“You could say they invented me.”
What is refreshing about literary memoirs like Peter Selgin’s is how they transform the reader through writing and self-invention. In The Inventors, Selgin charts his path from age thirteen to fifty-seven, focusing on the influence of two significant role models: his father and an unnamed teacher. These men are complex, rich, mysterious, and flawed. Selgin’s stories are personal and gut-wrenchingly honest, foregrounding memory, language, and creativity. “Can words ever do the past justice? But words are about all I have, words and this odd device known as memory, that thinks it remembers the past, when really it’s inventing it.”
Paul Selgin, an Italian immigrant who spoke six languages, earned a PhD from Harvard, was a certified member of the Mensa society, and earned his living as an inventor, holding over fifty patents. He worked in a decrepit barn on the Selgin estate in small-town Connecticut. For Paul the barn was a sanctuary that he used to escape the world; for Peter it was a shrine to worship his father the scientist.
The unnamed teacher is young, rebellious, and intelligent. He moves around the classroom like a tennis player, challenging students to think deeply, teaching them to “question authority, abhor clichés, shun received wisdom, resist jargon and sentimentality.” The teacher welcomes Peter to visit him at his small house. There they drink tea and talk about books, art, and politics. These scenes play out like bohemian fantasy. Young Peter has his own personal messiah, like a young Gary Snyder, a perfect blend of benevolence and rebellion.
As a result of these visits to the teacher’s house, Peter starts to burn with a desire to read. He borrows books—dipping his toes into the cold waters of literature and philosophy. For example, he takes A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man home and reads about a moocow trotting down the road. Young Peter makes it through a few pages before his eyes blur. But that’s the start—the dawning of his life as a reader and as an artist. The tension between the scientist on the right and the philosopher on the left shakes Peter awake from the normal stupor that makes pre-adolescent boys such a nightmare.
Selgin the narrator, age fifty-seven, uses little stories to frame his memoir. In one story, a boy asks his guru for a chrysalis. The teacher agrees under the condition that when the butterfly emerges, the boy must resist helping it. Of course the boy can’t control his desire to interfere and as a result the butterfly dies.
One day, while Peter is visiting the teacher’s home, the two antagonize each other. There in the privacy of the cabin, they wrestle. It seems to be pleasurable. We are left in the dark as to the exact nature of this interaction. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the young teacher is not letting nature run its own course according. He encourages a collegiate mentality in all of his pupils, especially young Peter, even though they haven’t started high school. For both of them, the relationship offers a sense of being exceptional. The teacher feels needed. The pupil feels wanted. That feeling of being recognized as special is pure intoxication. The emotional high of being chosen drives Peter to the arts, to New York City, and eventually to a Kerouac road trip in search of his old maestro.
“In a word, you wanted to be special [….] the need to be special set you apart from others if not at odds with them.”
The desire to be special is important in this book because Peter is a twin. He has a genetic replica who is equally loved and equally cared for by their parents. It’s hard to feel special in this situation. The Selgin brothers, in many ways, mirror one another while being tethered to each other. One embraces Ayn Rand. The other becomes a bohemian. One becomes an economist in Georgia’s state university system. The other teaches creative writing. George is the libertarian. Peter is the libertine.
Throughout the book Selgin uses binaries to create meaning. He sets up a clear contrast between his father and his teacher. His father follows adheres to logic while his teacher is infatuated with the mystical and the aesthetic. This binary also describes the brothers. It’s not that Paul doesn’t love his son. Paul is preoccupied with his work. He talks to Peter, while the teacher talks with Peter.
The Inventors is a sensitive examination of how friends and family are responsible for inventing a person. Selgin is smart enough to know what makes him unique. He can point to his twin brother. He can point to his father and the teacher. He uses all these figures as binaries so that reader can see how each figure influenced his development. But after finishing this book I’m also left with a deep sense of how he invented himself.
Jacob Singer’s writing can be found at Electric Literature, The Collagist, and Entropy. He is currently finishing a picaresque novel inspired by corporate conspiracies, punk rock, and video games. He can be found on Twitter @jacobcsinger.