Marcel Theroux’s brilliant new novel has been dubbed a “literary thriller,” which is an apt epithet in more ways than one. Theroux’s lucid, articulate writing makes Strange Bodies “literary,” but so too does the book’s plot about a scholar whose knowledge of 18th letters leads him into a sinister world of Russian-American conspiracies and forced metempsychosis. As if the lack of a career path weren’t risk factor enough for English majors these days.
Like it’s most obvious inspiration, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Strange Bodies starts with a frame story. Susanna, a recently divorced mother of one, describes how her boyfriend of 20 years ago wandered into her London antique shop. Tattooed, shaven-headed, slow in speech as if he’d had a stroke: Nicholas Slopen looked not as she remembered, but his use of her nickname reassured her enough to chalk his appearance up to a losing battle with middle age.
When she Googles him later that night though she’s startled to discover Nicholas’ months-old obituary. Unconvinced that the person she saw was a ghost, however, she decides he must have staged his death after getting into some kind of trouble.
A year on, Nicholas shows up again looking conspicuously haggard and asking for a place to stay. That same night, during an awkward meeting of Susanna’s book club, he collapses and dies an apparently real death. Hostile reactions from his ex-wife and the police—all them aggressively skeptical of Susanna’s claims about his identity—convince Susanna that something nefarious is afoot. The feeling is confirmed by her discovery of a thumb drive containing Nicholas’ chilling testimony, written from a mental hospital, of the ordeal that drove him to her doorstep.
How much is reasonable to give away of a novel’s plot is a perennial source of angst for reviewers, but this one is particularly challenging. Knowing what happens won’t exactly ruin it, but there’s so much enjoyment to be had in every plot twist, however small, that denying anyone that pleasure seems a kind of cruelty.
So I’ll stick to basic premises. Nicholas’ consciousness has somehow survived his physical death and become housed in another body, or “carcass.” How that came to be is laid out by Theroux with architectural patience; he’s careful to lay down a solid foundation of human foibles (hubris and greed among them) first before moving into more speculative territory.
A minor academic specializing in the writing of Dr. Samuel Johnson, Nicholas’ predicament began when a wealthy music executive offered him a significant sum of money to assess the authenticity of some putative Johnson letters. Eager to show off the fruits of the ivory-tower-bound years that destroyed his marriage (and also in dire need of cash), Nicholas took the bait.
When Nicholas goes to inspect the documents, which are housed in the opulent London home of a Russian named Sinan Malevin and his housekeeper, Vera, he finds some to be thrillingly authentic. Most of them, however, are sloppy forgeries: the language and handwriting appear genuine, but the paper they’re printed on is laughably anachronistic.
Nicholas’ pride and confidence give way to humiliation when the entire process is revealed as a test; all the documents—even those he “authenticated”—were bogus. Their real author is Jack, Vera’s mute “savant” brother who, locked in a basement with “the haunted and knowing eyes of a caged ape,” is able to perfectly channel Dr. Johnson.
Metaphysical musings, shared consciousness, mad chases around London and a disturbing procedure in a remote Kazakh laboratory all figure in the ensuing plot-thickening.
Endlessly gripping and fiercely intelligent, Strange Bodies posits, among other things, that an individual’s word output could function as a kind of reproducible DNA. If it turns out to be true, then the upside is that we can get many more writers like Marcel Theroux; god knows we need them.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor