‘Doppelgänger, Poltergeist’ by Denis Johnson

This is from a short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, that both sits lightly on the soul and then with hindsight crushes it. Writing, the narrator explains in ‘Triumph Over the Grave’, is like “filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie.” And this neatly summarises the surface ordinariness of Johnson’s fiction, a surface that camouflages a despair so tightly spun that it takes longer than the duration of the story to get you. These stories are the same as when someone asks if you’re ok and you say yes even though you aren’t. Comprising of just five longish pieces, it’s full of questions the narrators won’t let themselves ask and people casually unsure of whether they’re alive or dead. It also contains an epitaph that is far better than Spike Milligan’s ‘I told you I was ill’. ‘Starlight on Idaho’ ends a with gravestone that has ‘I Should Be Dead’ scrawled across it.      
‘Doppelgänger, Poltergeist’ follows a lonely poet—who looks like Glenn Gould—and a disillusioned academic, charting their coincidental meetings across a massive time period—a heady mix of Austerlitz and The Big Lebowski (sorry for mixing mediums). There is a bizarre theory about Elvis being swapped with his dead twin brother during the war, but really the story unearths the similarities between conspiracy theories and creativity. It’s also about the cult of celebrity and how certain icons, like Elvis, can haunt us. They have a distant and ethereal presence yet they have the ghostly power to move our minds and bodies, they might even make us throw objects across the room. Are we all poltergeists? 

From The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Jonathan Cape, 2018

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