Many a writer has waxed poetic about the power of words, but in Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux takes the concept to a whole new level—one I've personally never seen done before. This may be a personal failing. Early reviews have mentioned Philip K. Dick, whose oeuvre I've yet to explore beyond the usual puzzled reading of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that I assume most twelve-year-olds undertake once the final credits of Blade Runner have rolled. At twelve, imagination still thrumming with Rutger Hauer's tragic Roy Batty and Daryl Hannah's creepy, acrobatic Pris, it was asking too much to let in another interpretation—even the rightful author's. The characters in Strange Bodies have similar problems, although often, the story they can't see clearly is their own.
Theroux's last book, Far North (2009), was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a National Book Award—which gives you a fair idea of his literary range. Strange Bodies may please fans of high-concept, literary science fiction as well as readers simply wishing for a tight, literary thriller—but it might also remind the wide-ranging reader of A. S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession. From page one, there is indeed a creepy, science-fiction caper afoot, but like Byatt, Theroux has taken a single concept—in this case, the "strange bodies" or states of being we find ourselves in over the course of our lives—and created a small universe of themes and possibilities for his protagonist to elucidate, the strongest of which (also like Possession) involves an overwhelming love of the written word.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an academic—even before I knew such a word existed. Something with the flavor of old books and libraries, ink, index cards, and the silent ingestion of pure knowledge must have been marked on my consciousness at birth, the way the great sea turtle is imprinted with the topographical sense of the beach where it hatched and returns there to lay eggs as an adult. (p. 36)
This is Theroux's protagonist, Nicholas, speaking to us in the opening pages of the novel. Nicholas is a down-on-his-luck scholar, specializing in the works of Samuel Johnson, the Romantic era essayist, poet, and author of A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). A strangely dense body of literature, you might think, to act as the fuel for a novel whose dust jacket promises a romp into "the darkest secret of Soviet Technology," but then, as Nicholas soon discovers, things don't always turn out the way one expects. Indeed, the primary delight of reading Strange Bodies is also the thing that makes it hard to review: you can't really talk about how Theroux manages to incorporate Cold War paranoia, literary obsessions, and Silicon Valley conspiracies involving a very strange man named Jack into a coherent, nail-biting narrative without blowing the lid off the big reveal. Whatever you think is going on in this tale, you're only half right, or, maybe, just wrong. Indeed, you could read the whole novel as an expert rendition of the Unreliable Narrator—which it is, but, again, not in the way you expect. Nicholas is indeed a liar but neither as diabolical nor as long-suffering as he would have us believe. What he is, undeniably, is a wonderful tour guide, his narration—alternately snarky, anguished, and elegiac—making a good match for a tale with more shifts and twists than a James Bond car chase.
What we can talk about is Theroux's theme: the strangeness of the physical body and, by extension, life itself. This is a novel full of people trapped by their own physicality or restrained and impeded by circumstance. Early on a friend notes of the downtrodden Nicholas: "There was a clumsiness about him, a laboriousness in his movements that made me think he might have had a stroke" (p. 4). Vera, a woman Nicholas makes friends with after a mysterious Silicon Valley type hires him to authenticate some unearthed writings by Johnson, wears corrective shoes and acts as a kind of menial for more elite bosses. When Nicholas's examination of the unearthed documents turns up some oddities, he finds himself in communication with the novel's most interesting character, Jack—an alleged savant who lives (or is imprisoned?) in Vera's basement, madly channeling the essence of Johnson into a series of otherworldly missives that seem to come from the writer himself. Like Vera and Nicholas, Jack is trapped not only by four confining walls, but in a slow, huge body that belies his rich interior life.
If there's anything holding these troubled characters together it is their passion for literature. As Nicholas, compelled by his weird encounters with Jack and Vera, returns again and again to the basement, the trio bonds over a shared interest in great writers, from Johnson to Milton to Nabokov. It's obvious that Nicholas finds these two strangers more real than his long-suffering wife (whose fish allergy he keeps forgetting despite twenty-five years of marriage), and, indeed, all three characters share a passion for literature that grants them solace even as it leaves them teetering between spirituality and madness. As Nicholas notes, his own passion feels "rooted in books and yet, beyond those, it shaded on its farthest side into some inkling of a spiritual life, something that a monk might feel as he warmed his hand over a candle and prayed for his pen to be steady as he copied the holy book" (p. 38). Or, as the mysterious Vera notes later: "Where does [consciousness] come from? From language" (p. 191). The first half of the novel is so packed with literary references and meditations on the near-mythic power of words to shape our emotions, even our lives (not coincidentally does Nicholas's love affair with books outlast his marriage), that its transition into Cold War sci-fi thriller territory with characters on the run and hunted across continents is nearly jarring.
As well it should be. The early parts of the novel, with their loving descriptions of scholarly studies, cold mausoleum-like houses with mysterious occupants, and aching nostalgia for the academic life (all calculated to tug at the heartstrings of any self-respecting book nerd) act on the reader as these same environments act on Nicholas: as a paralyzing and seductive drug. Struggling—perhaps willfully failing—to understand what's going on with the tormented Jack, Nicholas ignores the business of his adult life and the wake-up call is suitably ugly. Theroux, a master prose-smith, builds a great, brooding atmosphere of slow-burning dread, splicing bits of Milton into conversations in which characters have "the haunted and knowing eyes of a caged ape" (p. 71). As Nicholas's ordinary life begins to disintegrate, the self-pitying tone in which he narrates the beginning of the novel takes on new meaning and leaves us ultimately moved by his plight.
The exact way in which the titular strange bodies begin to manifest themselves in the tale at this point is worth the price of admission on its own. I am sure there exist science fiction narratives with similar concepts or underpinnings, but even if you see the Big Revelation coming it's hard not to marvel at the tightness of Theroux's structure, which launches the third act with more than one delicious twist. Twists aside, though, this is a thoughtful book that interrogates the intersection of literature and the self. Why are we drawn to certain works? To what extent are we defined by our literatures? Can books and ideas grant us a kind of immortality? Can great authors really shape our lives or our world? There’s also a decent strand—appropriate for our current high-tech era—that seems to ask to what extent we can control books and authors—how much of them are "ours" (the rightful property of the public domain) and how much of them should be? These are the sort of juicy questions that follow you around for awhile—and ensure that Theroux's strange little world will work its way under your skin.
Hannah Strom-Martin's fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, OnSpec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (forthcoming), and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her nonfiction has been published in Strange Horizons, The North Bay Bohemian, and The Sacramento News and Review, among others. With Erin Underwood, she is the co-editor of The Pop Fic Review and the recent anthology Futuredaze: A Collection of YA Science Fiction. She lives in California with her husband and the obligatory herd of cats named after fantasy characters.
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