the question of what else about Paul Selgin’s life has been hidden from his family. This uncertainty informs all that follows. Coming very late in the earlier version, it leads Peter to research an exploration of family history and to integrate photographs onto the pages that elucidate his findings. Through Paul, he is related to Carlo Levi, who wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli, and to the doctor who delivered James Joyce’s son and daughter. It’s all certainly interesting but without the impact of the early disclosure in The Inventors.

A draft titled The Inventors and dated Nov. 2014 is much closer to the published version, sharing the same thematic goal and organizational approach. Some material has been shifted in location and the long illustrated exploration of Paul’s family background is greatly condensed. Still, Peter’s writing ends with the same dedication to his daughter:

Dear beloved daughter, may this book be the bridge between my past and your future. May it help you invent your own memories, your own myths, your own dreams and desires.
May it help you invent yourself.

This draft lacks George Selgin’s Afterword.

Because Peter Selgin is such a talented writer, each version is accomplished in its own way, certainly better than many of the memoirs in print today. But it’s the final version that is special because Peter was not satisfied with his previous attempts. They did not meet the ultimate goal that took shape through years and pages of writing. He finally found his purpose. All that creative brooding paid off.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury