Strange Bodies is framed as the testimony of a man named Nicky Slopen, an academic who died several months before writing his story, and who dies again – for good? – at the end of prologue. He claims to be Nicky in a different body, his family and his old life forever lost to him because he no longer looks like the man they know.
After being incarcerated in a mental institution, Nicky started writing his testimony, a story that begins when a famous music producer asks him to authenticate some letters written by Samuel Johnson. As far as Nicky can tell, the style matches Johnson’s exactly, and he believes the letters are real until he takes a closer look at the paper they’re written on – too modern. But the question of authenticity becomes increasingly blurry when Nicky meets Jack, the man who wrote the letters. Jack appears to be some kind of idiot savant; his penmanship and writing style somehow match Johnson’s perfectly, but he spends most of his time locked in a room because of his inability to handle everyday life. Jack insists that he is Samuel Johnson, and is deeply distressed by the unfamiliar modern world he finds himself in.
Nicky, of course, is absolutely certain that the man is insane, no matter how much he behaves like Johnson (on whom Nicky is an expert). For the reader, Nicky’s conviction is deeply ironic, given that his mental-institution narrative shows him trapped in the exact same dilemma – his consciousness is housed in a strange body that prevents him from laying claim to his original identity. The truth of this is taken as proof of madness. Exactly how he ended in a mental institution, in another man’s body, is the subject of the latter part of the story.
Body-swapping is hardly a new concept in sf, but Theroux takes a more metafictional, literary approach than most. The how and why of Nicky and Jack/Samuel’s predicament is only explored in the last third or quarter of the novel. There’s a lot of action/thriller potential, but Theroux keeps the pace slow and steady, focusing on Nicky’s personal dramas and existential ideas. Theroux also takes a fairly close look at Jack/Samuel’s character, whose behaviour matches everything that Nick knows about him – his style of speech and writing, his religious beliefs, his culture. The novel is essentially a reflection on consciousness and human existence. What makes you who you are? Can you be the same person in a different body? In a different time and culture? Does the previous owner of Nicky’s new body still linger in the flesh?
I won’t get into the hows and whys of the ‘strange bodies’ because they occur so late that they constitute a spoiler, but they do make up the most interesting part of the novel. That said, this part is also written rather clumsily in comparison to the rest – all of a sudden you’re faced with long tracts of info dumping, and if you don’t find it interesting it’s going to be a chore to read.
Another glitch is that it requires a quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that Nicky found the time to write his testimony, which, of course, amounts to an entire novel. I think he wrote most of it during the periods he was allowed to use his therapist’s computer, and he still found time to hack into her files and read her case notes on him.
He asks us to “forgive my forgoing the usual niceties of autobiography” because of the constraints imposed upon him, but he nevertheless gives us a detailed – and rather boring – personal history, in addition to the relatively lengthy main story. This story – his mental institution narrative interspersing the main narrative about how he ended up there – is neatly structured, suggesting that Nicky somehow found the time to do a bit of editing and fill in the gaps that would naturally form when you tell a long story like this.
Overall, it’s not a bad book and it has some interesting ideas, but the story as a whole isn’t particularly compelling. Whether the novel is able to captivate you on a philosophical level is a matter of personal interest. For me, it’s kind of vague and failed to leave much of an impression. I don’t have much to say about it now, and I know I’m going to forget most of it in a couple of months.