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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.
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.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Marcel Theroux is the author of A Blow to the Heart, A Stranger in the Earth, and The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes: A Paper Chase, which won a Somerset Maugham Award. He lives in London.
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By Marcel Theroux
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 Marcel Theroux
All rights reserved.
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 emails 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.CHAPTER 2
I cannot make you understand what it is to look at the moon through this stranger's eyes and know that I will never hold my children again.
Sometimes I wake up on the ward with a pain in my chest that feels like my heart breaking. Yes, my heart breaking. The description lacks either medical or literary merit, but it ameliorates nothing to know that my house of suffering is bricked and barred with clichés. Tears, heartbreak, pathetic fallacies of weeping skies and bleeding sunsets: these aren't lousy approximations of lived experiences, they're the nerves and fiber of human life itself. I was never a Whorfian, and yet I have woken up to find I am made of words.
And all that I am—the meat of me and the 167 key markers coded and recombined in infinite variation—can only express with more embellishment these seventeen syllables of Onitsura: This autumn I'll be looking at the moon with no child upon my knee.
* * *
Once in a while, if our therapeutic outcomes are consistently positive, we get permission to visit the museum. It houses artifacts from the old Bedlam and paintings and artworks by our predecessors.
There are carvings from the former entrance: Melancholy and Madness as huge stone figures, old admission papers, a vitrine full of restraints—cuffs, a leather collar, gags, a harness.
Most of all, I am regularly astonished by the power of the art. In William Kurelek's The Maze I see a fleshy labyrinth that still feels like a good summation of my predicament. It shows the cross section of a cranium, filled with tableaux of nightmarish memories. The works of the parricide Richard Dadd trouble me with their hints of buried violence. But my favorite is a huge piece by Jonathan Martin, the nineteenth-century arsonist who tried to burn down York Minster. It is a mad apocalyptic panorama of London in flames. In crabbed but legible handwriting on the reverse he wrote a long account of a dream he had. I found it so moving that I have committed it to memory:
2ndly I dreamt towards the morning that I saw 12 Rainbows in the heavens, they crossed each other, and I stood under the yard-shed, and the patients all around me observed it, and one said I count eleven rainbows. I thought when he said that, the rainbows moved from the heavens, and became like an army of soldiers engaging and intermixing with each other, they came direct from heaven towards me, and I felt the reflection of the fire and the patients made sport of it. I reclined upon one knee and prayed that God would have mercy upon their ignorance; and I thought the rainbows would have overthrown the Hospital: and I awoke out of my sleep.
Excerpted from Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. Copyright © 2013 Marcel Theroux. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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