Strange Bodies: A Novel

( 2 )

Overview

A dizzying novel of deception and metempsychosis by the author of the National Book Award finalist Far North

Whatever this is, it started when Nicholas Slopen came back from the dead.

In a locked ward of a notorious psychiatric hospital sits a man who insists that he is Dr. Nicholas Slopen, failed husband and impoverished Samuel Johnson scholar. Slopen has been dead for months, yet nothing can make this man change his story. What...

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Overview

A dizzying novel of deception and metempsychosis by the author of the National Book Award finalist Far North

Whatever this is, it started when Nicholas Slopen came back from the dead.

In a locked ward of a notorious psychiatric hospital sits a man who insists that he is Dr. Nicholas Slopen, failed husband and impoverished Samuel Johnson scholar. Slopen has been dead for months, yet nothing can make this man change his story. What begins as a tale of apparent forgery involving unknown letters by the great Dr. Johnson grows to encompass a conspiracy between a Silicon Valley mogul and his Russian allies to exploit the darkest secret of Soviet technology: the Malevin Procedure.

     With echoes of Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick, Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies takes the reader on a dizzying speculative journey that poses questions about identity, authenticity, and what it means to be truly human.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/21/2013
Literary science fiction has portrayed walking dead, living dead, undead, and to this mix Theroux now adds strange bodies (mankurt), in a strange, satisfying novel about possession featuring a literary scholar, a music mogul, assorted East European thugs, and the long dead but still articulate Dr. Samuel Johnson. A gloomy English academic with an unappreciated gift for forensic nuance, Nicholas Slopen is in serious need of money when entrepreneur/collector Hunter Gould asks him to authenticate papers purported to be Dr. Johnson’s handiwork. Close examination convinces Nicholas the papers are indeed Johnson’s, but also that they are fakes (the papers’ old-fashioned script on more modern material suggests foul play). Sure enough, Nicholas is drawn into a network of enslaved human bodies inhabited by the souls of dead people. Following the death of the human currently inhabited by Johnson, Nicholas undergoes a crypto-scientific procedure reminiscent of something from an old horror movie, after which he finds his body inhabited by someone else, while his soul is trapped inside an ex-convict’s sturdy, tattooed physique. Attempting to explain himself to his ex-wife lands Nicholas in the modern incarnation of Bedlam. Theroux recounts this contemporary gothic tale in Nicholas’s own words, those of the women Nicholas reaches out to, doctors’ notes, and e-mails, demonstrating mastery of diverse styles, including Johnson’s. Observations about science, medicine, psychology, love, madness, and literature result in a thought-provoking and engaging fusion of comedy and horror, irony and insight. Agent: Elizabeth Sheinkman, WME Entertainment. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"[Strange Bodies is] a literary science fiction novel as entertaining as it is thought-provoking and disturbing . . . Theroux masterfully braids horror and ontology, Nabokovian doppelgangers and Orwellian satire into a tragicomic narrative that pulls tight as a noose . . . A brilliant, troubling thriller." —Elizabeth Hand, Los Angeles Times

"[A] page-turning, thought-provoking, exhilarating novel . . . ‘Thriller’ may be a somewhat misleading label to fasten on a modern fable that also has elements of science fiction, dystopia and domestic comedy. But without a doubt, Strange Bodies is a thrill to read." —Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal

"[Theroux] is a superb writer . . . There are beautiful things, real things, tucked in this novel." —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"Strange Bodies is a rich read about so much more than the secrets that make it tick. Theroux’s use of language is gorgeous." —Adrienne Martini, Locus

"I could not put [Strange Bodies] down . . . It was truly a joy to read each sentence." —Robert K. Lewis, Criminal Element

"A strange, satisfying novel about possession featuring a literary scholar, a music mogul, assorted East European thugs, and the long dead but still articulate Dr. Samuel Johnson . . . A thought-provoking and engaging fusion of comedy and horror." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Truly enthralling . . . An intense and nuanced examination of the plight of being . . . Philip K. Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer meets Stephenie Meyer’s The Host in this very highly recommended work." —Henry Bankhead, Library Journal (starred review)

