In an age when our written words are more publicly available than ever, thanks to blogging, social networking, self-published e-books and internet message boards, Marcel Theroux's Strange Bodies presents us with a prospect that seems even more sinister than it otherwise might: the notion that our personalities, our consciousness, our very being, could be reproduced solely from our written output.
Told through a combination of written forms including a psychiatrist's case notes and the memoir of one of her patients, Strange Bodies explores some expansive themes, including identity, our thirst for immortality, scientific ethics and what really makes us the people we are.
Like Theroux's dystopian novel Far North, Strange Bodies has many of the trappings of science-fiction, but this is almost incidental - genre-wise, this is literary fiction more akin to, say, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or the speculative works of Margaret Atwood than full-on sci-fi. The plot has all the drive and thrust of a thriller, with Nicholas Slopen, an academic whose specialism is the life and work of Samuel Johnson, finding himself pulled into a dangerous scientific conspiracy growing from a seed planted in the former Soviet Union, but Strange Bodies is much more than that. It's also a thought-provoking novel about language and how it shapes our identities and relationships.
Nicholas is a convincingly inept hero with numerous faults, although his growing awareness of them and his increasingly heightened understanding as the story unfolds mean it's impossible for the reader not to sympathise with him, often deeply, and his relationship with Jack, an outwardly brutish savant with a seemingly unique talent, is perhaps one of the most touching elements of the book. Theroux also paints a vivid and plausible picture of the fluctuating mental health of Nicholas, and others, throughout: sometimes the fear of madness (as Samuel Johnson himself knew only too well) is worse than madness itself.
Weaving in numerous literary allusions and references, as well as elements of Frankenstein and age-old myths of doppelgangers and golems, Strange Bodies is an exceptionally well-executed novel, often sharply observant, in which the different themes interlock with the neat intricacy of meticulously-crafted clockwork.
When Nicholas Slopen turns up at the shop of an old friend, she is stunned. He looks completely different, his voice is different but, most surprisingly of all, she'd heard he'd died the year before. And yet once they start talking, she is soon convinced that it is indeed he.
This intelligent and very well written book poses the question - what makes us, us? Can we be defined, summed up, by the words we speak? What if we are sundered irrevocably from all our relationships - personal, professional, social: are we still us?
Our narrator, known as Q by his psychiatrist but calling himself Dr Nicholas Slopen, relates his story from the secure facility of the Royal Bethlehem Hospital (a descendant of Bedlam) to where he has been sectioned. Since Dr Slopen died the year before, and the authorities have his body and autopsy photographs to prove it, and since Q looks nothing like him, he is considered to be suffering from a delusion. But he has all Dr Slopen's memories and an explanation of how he has become who - or what - he is. An explanation so fantastical that he understands why no-one will believe him...
Dr Slopen's story begins when he is asked to use his expertise to authenticate some letters apparently written by Samuel Johnson. He is entirely convinced by the handwriting and content that these letters can only be genuine, but they are written on paper that wouldn't have been available to Johnson. From this beginning, the author takes us on an investigation into identity, individuality and authenticity that is entertaining and unsettling in equal measure. Theroux weaves notions of psychiatry, philosophy, science and politics into a story where the human motivations become scarily believable even while the central point remains deliberately incredible. A story of mad science turned to evil purpose, the age-old search for immortality, man's inhumanity to man, but at its heart this is a search for a definition of humanity.
Amidst all the fascinating theorising and philosophising, Theroux doesn't forget to give us some well-rounded characterisation and a great story. At first, Slopen is an unattractive character, smug and superior, an academic disappointed at the world's failure to reward him as he feels he merits. But as his nightmarish journey progresses, we see him develop compassion, a conscience, perhaps, and even courage. Jack, the mysterious savant, demands our sympathy and Vera, who cares for him, remains always enigmatic and somewhat unfathomable. An exceptional book in what is turning out to be a vintage year for exceptional books, this is both enjoyable and thought-provoking and will leave this reader at least mulling over some of the many questions it raises. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.
on 13 May 2013
A taut piece of literary science fiction; a witty philosophical jeu d'esprit; a profound meditation on mortality and fatherhood; a London thriller; Strange Bodies is all of these and more.
