[14 April 2014]
Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, by necessity, opens with a frame narrative: Nicholas Slopen, narrator of the main story, is dead. But before he dies, he pays a visit to his college girlfriend, Susanna. Mere hours later, Nicholas drops dead in Susanna’s house, and two months after that, she finds a flash drive he hid under one of her seat cushions.
The rest of the book, we are told, is the exact manuscript from that drive. And so we are sent gliding along the edge of a Möbius strip that will bring us round to the beginning again, only this time with a greater understanding of what it means for Susanna to be in possession of that tiny flash drive. She may be certain that the man who died in her home was Nicholas Slopen, but the reader will have a more difficult time deciding what to believe.
Through the manuscript from the drive, Nicholas tells us that he has already died, and also that he does not have much time to write to us. He is being held in a mental hospital for storming into his ex-wife’s house and insisting on his identity despite the very public and violent nature of his death some time before. Now he is trapped in a body that originally belonged to someone else. How he came to be so encumbered is a mystery for now, one he cryptically refers to as “the Procedure”.
We learn that Nicholas, as a renowned literary scholar, was called upon to give his opinion on whether some letters belonging to an acquaintance were written by the author Samuel Johnson. He finds that they have actually been written by a man called Jack Telauga, who is introduced to him as a savant of sorts. Nicholas’s curiosity about Jack leads him to become involved not only in Jack’s care, but in a conspiracy of so broad a scope it threatens human existence as it is currently understood: what if experiences and consciousness could be contained only in the words we’ve written? Enough so to re-construct our personalities independently of the bodies they were born into?
Strange Bodies could technically be categorized as science fiction, but it doesn’t read that way, in part because the book favors character over plot and pacing to a degree not common in the genre. It is not only important for us to know what happens, it is vital that we get to know and empathize with Nicholas, since by now the volume in our hands represents the sum total of his personality in more ways than one.
On this point, literature geeks will have an advantage in their ability to recognize the lines of poetry and prose that populate Nicholas’s mind, and which frequently serve to articulate his own feelings more accurately than his own words ever could. When Nicholas is quoting Johnson, or Auden, or Yeats, he and the reader wonder: if we are made up of words, how many of those words belong to other people?
Theroux’s story then, becomes more of a philosophical interrogation with elements of the thriller, and though, like good sci-fi, it poses some moral dilemmas, Strange Bodies refuses to take a firm stance on all but the most clear-cut of its issues. It also establishes itself outside the genre by re-purposing the old as opposed to imagining the new.
For one, it takes place in the recent past. And in addition to featuring a plotline on 18th century author Samuel Johnson, the book bears an affinity to the work of Johnson’s contemporary, Laurence Sterne. As in Tristram Shandy, the narrator’s consciousness transcends the boundaries of his physicality, and his seeming digressions prove to be as important as any forward motion of the plot.
It is a minor drawback of this academic approach that the questions raised by the premise of the story may have more resonance than the story itself. The “Procedure” and other hypothetical events of the story are not quite close enough to reality to arouse any sense of recognition or urgency. What keeps us in touch with the novel is Nicholas himself, or at least, whatever version of him we’re getting, who tells us, “In the end, only two facts stand out to me with absolute clarity: I love my children and I’m going to die. And then again, of whom has that not been true?”
He tells us, rightly, that it is not our differences, but our similarities that make up the strongest components of our identities. So it is with books that are pleasurable to read, as Strange Bodies most certainly is: amidst different combinations of plot, character, language, and so forth, we find the same core element of connection, however fleeting.