"A labyrinthine exploration of identity and mortality, filled with big ideas." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Theroux has a knack for warping the anxieties of the present into an unsettling vision of our possible future. His focus here could not be timelier." —Steve Almond, The New York Times Book Review

"This is a superb technological fantasy, a tense thriller and a brilliantly imagined debate about the relationship between body and soul. Wonderful." —Kate Saunders, The Times (London)

"An eerily plausible modern Frankenstein . . . It’s not often you read a book as clever as this that is also emotionally charged and moving." —Doug Johnstone, The Independent

"Strange Bodies is an examination of contemporary consciousness. But from its robust hook, through its comic set-up, to its dark if hopeful conclusions, it is also a kindly, intelligently entertaining thriller." —M. John Harrison, The Times Literary Supplement

"The perfect literary thriller for the internet age." —Red Online

"The unfolding of the narrative is genuinely eerie, but the richness of allusion and elegance of design make Strange Bodies as much an inquiry into language and identity as a high-concept literary thriller . . . Its exploration of human vulnerability, the notion that consciousness may be no more than ‘a trick of the light,’ is moving as well as thought-provoking, as elegiac as it is gripping." —Justine Jordan, The Guardian

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-08
A labyrinthine exploration of identity and mortality, filled with big ideas that transcend the occasionally clunky plotting. As one of the more literary-minded of science-fiction novelists (or vice versa), Theroux (Far North, 2009, etc.) challenges summary in a novel that encompasses literary criticism (the protagonist is a Samuel Johnson scholar, or perhaps he was); a conspiracy between a record company mogul and Russian scientists that involves shifting an individual's consciousness into a new body (or "carcass"); and a couple of possible love stories that may include romance between the living and the dead. Dr. Nicholas Slopen--the literary scholar and Johnson expert--has already been declared dead once, and perhaps twice, by the time the novel presents itself as the testimony found by a former lover on a flash memory stick. The document begins in a mental ward, where the patient is trying to convince his therapists that he is in fact Slopen, whose death has been well-documented. He then relates the tale of how he (Slopen) had been hired to document some newly discovered Johnson letters that he immediately dismissed as fake, before realizing that he was in the midst of something far more extraordinary and sinister. The letters were written by an initially nonverbal savant who was convinced that he was in fact Johnson and who eventually convinces the scholar that something stranger is afoot than fraud or even madness. "I felt I understood less and less, even as, intuitively, I was drawing closer to the hidden chamber of the infinitely dark truth." And within that infinitely dark truth, distinctions between sanity and madness, life and death are not nearly as absolute as they might have initially appeared: "All madness has a touch of death to it....But the finer details of reality--the state of a marriage, artistic merit, a person's true nature--have something delicate and consensual about them....Each time someone drops out of our collective reality, it weakens a little." Often enthralling and occasionally maddening, the novel expands the reader's sense of possibility even as it strains credulity.
Library Journal
★ 11/15/2013
National Book Award finalist Theroux (The Far North) opens this new novel with protagonist and scholar Nicholas Slopen—recently deceased, who is paradoxically now living in another body. The book then unspools into a fascinating tale about how this transformation came about. Revealed is the concept that original text can be used to re-create the consciousness of the author in another body. The person does not even have to be alive if enough information, such as letters or opinions, written by the author exists; thus, writers from the past can even be reanimated. The way in which the narrator deals with the ethical, mechanical, and psychological problems that arise makes this reading experience truly enthralling. The detailed renderings of Slopen's emotions, especially with regard to family and literature, provide an intense and nuanced examination of the plight of being. VERDICT The particulars of the science aside, this work is essentially asking a compelling question about identity: What makes us who we are? Here Philip K. Dick's The Transmigration of Timothy Archer meets Stephenie Meyer's The Host in this very highly recommended work. [See Prepub Alert, 8/12/13.]—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374270650
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/4/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 98,684
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Marcel Theroux is the author of several novels, including Far North, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. He lives in London, where he also works as a documentary filmmaker and television presenter.

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Read an Excerpt

1

 

 

My name is Nicholas Patrick Slopen. I was born in Singapore City on April 10, 1970. I died on September 28, 2009, crushed in the wheel arch of a lorry outside Oval tube station.

