Strange Bodies: A Novel
by Marcel Theroux
"He didn't seem conventionally insane in any way that I could understand. But there was no way of comprehending him. In some eerie and fundamental way, he didn't appear to belong to our world. But that didn't seem the same as being mad." (p 157)
The Theroux family has an impressive literary heritage. I first encountered Paul Theroux, an American travel writer and novelist, through reading his popular and mesmerizing travel narrative The Great Railway Bazaar. I also enjoyed his novel, The Mosquito Coast, that won the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Then there is his brother, Alexander, who is a writer and artist whose Darconville's Cat: A Novel is a Rabelaisian epic both in its words and multiple styles. But there is a new generation of literary members of this family that includes Marcel Theroux, Paul's son.
It is Marcel's most recent novel that I found on the library shelves recently. It is a labyrinthine exploration of identity and mortality, filled with big ideas. That would have carried many for more than the less than three hundred pages of this unique story. It qualifies as what I, adopting the approach of Margaret Atwood, would call speculative fiction; others might go further and call it science fiction. Either way it is a neat combination of literary criticism (the protagonist is a Samuel Johnson scholar, or perhaps he was); a conspiracy about the science of consciousness involving new bodies (sort of neo-Frankenstein); and a love angle or two that may involve some necrotic foreplay.
Dr. Nicholas Slopen—the literary scholar and Johnson expert—has already been declared dead at least once, before the novel presents itself as the testimony found by a former lover on a flash memory stick. The document begins in a mental ward, where the patient is trying to convince his therapists that he is in fact Slopen, whose death has been well-documented. He then relates the tale of how he (Slopen) had been hired to document some newly discovered Johnson letters that he immediately dismissed as fake, before realizing that he was in the midst of something far more extraordinary and sinister. Vera, a woman Nicholas makes friends with after a mysterious Silicon Valley type has hired him to authenticate some unearthed writings by Johnson, wears corrective shoes and acts as a kind of menial for more elite bosses. When Nicholas's examination of the unearthed documents turns up some oddities, he finds himself in communication with the novel's most interesting character, Jack—an initially nonverbal savant who was convinced that he was in fact Johnson and who eventually convinces the scholar that something stranger is afoot than fraud or even madness. “I felt I understood less and less, even as, intuitively, I was drawing closer to the hidden chamber of the infinitely dark truth.”
And within that infinitely dark truth, distinctions between sanity and madness, life and death are not nearly as absolute as they might have initially appeared: “All madness has a touch of death to it....But the finer details of reality—the state of a marriage, artistic merit, a person’s true nature—have something delicate and consensual about them....Each time someone drops out of our collective reality, it weakens a little.” The author interpolates comments from the observers of the supposed Nicholas Slopen and the plot gradually becomes one of strange bodies and stranger activities. The exact way in which the titular strange bodies begin to manifest themselves in the tale at this point makes reading this novel worth your while.
This fictional narrative could be compared to Philip K. Dick or perhaps Borges, but whether it reminds you of them or others you may have read it is unique in the style and marvelous tightness of Theroux's structure, which launches the final part of the story with more than one delicious twist. Twists aside, though, this is a thoughtful book that interrogates the intersection of literature and the self. Why are we drawn to certain works? To what extent are we defined by our literatures? Can books and ideas grant us a kind of immortality? Can great authors really shape our lives or our world? There is also a theme that seems to ask to what extent we can control books and authors—how much of them are "ours" (the rightful property of the public domain) and how much of them should be? These questions keep you wondering—and ensure that Theroux's strange little world will work its way under your skin. Theroux, like his father and uncle, is a master prose-smith; he builds a great, brooding atmosphere of slow-burning dread, splicing bits of Milton into conversations in which characters have "the haunted and knowing eyes of a caged ape" (p. 71). As Nicholas's ordinary life begins to disintegrate, the self-pitying tone in which he narrates the beginning of the novel takes on new meaning and leaves us ultimately moved by his plight. Often enthralling and occasionally maddening, the novel expands the reader’s sense of possibility even as it strains credulity.
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