Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange Bodies by Marcel TherouxTitle: Strange Bodies
Author: Marcel Theroux
Published:  2 May 2013
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

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.

Up for Review: Strange Bodies

The cover’s shit, but the plot summary made me curious. And hey, it’s written by Louis Theroux’s brother! I know that doesn’t mean the book will be good, but it made me read a bit more about Marcel Theroux. He has an interesting and varied biography, which is always promising for fiction.

Strange Bodies by Marcel TherouxStrange Bodies by Marcel Theroux (Faber and Faber)

NetGalley Blurb:

Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months. So when a man claiming to be Nicholas turns up to visit an old girlfriend, deception seems the only possible motive.Yet nothing can make him change his story. From the secure unit of a notorious psychiatric hospital, he begins to tell his tale: an account of attempted forgery that draws the reader towards an extraordinary truth – a metaphysical conspiracy that lies on the other side of madness and death.

Strange Bodies takes the reader on a dizzying speculative journey that poses questions about identity, authenticity, and what it means to be truly human.

Strange Bodies will be published on 2 May 2013 by Faber and Faber.

Faber and Faber
Buy a copy: The Book Depository | Amazon |

About the Author
Marcel Theroux is a screenwriter, a broadcaster, and an award-winning novelist.

He was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1968. He grew up in England, was awarded a first-class degree in English Literature at Cambridge University and then won a fellowship to Yale where he took an MA in International Relations with a specialization in Soviet and East European Studies.

He has published four novels to critical acclaim. His second novel,The Paperchase, won the Somerset Maugham Award. His most recent novel, Far North (2009) was a finalist for the U.S. National Book Award, the Arthur C Clarke Award, and was awarded the Prix de l’Inaperçu in 2011.

He has written and presented more than a dozen documentaries on subjects ranging from climate change to the Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi. – from the author’s website