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