Strange Bodies* is a Frankenstein for the twenty-first century, an engrossing, frightening, funny meditation on technology, memory, language, and the nature of identity. It’s speculative fiction meets literary fiction, and it’s a great read. Marcel Theroux is better known on the other side of the Atlantic, but I do hope Strange Bodies grants him a devoted American readership.
(After all, the novel made me, of all people, want to read Samuel Johnson, so you know it’s good.)
Dr. Nicholas Slopen is dead, but it’s very easy to forget that fact as you read his “testimony,” taken from a flash drive given to an old friend (like Mary Shelley’s classic, Strange Bodies is a frame narrative.). In life, Nicky had a troubled marriage, a sputtering career as a professor of eighteenth-century literature (specializing in Johnson), and some very strange run-ins with wealthy people claiming to have discovered a cache of never-before-seen papers in Johnson’s hand. The only trouble is, if Nicky Slope is dead, who’s the “I” narrating his story?
I won’t give too much of the plot away — have a look at the the books several epigraphs, some of the best chosen I’ve ever seen, and you’ll get an idea or two — but the book is more than its twists and bumps in the night. Mr. Theroux clearly enjoys playing with the conventions of mystery and monster novels, and even the lowbrow literary thriller, but it’s when he lets his own style loose that the novel really shines. His imaginings of Johnson’s reactions to twenty-first-century London are blindingly funny and sad at the same time. And his knack for description is wonderful. Take this sentence:
“Every time I came back, Vera seemed more lovely; her eyes behind their thickly made-up lashes tender with sympathy, her broad mouth with its liverish lipstick, the touch of her gloved hand on my knee fierce and protective like the raised wing of a mother swan” (113).
I love the contrast of the vaguely ghoulish “liverish” lips and the maternal tenderness of the “raised wing of a mother swan.” Elsewhere in the novel, the descriptions are mordant; he suggests that overindulgence in Bikram yoga has turned a woman to gristle (for the life of me I can’t find the page number on that). Hilarious. Actually, considering the novel’s grim premise, I found myself laughing more than expected.
Strange Bodies is smart and literary and scary, all at once. If you read it, you’ll be wondering why you haven’t read Marcel Theroux before.
* My thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.