This document is my testimony.

As will shortly become clear, I have an unknown but definitely brief period of time to explain the events leading up to my death and to establish the continuity of my identity after it. In view of the constraints upon me, I hope the reader will forgive my forgoing the usual niceties of autobiography. At the same time, I will have to commit myself to some details with a certain, and perhaps wearisome, degree of exactitude in order to provide evidence to support the contention contained in the first paragraph of this testimony: that I am Nicholas Slopen, and that my consciousness has survived my bodily death.

According to convention, I ought to give some account of my birth and childhood, but time is very short and little of that information is of material consequence to my narrative. The events leading up to my death began with the moment on April 15, 2009, when I arrived for lunch at the Green Gorse Tavern in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, shortly before one o’clock.

I had been invited there by Hunter Gould, who is, as I believe is well known, a figure of some notoriety in the music industry. It’s not my intention to disguise or protect any identities in this document. Let them be answerable for what they have done.

Hunter, whom I had never met before, had approached me with an invitation for lunch through his secretary, Ms. Preethika Choudhury. In a subsequent exchange of e-mails, Preethika explained that in addition to his musical interests, Hunter was a keen amateur collector of literary memorabilia and was seeking my help in authenticating a collection of letters that had been offered to him for sale by a private dealer.

Though it was a mild day, I had brought with me a precautionary raincoat folded into an oblong package under my left arm; in my right hand, I held a dented leather briefcase that was a gift to me from my wife, Leonora, and had belonged to her father, Bahman, who was himself a scholar of English literature, though his principal expertise was in early medieval Farsi poetry. I surrendered the coat to the maître d’ but kept hold of the case, which contained a facsimile holograph letter written by the eighteenth-century lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, a back number of Modern Languages Quarterly, a crumpled copy of the Evening Standard, and a sachet of antiwrinkle cream.

I see already I have failed in my resolution to be as concise as possible.

Forgive me. It must be hard for anyone to imagine the degree of comfort I obtain from the vividness of these recollections.

If only I had the luxury of time, there is so very much more I would like to add. It is hard to relinquish all that I once possessed: the person I once was and the people I loved, however inadequately; more than mere vanity suffers at the conscious abbreviation of so much that was important to me.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should explain that I am currently incarcerated in the Dennis Hill Unit of the Maudsley Trust. The DHU is a secure facility, for people who have been sectioned for their own or others’ safety. The wags in here call it the Dangerous Humans Unit. It’s located in the Bethlem Royal Hospital, itself a lineal descendant of Bedlam, the notorious insane asylum that provided nugatory medical care for its inmates, but a rather higher standard of entertainment for the fashionable ladies and gentlemen who came to laugh at them. I appreciate that none of these details enhance the plausibility of what I am setting down.

The awfulness of my position almost defies summary. I was detained two weeks ago after an incident that took place at the home of my wife and in the presence of my son, Lucius. I am now being held for assessment under Section 2 of the 1983 Mental Health Act. Under the terms of the section, Leonora is my nearest relative and has the right to request my discharge. However, as far as Leonora is concerned I have been dead for months. All she knows is that a total stranger burst into her house, berated her, and tearfully claimed to have usurped her dead husband’s identity. There’s little doubt that I would, in her position, have called the police as well.

And yet, here is a paradox. While no longer myself, I have never felt so clearly myself. As grandiose as it sounds, I feel closer than at any time in my life to perceiving the truth of the universe—the penumbra of sacred feeling that rings the real. That constitutes the real. Without which we are so much meat and bone whizzing through space. Mono no aware, the Japanese call it. That feeling over things that suffuses their art with stoic melancholy, the only true response to the transience and beauty of our existence. Oh, my poor children. Did anyone care how I knew their names? How many times have these hands bathed their pretty heads? But force of habit misleads me. Not these hands, of course. Not once.

*   *   *

Having been assured that Hunter was yet to arrive, I took my seat and ordered a bottle of sparkling water. I was uncertain of the etiquette of business lunches and slightly nervous at the prospect of sitting through an entire meal with a perfect stranger. To take my mind off what was to come, I rummaged through my briefcase for a distraction and, since I had read most of its contents ad nauseam, pulled out the sachet of face cream.

