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The Doppelganger of Dabney Prood

The Doppelganger of Dabney Prood, Nathan Childers, 1974, Varinoma Press, San Luis Obispo.


Varinoma Press has done a signal service to the literary community by reprinting this early seminal work by Nathan Childers. Here we see the master's hand at work before he became so adept at covering his tracks. In a recent seminar (The novel considered as damaged interioricity) he remarked that every novel, properly considered, is a unique tour de force. Among the least worthy and the greatest of works the tour de force is invisible; in the former because paradox is inchoate and in the latter because paradox is so pervasively embedded in the background so that it is not even seen to be there. It is only in the works of the journeymen authors that paradox intrudes by being presented but not hidden.

There is no doubt that this remark was in the highest degree autobiographical and that he was thinking of his own early works such as The Doppelganger of Dabney Prood. That is to say there would be no doubt if it were not that he immediately followed his remark with the comment that his aphorism should be understood to be entirely incorrect.

TDODP has an interesting structure. Nominally it is a short story. Nested within the short story, however, is an essay about a play which is in turn nested within the essay. Nested within the play is a sermon about a novel. Nested within the novel is the original short story. This is the apparent structure.

This device of nesting a story within itself is a popular one but is subject to the difficulty that it produces a work of infinite length, a literary form mastered only by Tolstoy. Childers avoids iteration with an ingenious device. Within the outer works there are both footnotes and nested text. Within the inner works the role of footnotes and nested text are reversed. Thus the texts themselves are repeated but the margins are reflected.

It is only upon careful reading that one recognizes that this device (apparently is only a technical trick) has the effect of making the inner and outer texts mirror images which are reversed in their metaphoricity. That is, the effect is not one of a circular structure but rather that of the moebius strip. Although the texts (sans margins) in each copy are the same, the meanings of events are reversed.

The story chosen for this story is particularly suitable for the structure. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian Gray's picture bears the marks of the life of Dorian Gray. Childers takes the obvious next step. If a mere picture can be the receptacle image bearing the marks of one's life would not one's doppleganger be a more perfect receptacle? Unlike the picture, however, one's doppelganger lives and one in turn bears the marks of the life of one's perfect Other.

The story revolves around the intertwined lives of Dabney Prood and her doppelganger who search for each other and yet, mysteriously, never meet and their mutual love affair with Abner Formax. One may ask (and well one should) whether Dabney Prood has a doppleganger at all or whether her search is a delusional fantasy. The matter is left unresolved in a dance of balanced ambiguity. Formax does not have a doppelganger; he is his own doppelganger and, as such, is the symbol of perfected identity.

One of the devices (and here one sees Childers pandering to the naivete of the reader) is the Jourdain card. This is an ordinary business card. On one side there is the lone statement:

THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS TRUE.

The other side reads:

THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS FALSE.

A moment's thought reveals that these two statements form a paradox. Neither statement can be true or false. This paradox is much beloved by those who relish simple paradoxes. What is seldom realized that there are other variants which are equally puzzling. If both sides read:

THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS TRUE.

then both statements may be either true or false but we do not know which. Even more outre is the variant in which both sides read:

THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS FALSE.

In this case one of the statements is true and one is false but we do not know which. Childers exploits the Jourdain card with great effect. It appears many times, each time with only side shown, sometimes showing true and sometimes false. It alerts us that the events of the mirror imaged stories are ambiguous. Sometimes neither interpretation can be correct. Sometimes both or neither is correct. And sometimes only one is correct but we do not know which.

This is a particularly satisfying work because the structural ambiguities are openly illuminated. The Childers enthusiast will do well to read this work carefully before engaging his later and more demanding works.


Note: I sent a copy of this review to Dr. Childers. He replied, "Well done. You exemplify the reviewer's mind at work."
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