Review by Matt Neil Hill
Joshua Chaplinsky’s debut novel The Paradox Twins is an epistolary collage featuring a quartet of narrators sporting varying degrees of unreliability competing to tell the definitive story of estranged twins Max and Albert Langley and the girl next door Millicent Blackford, all of whom cross paths after the death of the Langley’s father. The text is drawn from fiction, memoir, screenplay adaptations and legal documents, rearranged to create a god’s eye view in a post-truth world. As the metafictional curator of this narrative states in their introduction:
They say there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.
In other words, truth is a rotating point of view. A constantly shifting coordinate on a flat circle, dependent on the observer. Or better yet, a combination of the concepts of eternal recurrence and quantum superposition, where the coordinate (POV) can be expressed as either True or False at any given time.
The best way for me to frame my experience of this book is as a nest of Russian dolls where each matryoshka is a replica of Dali’s painting The Anthropomorphic Cabinet, their revelations filmed under the glacial gaze of Stanley Kubrick. The director is hugely relevant to the book in many ways, not least because the spectre of 2001: A Space Odyssey drifts through so many of its pages.
The pseudonymous Joshua Chaplinsky is the self-styled Webmaster and his footnotes riddle the book, to which you should pay close attention. In the introduction, he mentions that his psychiatrist has suggested working on the project to temper his narcissism. It’s only a partial success in that regard, as he drops a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader along the way that have a tendency to lead deeper into a darkly obsessive place. To enhance the real world feel of it all there’s a link to the full introduction at the end of the book if you want a taste: www.unravelingtheparadox.com
The novel focuses predominantly on Albert and Millie’s memoirs (The Paradox Twins and The Third Twinrespectively), interspersed with Max’s more fanciful fictionalization of events Breakfast with the Monolith and various writers’ unsuccessful stabs at bringing his work to the big screen.
Max, the womanizing million-selling author of the pseudo-scientific YA SF Anthropica trilogy (also excerpted in the book), is highlighted as a Tarantinoesque appropriator of the work of others, and it’s in his passages that images from 2001: A Space Odyssey rear their heads most often, from the stark extra-terrestrial presence of the titular monolith substituting for their austere scientist father Paul to the punishing psychedelia of the journey from one state of being to another. High school science teacher and eternal bachelor Albert goes there too, haunted by the ghostly figure of the Spaceman. Clad in the iconic red spacesuit worn by Keir Dullea in the film their father watched obsessively as they grew up, the Spaceman is a figure of faceless cosmic dread. And it’s their neighbour Millie, a young woman starting out as a writer who discovers their father dead, standing in his front garden, gazing forever into the heavens at the bright dot of Jupiter. She too has an absent father, one whom her mother refuses point blank to talk about. Given the age difference between her and the twins, it’s no wonder another Kubrick movie gets referenced once or twice.
Early on in the book, Albert is teaching a class about geometric gravity, and the concept of objects being drawn to each other beyond their control is key, as is the idea that space-time is fluid, and that the past and future are unreliable in the extreme depending on your perspective. The Twins Paradox –
“A thought experiment in special relativity in which one twin takes a near light speed journey in a rocket ship and returns to find he has aged less than the twin who stayed behind on earth”
– is cleverly integrated into the story by showing Max and Albert as having become significantly less identical in their ten years apart, but then growing physically more similar the more time they grudgingly spend in each other’s orbit. Beauty is only skin deep though, and in terms of personality the brothers are light years apart. Millie finds herself genuinely attracted to each brother in different ways, simultaneously aware that she is playing a dangerous game in an attempt to further her fledgling career. The consequences both are and aren’t what you might expect, but enough about that.
The toxic fallout from sibling rivalry permeates everything, along with the ill-advised ways in which parents sometimes treat their children. The harmful outcomes of these actions are picked apart by the trio, changing focus each time a new revelation comes to light as the brothers dredge through the accumulated squalor of their father’s house. Millie’s only documented piece of fiction is a tale of weaponized sibling rivalry turned into a hit YouTube show by the children’s manipulative parents. The Webmaster, like Millie, is an only child, and his comments on what transpires at these moments are a mixture of jealousy and relief at the fact.
The Paradox Twins made me think about the old adage that history is written by the winners, even when those winners are colloquial losers. The three protagonists compete with each other to get their own version of the truth into print, but there are question marks over how, when and why the Webmaster chooses to present each strand. The first thing you hear about someone is often the hardest to later disbelieve, and information can be diminished, embellished or withheld entirely to serve a desired narrative. It got me wondering about the comparison the author makes with collage art and how it would tend to instantly be seen in its entirety. Would every viewer see things in a different sequence depending on their own inherent biases, or would a skilled collagist lead everyone’s eye around the canvas in exactly the way they desired? I suspect Joshua Chaplinsky knows the answer.
This is the kind of novel you can take at double-Janus-faced value, but there are rabbit holes to lose yourself in if you so choose. Angel numbers for instance. I have no idea if it was the author’s intention, but there are a couple of instances where room numbers feel like clues. One jumps out as a Kubrick reference (with its own attached conspiracy theories), but I drew a blank with the second. Both the numbers, it turns out, have interpretations in the world of Angel numbers that fit spookily well with the events taking place in those spaces. A coincidence, or simply a different version of the truth? Or did this book break my mind, just a little?
One last Kubrick reference before I wrap up. It had been a while since I’d seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but watching it again after finishing the book was a rewarding experience. Not just because it was a great excuse to bask again in its cold, unhurried, ahead-of-its-time majesty or because I’d forgotten the deep emotional impact of the second half, but because it revealed something I would never have remembered. Something simultaneously small and vast and quietly tucked away. I’ll leave you to remember it or find it yourself, but it might open up a new rabbit hole for you too… or maybe you’ll have the good sense to leave it well enough alone. You can’t know everything. And even if you did, how could you be sure what parts of it were true?
For a debut, this is a stunningly complex and lovingly crafted book about the unfathomable mystery of family and how it evolves over time. It’s about siblings, hard fathers and tougher mothers, and what love can make you do. It’s not really a surprise given his pedigree but Joshua Chaplinsky is a compelling long form author, and I think it’ll be very interesting to see what themes and structures he tackles next. For now though I’m happy to be haunted by the Spaceman, and all the ghosts that trail in his wake.
Matt Neil Hill lives in London, where he was a psych nurse for many years. His writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various publications including Vastarien, Weirdbook, 3AM, Splonk and Shotgun Honey. You can find him on Twitter @mattneilhill.