The cream had arrived by post that morning in a parcel addressed to the previous occupant of our house in southwest London. It came with a letter from a Frenchman called Dr. Ricaud who had an address on the Champs-Élysées. Dr. Ricaud had also included a glossy catalogue of his beauty products, all manufactured at his laboratoires on the Channel Islands. “Your BEAUTY never stops,” his letter said. “Your skin defies time.” The doctor’s bold claims were essentially unverifiable, as the lady they were addressed to had been dead for fourteen years. Her legacy on earth was a marble urn near Streatham crematorium, a persistent smell of damp food in the room that had once been her scullery, and letters like this one that continued to offer her deals on cosmetics or inform her of her victory in prize draws.

At five minutes past one, Hunter Gould arrived in the restaurant and, being shown to the table, greeted me by my first name.

Although I knew Hunter from his colorful reputation as a big shot in the music business, I had neither met him nor spoken to him before that moment. Preethika had extended the initial lunch invitation without explaining what it was for. Until Hunter’s motive for inviting me was belatedly made clear, the e-mails provoked a lot of speculation among my family. In fact, Sarah and Lucius, my children, amused themselves with the notion that Hunter was going to offer me a recording deal, and had proposed a number of titles for my first album, of which Bring Me the Headphones of John the Baptist seemed not only plausible, but possibly touched with authentic genius.

It was my wife, Leonora, who reminded me of our single previous encounter with Hunter Gould. About two years earlier, the two of us had been on a rare date at a cinema in Bayswater where, just as the previews ended, a stocky American stood up and lectured the entire audience about the need to switch off their mobile phones. I instinctively fumbled in my pocket as Leonora whispered: “Isn’t that Hunter Gould?” and the stranger on my left nodded at her with an expression of sheer delight. I can’t recall the name of the film, but the audience behaved impeccably throughout it.

I told this story to Hunter by way of small talk when we were seated at the table.

Up close, Hunter was big and toadlike, his face chubby and pugnacious and somehow a bit short of features, like an underdressed Mr. Potato Head. I guessed, wrongly as it turned out, that he was in his early fifties. He had the build of a nightclub doorman and it occurred to me then that this was part of his success in business: his portly but muscular physique posed the oblique threat that, if it came down to it, he could send the lawyers out of the room and simply duff you up.

“I remember that,” Hunter said, refilling my glass and adding parenthetically, “You sure you don’t want wine?” With a fastidiousness that struck me as mildly eccentric, he had brought a special supply of alkaline mineral water with him in a copper flask. The waiter placed a fresh glass on the table for it.

Hunter went on: “I mean, I don’t remember that actual instance but it was a phase I went through. Eventually I saw a shrink who told me I was disinhibited and medicated me for it. I had a series of manic episodes, but they weren’t so easy to spot because I’m naturally an exuberant personality.”

“I’ve always been slightly envious of people with mania,” I said. “All that energy.”

“Yes,” said Hunter. “I believe I’ve tried almost every legal and nonlegal drug on the planet and manic episodes with disinhibition are right up there with the best.”

I added that it didn’t seem all that crazy to ask an auditorium full of strangers to turn their mobile phones off, just a little unusual.

“That was the more benign side of my madness. In fact…” Hunter leaned forward. “In fact, what’s crazier, sitting in the movie theater listening to some asshole talk on his cell phone or to make it clear from the get-go that these are the rules, we watch the movie in respectful silence, and insist that everybody abide by them?”

“That’s right,” I agreed, wondering whether he was still on some kind of medication.

“Unfortunately that wasn’t the whole extent of it,” Hunter went on. “There was some challenging racial stuff, which it turns out is very common as an element of delusional behavior—and, you know, it was by no means racist, but it was open to misinterpretation. And working in the music business, there are lots of big and fragile egos. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. As the man said.”

Over the lunch (two courses, Caesar salad and fish cakes for me, salad and wild salmon for Hunter; neither of us drank wine) we chatted amiably. I listened politely as Hunter extolled the benefits of his alkaline water and the low-glycemic diet he was on. “I can’t remember the last time I had sugar,” he said, as the waiter handed me the dessert menu. While I ate sticky toffee pudding, Hunter drank green tea and explained in more detail the task he had in mind for me.

