Refer back to this week’s What I’m Reading Wednesday post and you will remember my simultaneous feelings of fear and excitement at the prospect of this review. I have little reluctance in stating that Strange Bodies is one of the most astonishing books of its literary generation – a fact that, when combined with its multiplicity of overlapping genres and themes, makes the task of reviewing a daunting one. I came across Strange Bodies after seeing a Twitter recommendation (I am SO 21st century…when not engaged in my ongoing battle of wills with the world of technology) from the author’s brother, Louis Theroux. I have been a fan of Louis for a number of years and I’m sure that those of you familiar with his fantastic documentaries would agree. Having also come across his father, Paul Theroux, with a reputation as one of the world’s greatest travel writers, the Theroux family is undoubtedly one of substantial reputation. While not familiar with any of Marcel Theroux’s previous works, I have heard very good things and decided that it was about time I give one of his novels a go. With Strange Bodies released at the beginning of this month and an Amazon giftcard from my ever-generous Aunt, means and opportunity collided to bring me face-to-book with this truly astonishing novel.
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.
As you may very well be able to tell from the above blurb, Strange Bodies is a novel of incredible complexity. Relatively effortless when reading, I was aware that it would take some serious thought to create a concise plot summary. This was a view only reinforced by my attempts to work through reviews before purchasing the book – reviews that inevitably left me a great deal more confused about the plot. This confusion is certainly not, however, reflected in the narrative or style of the novel, which reads with real ease. Rather, I think it is largely a result of the multiple themes at operation, undoubtedly posing difficulty in offering up a concise review of the work. 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 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:
“And yet, here is a paradox. While no longer myself, I have never felt so clearly myself. As grandiose as it sounds, I feel closer than at any time in my life to perceiving the truth of the universe – the penumbra of sacred feeling which rings the real. Which constitutes the real. Without which we are so much meat and bone whizzing through space. Mono no aware, the Japanese call it. That feeling over things which suffuses their art with stoic melancholy, the only true response to the transience and beauty of our existence. Oh my poor children. Did anyone care how I knew their names? How many times have these hands bathed their pretty heads? But force of habit misleads me. Not these hands, of course. Not once.”
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.