We’re reading STRANGE BODIES by Marcel Theroux

2 May

Martin McGrath goes out of his mind

Strange Bodies
Marcel Theroux
Faber, HC £14.99, ebook £12.99

Nicholas Slopen, the protagonist of Marcel Theroux’s fourth novel, Strange Bodies, is a middle-aged academic whose once-promising career specialising in the work of Samuel Johnson has stalled, his wife is cheating on him and he has difficulty connecting with his children. But these are not his biggest problems. Slopen’s real difficulty is that he is dead, horribly mangled beneath the wheels of a truck. The man who is walking around with his memories, emotions and personality is encased in the body of a Russian thug and has recently escaped from a high security psychiatric hospital.

The plot, told through Slopen’s recovered memoir, begins as he receives an invitation to review some previously unpublished letters by Samuel Johnson. Although the documents are obvious fakes, they uncannily capture the voice of the great dictionary compiler (for the non-expert this can be verified by the fact that they unerringly evoke the voice of Robbie Coltrane from Blackadder the Third). This leads Slopen to the strangely troubled Jack, the author of the letters, his keeper Vera and a conspiracy of the powerful that is determined to live forever through the application of some Soviet-era weird science.

There’s lots of interesting material in Strange Bodies. I liked Slopen, even though he, and everyone who knows him, tells us he’s a bit of a self-obsessed prig. Through the course of the novel he is instinctively drawn to do the decent thing – even when the risks are obvious – without, at any point, coming across as heroic and he develops along a subtle but satisfying arc. Theroux’s writing is neatly evocative throughout, locations, people and emotions take shape on the page with a pleasing precision. Theroux is also good at working in his background material – there is exposition, but it is interesting exposition.

Using doubles and replicas as a means of exploring what defines us as human is hardly a new idea. Doppelgangers are a staple of myth and folklore and they thread through literature and popular culture from Borges to Star Trek, where evil doubles are usually helpfully identified by a surplus of facial hair. Theroux’s take is interesting, however. He builds on the ideas of the soviet scientist and mystic Nikolai Federov – John Gray’s non-fiction study, The Immortalization Commission, is referenced throughout the novel – who genuinely believed that science could, indeed was duty-bound to, reanimate all those who had died. As befits an English graduate and novelist, Theroux invests words and language with the power to capture the core of human personality – the soul, for want of a better word. These ideas are cleverly wound through the novel, using texts and books as the key to the mysteries that face his characters.

Not everything works perfectly. Most notably, the great conspiracy at the heart of the plot is a little James Bondish and feels uncomfortable in this book – as though Theroux had tried to jam something slightly too large between the covers.

Any missteps are small, however, and do not detract from what is generally an excellent novel. Theroux’s previous work, Far North, was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award, amongst others, in 2009 and Strange Bodies is a significantly more successful work that deserves at least as much attention and praise. It is an impressive achievement.

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