So, where to begin? Is Strange Bodies a literary zombie tale? A meditation on Frankenstein and his monster? A literary thriller about stolen identity? An exploration of the Nikolai Fyodorov and the Russian cosmism movement, ala Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief?
Well… yes. Yeah, Strange Bodies is each of those things, as well as an unlikely love letter to Samuel Johnson, and a memoriam to a type of academic work that’s nearly extinct, and one of the best books I’ve read in years.
So, by way of a plot explanation: To begin with the obvious: Nicholas Slopen is dead when he visits an old girlfriend to share memories over takeout Pad Thai. He’s also dead when he leaves a memory stick for her, telling her his story. He was dead when he recorded the story, and he was already dead when he died. Before he dies, he is a Samuel Johnson scholar, editing a new anthology the Good Doctor’s letters, and trying to make ends meet with a concert pianist wife and a pair of teenage kids who do their best to understand why their parents’ intellectual pursuits keep the family on the brink of poverty.
Within the first pages we learn that terrible things have happened to Nicholas, leaving him a changed man. We know that he has had a Procedure done that at least makes him believe that he is Nicholas, but that he doesn’t look like the man anyone else seems to know as Nicholas. So…what’s the truth?
After he’s asked to verify some letters of Samuel Johnson’s, he meets an array of sketchy characters including Jack, a monosyllabic, occasionally violent savant, Jack’s sister, a Russian intellectual named Vera, Misha Bykov, who is either protecting both of them or their greatest threat, Hunter, a larger-than-life music industry mogul, and Leonora, Nicholas’ concert pianist wife. Jack in particular begins the book as a frightening figure, but turns out to have enormous stores of empathy and poetry under his exterior. He’s the most obvious candidate for a Frankenstein’s Monster-analogue…at least until the book starts implying that we’re all both Frankenstein and the Monster.
There’s a procedure, called the Procedure, which seemingly turns living men into shambling, monosyllabic zombies, or mankurts, a Russian term that can mean man-wolf, slave, or mean something closer to “zombified slave with no will of their own.” Mankurts are created through torture, and live out the rest of their lives in the sort of dull psychotic state that is typical of zombie slaves in Haitian lore.
The twist that comes toward the end is subtly horrifying, and lends a poignancy to the novel that reaches all the way back to the opening pages. Particularly great is the thread of Nicholas’ love affair with academia. Theroux draws the great connection here, between the lonely nerd searching for something bigger, channeling an unspeakable urge for a quest, a purpose, into an intellectual life. I think it’s safe to assume that many Tor.com readers will relate more than a bit to this:
“All this time I felt I was in pursuit of something, something that I could not express exactly in words but that I knew was real because I felt it keenly in the stippled drawings of Robin Jacques that illustrated my favorite book of fairy tales; in graveyards and wintertime and the garden of my maternal grandparents’ home in Winterswijk; in Tolkien and carols and the lead figures of paladins and clerics that I assiduously painted for the sessions of D&D; it was on Wandsworth Common in a summer evening, and the overgrown back garden of Frederick’s house in winter; the chalk paths of Box Hill were full of it when we went bum sliding in filthy clothes on our birthdays.”
Nicholas pursues this ineffable feeling until college, when he finds it all exemplified in a single human: his mentor, Ronald Harbottle. Harbottle encourages Nicky’s study of Johnson, and it is Harbottle’s betrayal that causes Nicholas’ first intellectual crisis, the shift in his academic career that impoverishes him and his family, until we join him as a middle-aged dead man with more regrets than happy memories.
The book’s engagement with Johnson is key. At no point does this feel like an authorial conceit: Nicholas loves Dr. Johnson, and knows him better than he knows him better than the people he lives with. Johnson’s huge personality, battle with depression, humor, and religious faith all gets woven into the narrative, and possibly enacted by the savant Jack Telauga, who seems to think he is Johnson, at least sometimes. It’s Jack’s story that takes up the mid-section of the book, before we shift back fully to Nicholas, and the way the two men mirror and care for each other gives the book its greatest emotional pull.
My critiques feel somewhat petty, given how much the book accomplishes, but be warned that not all of the plot threads tie together quite perfectly, and you’ll be left with plenty of questions. The science of the Procedure is extremely fuzzy—anyone hoping for Theroux to spend pages describing the mechanics of this will be disappointed. The plot bogs down a bit in the middle, until it gets another jolt when Nicholas travels to Russia to seek answers about The Procedure. The threat of conspiracy hangs over the entire story—but how real is it? The Russian Cosmism elements, vital to the book, should have been introduced much earlier, but instead only crop up like a never-before-seen ex-lover in a Moffat-era Doctor Who episode.
Marcel Theroux is the son of Paul Theroux, the travel writer, and the older brother of Louie Theroux (former host of Louie Theroux’s Wild Weekends on BBC, which I highly recommend). A few autobiographical bits are strewn throughout the book, and Theroux clearly has a deep familiarity with the settings of the novel, both intellectual and physical. While his expectation that his readers keep up with his references to Shakespeare and Milton is gratifying, it is also, occasionally, a detriment. I’m lucky enough to have been to both Dr. Johnsons house in London and particular piazzas in Florence, so when Nicholas visits each of these places I could easily imagine the action, scents, and architecture, but Theroux doesn’t give enough description to bring readers with Nicholas on these journeys. The Russian sections of the books became a bit foggy simply because Theroux wasn’t creating enough of a world around his characters—he sometimes named landmarks, and quotes poems, as though they should be common knowledge to all of his readers.
The ideas that Theroux is batting around—the way we all create ourselves through language, intelligence and wit as a bulwark against madness, the terror of a crumbling mind, the relationship between a human’s consciousness and the body—these are all fascinating, and Theroux isn’t afraid to dwell on them for pages, investigating different angles, allowing different implications to unfold. However, this is not just bloodless book of ideas. Nicholas, with all of his pedantic pronunciations and awkward attempts at connection, will earn every drop of your readerly love by the end of the book.