‘Strange Bodies’ by Marcel Theroux – A Novel with a Split Personality

‘Strange Bodies’ by Marcel Theroux (2014) – 292 pages

strange-bodies

‘Strange Bodies’ starts out as a literary mystery and then changes into a science fiction caper.  Somewhere during the transformation the novel lost me, because the two parts were not joined together particularly well at all.

Nicholas Slopen is a literary academic specializing in the 18th century and in particular Samuel Johnson, the great English man of letters and creator of  ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’.  Slopen is asked to authenticate some essays purportedly written by Johnson.  These are essays that have never before come to light, so Slopen is excited to have the chance to read them.  After a thorough examination of the essays, Slopen is ready to validate them as the work of Samuel Johnson only to notice that the paper they are written on would not have been available in Johnson’s time.

So who wrote these essays?  That is the central literary mystery here.  I suppose many readers would be impatient with all this talk of Samuel Johnson and such, but for me that was the most interesting part of the novel.  

Just as I was settling in, the novel turns into a futuristic science fiction chase involving wild Russian experiments into the resuscitation of human lives.  When the book left the literary world, I found that I did not care enough for the present-day characters in order to sustain my interest.   

The chief concern of the second half of the novel is the Malevin Procedure which is a wild-eyed technique for implanting the writings and thoughts of one person into another.  Samuel Johnson may be worthy of this procedure, but others in this novel are not.   We are not given a detailed enough description of how the procedure is actually implemented.  The procedure itself is incomplete, and the result is a mixture of before and after.      

I suppose that the main problem with the novel is that the chief character, Nicholas Slopen, is never developed into someone we empathize with.  First he is an academic authenticating someone else’s writings.  There is a half-hearted attempt to give him a wife and two children which is rather unconvincing.

I must admit that science fiction is usually not my genre of choice, although I have enjoyed several of the classics such as ‘The Martian Chronicles’, ‘We’, and ‘Brave New World’ in the past.   ‘Strange Bodies’ seems to have a split personality.  Somehow I don’t believe that it takes its science at all seriously beyond putting its characters in motion.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Odd. It sounds like literary fiction fans would be frustrated by the SF elements, and SF fans by the fact the SF isn’t taken seriously.

    That’s the trouble with dabbling in SF, it’s easier to get wrong than it looks.

    Eugene Byrne, an out and out SF author, wrote a book in which famous figures or examples of famous types are recreated in software form, then become aware that their project may be discontinued and so start to take action to preserve themselves. It’s solid SF, well written and very funny. The science there isn’t at the forefront of the novel which is more a satire of contemporary neoliberal values than anything else, but it works and so forms a solid base that the satire can sit on.

    That’s what’s so easy to get wrong. Literary authors often just slap a bit of science on, but it doesn’t work, and a book built on an unsteady base tends not to be a good book.

    The answer is either not to include the SF elements, or if you do to make sure they’re as well crafted as everything else. If you don’t do that, you get what this sounds like.

    Reply

    • Hi Max,
      Yeah, I fall in your first category, literary fiction fans who would be frustrated by the SF elements. After much about Samuel Johnson in the first 100 pages, all mention of authors and writers is dropped in the last 150 pages.
      I was primed to like this book, because I nearly always like his father Paul Theroux’s fiction. I know Marcel’s first book ‘Far North’ got good reviews.
      And you are right; SciFi fans probably would be impatient with all the discussion of literary figue Samuel Johnson.
      As far as Science Fiction goes, I probably would be more a Star Trek fan rather than a Star Wars fan, although I am by no means a Trekkie. I do appreciate Science Fiction when it is thoughtful and intelligent and well done and not just another shoot ‘em up comic book.

      Reply

  2. Tony, I loved Far North, his dystopian novel which was nominated for the National Book Award. I intend to read it eventually, because I love SF, but have been hesitating because of the description. I’ll bear your “caveat” about it in mind.

    Reply

    • Hi Kat,
      Tastes are so personal, I really don’t want to discourage anyone from reading a book just because I didn’t like it. I do want to give my honest reaction to a book though. SF is not one of my strong categories.
      I’ve always liked Marcel’s father Paul’s books. I must have read a dozen of those.

      Reply

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