For some years, Hunter said, he had indulged a private passion for collecting memorabilia associated with famous English literary figures, particularly those of the Augustan and Romantic periods. He had established a collection of objects and letters that had once belonged to Alexander Pope, Jane Austen, Byron, Shelley, and John Clare, but so far had nothing connected to his favorite author, Dr. Johnson. Now some letters had been offered to him, and he wanted to confirm they were real.

As Hunter talked warmly about his cherished pieces, I confess I had to fight an inward spurt of resentment. At the age of almost forty, and after a lifetime’s commitment to the study of English letters, I could barely afford to buy books in hardback; the last holiday I’d taken with my family had been spent on board a narrow boat on a rainswept canal in the Midlands; whereas Hunter, a hobbyist, a mere dilettante, was able actually to own unique objects of irreplaceable historic and scholastic value. I checked myself for an instant and recognized that my snobbishness was a defensive reflex. I was ashamed of my real reasons for coming to the lunch. While I may have insisted that I was simply curious to meet Hunter, properly, at root, I was hoping that it would be to my financial advantage. And so, with the forensic gift for nuance that had made me a talented literary scholar and virtually hopeless at everything else, I saw the truth was a horrible reverse of the stereotype: on this occasion, the rich man cared only for literature, while the scholar was just in it for the money.

“What you’re asking is fairly straightforward,” I said to him. “There’s a lot of extant material in Johnson’s own hand. I have a sample of it here. Comparing them would be a pretty good place to start.”

“Unfortunately, the seller isn’t keen to have the letters copied as he says they’re in a very fragile state.”

I said nothing, but my expression must have betrayed my skepticism.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Hunter. “It made me suspicious too. I’ve seen the letters, and they look like the real thing, but all I have for now is transcripts.”

He took a sheaf of A4 paper from the inside pocket of his navy blue jacket. It was folded longways down the middle and consisted of half a dozen closely typed sheets. “I understand the limitations of what you can do,” Hunter said reasonably. “I don’t expect a cast-iron guarantee. I just want your professional opinion: is it likely to be Johnson, or not?”

As I glanced down the first page, I noted the faithful transcription of original spellings. I could hear an almost wistful note of surprise in my own voice when I remarked to Hunter that the letters appeared to be new to me. Although I would never have said it to Hunter, on reading the first few lines of the first document I caught a glimpse of something so clearly recognizable—the gait of a loved one on a distant hillside, the smell of my children’s hair, the varied sensations evoked by my mother’s cooking—that its authenticity seemed to me both undeniable and impossible to analyze. Out of habit, I began rationalizing the feeling: it was something in the sinuosity of the sentences, a few familiar contractions, a pet word or two. But beyond that, there was something more; a quality that I embarrassed myself by wanting to call soul.

Hunter mistook my silent rapture for either doubtfulness or reluctance, and with no way to assuage the former, he used the only means at his disposal to deal with the latter. Withdrawing a Coutts checkbook and a Montblanc ballpoint from his other inside pocket, he said, “Naturally, I’m not expecting you to do this gratis. I was thinking, five or six, say six? And assuming it’s genuine you’ll write me a document authenticating it.”

On the other side of the table, I fought the astonished flush of pleasure that was brought to my face by the realization that Hunter Gould was writing me a personal check for three thousand pounds. “I’ll give you the same on delivery,” Hunter added as he scrawled the jagged spikes of his signature.

I pocketed the check awkwardly and said I’d be delighted to help.

 

Copyright © 2013 by Marcel Theroux

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2014

    Great story, well written. Theroux managed to write a compelling

    Great story, well written. Theroux managed to write a compelling mystery filled with conspiracy and intrigue.
    The bottom line here, Can we ressurect from the dead? A letter, a memory stick, reanimate?
    Interesting concept. The slow pace of this book only deepened my curiousity more. Russian brute, mental institution and forgery. There's more to this novel so if you like a good book to pick your brain this novel is it.
    Won this book, First Read Giveaway on Goodreads, thank you! Darlene Cruz

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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