It starts with the reappearance of a dead man, or rather a man who claims to be the incarnation of a someone who is dead - the catch being that the revenant in question does not actually resemble the deceased.
How did "Nicky Slopen" - if it is he - come to inhabit another man's body? The answer involves a circuitous and highly entertaining journey into a world of shadowy international gangsters and semi-detached suburbanites in Tooting, taking in the thrills of a cloak-and-dagger investigation and the routine heartbreaks of adultery and divorce.
I confess I have a soft spot for well-crafted genre novels - and also that I have relationship with the author (he's my brother). But those two caveats notwithstanding, Strange Bodies is a superb book: well-paced, full of true-to-life observations, beautifully written and highly inventive.
The themes are developed with wonderful delicacy and the narrative takes in a trove of fascinating bits of historical esoterica from all over the world. The more fantastical elements never feel forced but serve instead to explore the oldest questions of the human condition: the soul's imprisonment in the body, the aging process, the nature of insanity, the inevitability of loss and the redemption of love. Strange Bodies bears comparison with some of my favourite books - Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, evoking a more benign Michel Houellebecq, or a longer-form H.P. Lovecraft...
If any of these are remotely your cup of tea, you are guaranteed to enjoy Strange Bodies.
on 19 May 2013
Strange Bodies details the first-person account of Dr. Nicholas Slopen, a literary academic and expert on the life and work of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Slopen dictates his story from the Dangerous Humans Unit (DHU), a mental institution in which he currently resides as a patient. Because, despite the narrator's unwavering adherence to his identity and life history, Dr. Nicholas Slopen is dead. The novel begins with Nicholas Slopen called upon by music mogul Hunter Gould to verify the authenticity of some letters, supposedly authored by Dr. Johnson. Determining the letters to be fakes, written precisely in authentic style and language but sloppy in physical appearance, Nicholas concludes that only the most elaborate of fraudulent projects could produce such items. He is subsequently introduced to Jack Telagua, a man seemingly mentally deranged, who writes and speaks entirely in the character of Dr. Johnson. Initially accepting that Jack suffers from some form of psychosis, Nicholas begins to believe that there is something more going on. As the story unfolds, Nicholas is brought into a world of metaphysical uncertainty, learning that Soviet experimentation with consciousness has produced a Procedure through which it is possible to replicate one person's consciousness in the physical body (or 'carcass' of another). As the threads come together, it is clear that the Nicholas Slopen relating the story, as dictated in Strange Bodies, has found himself subject to this process. Knowing that his time is short, he lays out to the reader the facts of how he came to undergo the Procedure, while simultaneously working to convince the doctors of the DHU that, despite appearances, he is in fact the dead man, Nicholas Slopen.
Strange Bodies is unbelievably ambitious in its scope. Falling somewhere between thriller, science-fiction, and philosophical masterpiece, this book is one that pushes its readers to confront accepted truths. Most fundamentally, in asking the central question of what constitutes humanness, it posits a lack of uniqueness that runs against widely accepted and celebrated individuality: "The truth is we are virtually identical. We are interchangeable. That is the true beauty of humanity: ant beauty, not peacock beauty. We persuade ourselves that we are unique, but the typologist of human experience would have his work done in an afternoon. Every father weeps at his daughter's wedding, knowing that the tiny sugar plum he held at birth is being entrusted to another man."
Perhaps the most effective way to perceive Strange Bodies is as a contemporary literary form of the thought experiment. It introduces the reader to Nicholas Slopen, dead man, and, through his first-person narrative, is able to reveal the fundamental human reaction to the raw truth of humanness. The Nicholas who tells this story is a man detached from his old physical being, his consciousness now transferred into an unknown body. He must confront the implications of the detachment, what it means for accepted 'facts' of the essence of humanity, but also what it means as an individual, having to convince those he has known and loved (as well as the Doctors who think he is crazy) that he is, in fact, Nicholas Slopen. It is in those moments, when Nicholas in his new physical existence must confront the loved aspects his 'old' life, that Strange Bodies becomes painfully real in its attention to the human experience.
