Marcel Theroux’s new novel Strange Bodies is that type of hybrid between literary endeavor and genre tropes, a mix of the thoughtful along with plotted twists worthy of a Sherlockian tale. The central idea that Theroux delves into is the mystery of consciousness – what is it? what is it not? – which has been a common staple for science fiction writers ever since Mary Shelly dreamed up her nightmare story of Frankenstein.
Nicholas Slopin, a beaten down academic and a failed husband and father, is called upon by a document buyer to authenticate some unknown letters by the inimitable Samuel Johnson. Slopin being an expert in Johnson is tantalized by these new finds but cautious. After viewing the originals, he is convinced that his buyer is being taken for fraud. The seller Sinan Malevin, a Russian émigré and his employee Vera Telauga, assure Nicholas that the letters are indeed not forgeries, but as Nicholas presses them he finds out the letters are not originals either. Nicholas is introduced to Jack Telauga, a large burly man of tattoos, who is either half drugged or half crazed most of the time, but who speaks and writes like Dr. Johnson himself.
Now mind you, we are being told this story by a Nicholas Slopin who is being held inside a London psychiatric hospital. Apparently Nicholas Slopin died in a car accident several months back, but this other individual insists he is actually the real Nicholas Slopin, and to set the record straight, we become the captive readers of his unfolding narrative.
So who are these people? Is Jack a mere counterfeit of the historical Dr. Johnson? Is the mental alive Nicholas the same as the authentic dead Nicholas, though they appear to be two different people? Theroux keeps the answers until the end, and thought it seems obvious where things are going, the story keeps drawing you by giving it time to breath with Nicholas’s life. There is an uncomfortable sadness about it: failed relationships abound, reminding one of the precariousness of one’s happiness and how much is made or unmade in the relationships we enter into, with others and with ourselves.
Nicholas while is stranded in hospital with no hope of getting out, ruminates on his situation:
The strong temptation is to begin every session here with the words “The irony is…” I’m poor in everything but ironies, and to be truthful, I’ve forgotten what’s so good about irony in the first place. It’s just the resting state of the universe. Johnson puts it best in a section I can recall from memory. “The real state of the sublunary nature,” he calls it, “in which, at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design or purpose.”
…Good becomes bad, bad good; love degenerates to dullness and senseless animosity. Irony is not order, but it gives a shape to things…God is not just, perhaps, but his grasp of irony shows that at least he has a sense of humor. This is supposed to be comforting. (77-78)
But the little irony that Nicholas holds on to for a shape of his peculiar situation is far from comforting and only throws into relief how much he has fallen from any life that he once had.
I was thoroughly taken with Marcel Theroux's writing – he certainly does not embarrass his more well-known father Paul. The writing never appeared to contain a false note amid the strangeness, establishing it’s believability with a voice that could have easily gone off the rails. At one point a character speaks about how language is essential to the construction of consciousness and that without it humans would be no more than a perambulating carcass. Whether one believes such things or not (I lean towards the not) it is clear that Theroux’s language has imbued some paper, ink, and binding with a story that is alive with flesh and blood, constructing a man’s mind that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. From forged letters to forged people, in the end all secrets are told, and told well enough that makes the story not just an engaging thriller, but a worthwhile exploration of identity, the mind, and the body.