By Marcel Theroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pages, $26
By Ed Taylor
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
In the publishing business, there’s a lot of talk about love. Not in connection to content, but in connection to manuscripts: books in embryo. Agents and editors have to “love” (at least) a manuscript for it to be born as a book. If they don’t “love” it, or don’t love it enough, or even not in the right way – let’s just be friends – then it’s doomed to rejection (the delicate official term is to “decline” it), with a polite platonically affectionate letter (or email or text; or even, occasionally, a conciliatory lunch).
“Strange Bodies,” British writer Marcel Theroux’s fifth novel, following his National Book Award-finalist “Far North,” raises the question: Who loved this?
Not to sound snide or dismiss the real talent here – Theroux is an accomplished and stylish, intelligent and imaginative literary artist who also works as a documentary filmmaker and television “presenter,” as they say in his home nation. And he is the son of Paul Theroux, one of contemporary English language literature’s major novelists and travel writers.
Marcel Theroux has robust literary genes and a solid career on his own, it seems (having a famous writer parent might open gates in the citadel of publishing – but you still have to have some talent, once you’re admitted).
The book’s title comes from Ovid: “Of shapes transformed in bodies strange I / propose to entreat,” and the novel begins with a “Preface,” framing what is to follow: “Whatever this is, it started when Nicky Slopen came back from the dead.”
Certainly, this novel’s basic premise combining in literary fiction a protagonist’s quietly existential domestic midlife crisis and an archetypal sci-fi human quest story is potentially sexy (if not original). Nevertheless, if the book were a date, it would be a pleasure-challenged evening, in spite of Theroux’s attractive premise and plot. What it is, really, is a strange body.
The book is sort-of speculative fiction, about one of the genre’s great themes: the quest to defeat mortality. Its protagonist and narrator is Nicholas Slopen, a 39-year-old academic who studies Samuel Johnson and teaches at a London university, is married to Leonora, and is father to Lucius and Sarah. His marriage is in a death spiral – not a new thing, but one he’s reluctantly, belatedly noticing –and he’s floundering in the slough of impending middle age, a stagnant career and lowered expectations, generally, about everything.
The “Preface” sets the stage by declaring what follows is testimony, a document prepared to expose a lethal and arrogant conspiracy. The front story begins when Nicholas, the rest of his life crumbling around him, is out of the blue approached by a rich American rock ’n’ roll producer and bibliophile (rock ’n’ roll producers pop up in fiction a fair amount these days, usually as bad guys) to authenticate some Johnson letters the producer, Hunter, wants to buy.
Nicholas gets a look at them, under curious circumstances at the London house of the rich Russian who is offering them for sale. With growing excitement, Nicholas recognizes that the letters, which he assesses as genuine, are uncataloged – undiscovered and, for a scholar, of career-making value. However, more examination reveals they’re on modern paper. And thereby hangs a tale.
As Nicholas’ wife leaves him for long-standing reasons and another man, the letters, Hunter and the Russian pull him into a vortex of intrigue evolving from secret Soviet-era scientific experiments to re-create a human self, an identity – to prolong life and approach something like immortality – in a body different from its original one: in Russian, a “mankurt” (the novel adding to zombie/vampire variations).
However, this is a black op fueled by 1-percenter hubris, into which Nicholas is pulled toward his own end and which drives him to find a way to alert the world.
The book is both an attempt at plot-driven thriller and a meditation on identity and what it means to be human and what makes up the “self,” in a quiet way really swinging for the fences.
Nevertheless, it’s not close to being a home run. The issue might arguably be the novel’s first-person point of view: The reader is explicitly told by a “teller” about everything, large and small – events, emotions, internal states of the narrator. This is different than in a third-person narrative where the events, emotions, and internal states have to be rendered for a reader – that is, shown rather than told. This is a story that often begs to be raw and unmediated and ragged and not carefully framed and filtered.
Perhaps a second strike is that filtering consciousness itself; the testifying narrator is an academic (and an 18th century literature scholar, at that) so that the book cannot help but be self-aware and highly mannered and worked and carefully contained and highly self-conscious and hyper-rational, with the result that it becomes poignantly but strangely genteel, discrete, with a feeling of contained emotion, let out in nervous bursts under duress, like a flowered teapot finally building up to steam, until someone runs to take it off the heat and end the unseemly shriek. And then it’s quiet again.
Novels are all “mankurts,” really, crafted from their makers’ DNA and marrow, heart and soul, and there’s a walking dead quality to them sometimes, more like a badly stitched Frankenstein – or, at worst, a puppet – than an organic creature fully alive. In AI and robotics, the term “uncanny valley” names the gap between a human and something that looks and acts almost, but not quite, human, and the strong psychological response of unease and distance this evokes in humans.
The thoughtfulness, humane warmth and Romantic ideals of “Strange Bodies” get it up and onto its feet. Nevertheless, the reader might hear (if the reader likes to mix metaphors) faintly coming from the pages, a voice like the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz” saying from his rusted jaws – oil can, oil can: and while you’re at it, can you help me out of this valley?
Ed Taylor is the author of the forthcoming novel “Theo” (2014).