Yes, Strange Bodies is an astonishingly ambitious work. But it succeeds absolutely. Marcel Theroux delivers a work that challenges his readers without entering into the dangerous territory of pretension or overcomplexity. It is a remarkable achievement. I was left struck by Theroux's attention to detail, the sheer intelligence with which he has thought through the premises of the novel, and the extent of the research that must have been conducted to blend the fictional with the factual. Once you have closed the final pages of Strange Bodies, you will find yourself unable to let go of its conclusions and implications. Because what makes this novel so powerful is the efficacy with which Theroux takes a fundamentally philosophical question - of what it is to be human - and gives it a personal perspective. Through Nicholas' extreme experience - the detachment and coding of his consciousness and its transfer into a new physical existence - the reader is taken beyond abstract reasoning and argument, into a world of first-hand experience and perspective.
Strange Bodies is truly unlike any book I have read, walking new ground and breaking down barriers between genres. Utterly remarkable and resoundingly recommended.
on 23 July 2014
This latest take on the Frankenstein theme is a thoroughly entertaining albeit unconvincing read. Marcel Theroux writes with enviable fluency and his narrator grows on you - though Nicholas is initially unsympathetic, you get to like him and to feel for his plight. I thought the early part of the book, dealing with Nicholas's encounter with Jack and the mystery of Jack's extraordinary powers, was the best, reminiscent of the modern gothic school of Palliser and Pears. The middle section, set in Russia, gripped me less, especially the details of the Procedure. And the book does rather tail off, as if Theroux didn't know how to end it. But it offers a solid narrative with some nice twists, enriched by some thought-provoking musings on identity and the formation of consciousness. The author is obviously very talented and I shall look out for more of his work.
on 16 June 2014
I found I couldn't put this down. It got more intriguing as it evolved from a mystery to a somewhat old fashioned science fiction melodrama to, ultimately, a telling and moving reflection on life and death.
This is a very clever book that wears its erudition lightly, never allowing the narrator's meditations on the nature of existence to get in the way of a gripping plot. 'Strange Bodies' is a refreshing alternative to the many stale, formulaic novels that are published these days. Its narrative may sound completely bonkers, but it is actually strangely plausible and whilst the central conceit is pure science fiction, it never feels like it.
Theroux's dissection of middle-class London life is very funny, but at its heart, this is a sad, poignant and surprisingly moving book about identity and loss.
on 14 May 2013
Oh the sheer, absolute pleasure of finding a book that has enormous depth of intelligence behind it, in which every sentence is breathtakingly original and beautiful and which races along with tension and suspense. I found myself completely mesmerised by the language and plot of Strange Bodies, oblivious to anything going on around me - an out of body experience that seemed very appropriate given the subject matter...
The other reviews have provided very fitting summaries so I won't do that here. Suffice to say I loved it and would recommend it to anyone looking for a book that is ridiculously wonderful to read while provoking the most intriguing questions about our existence. Excellent. My money is on this for the Booker.
on 23 June 2014
I haven't read any of Marcel Theroux's other books, but it's hard to think that he could have written something better than this. At once, it's a compulsive thriller and a literary novel - indeed, the strength of Theroux's metaphysical horror story comes in its ability to meld these two forms of storytelling into a seamless whole, as our narrator - one Nicholas Slopen - a man thought to be dead - turns up one day and spooks an old girlfriend. What follows is a dark and compulsive tale of forgery and conspiracy.
And so there are constant twists and turns ahoy to keep readers of all types hooked, though the sheer breadth of ideas and themes inherent to this novel is downright astounding. Not a page goes by whereupon the writing feels half-realised. Theroux has poured his own soul into the text - a love letter to literature, and the everlasting power of books. Much of the story here concerns the likes of romantic era poet Dr. Samuel Johnson, and though those familiar with his work will likely find a great more to like about this book, in-depth knowledge isn't essential.
A genuinely sad and haunting novel, this is the best book I've read all year.
on 23 July 2014
At times I had difficulty in following this but as I persevered I became more engaged and ultimately was enthralled. I suppose one could nitpick and argue that there are faults and weaknesses in the plot but the overall strength of narrative overcomes any doubts and results in a compelling read.