My name is Nicholas Patrick Slopen. I was born in Singapore City on April 10, 1970. I died on September 28, 2009, crushed in the wheel arch of a lorry outside Oval tube station.
This document is my testimony.
As will shortly become clear, I have an unknown but definitely brief period of time to explain the events leading up to my death and to establish the continuity of my identity after it. In view of the constraints upon me, I hope the reader will forgive my forgoing the usual niceties of autobiography. At the same time, I will have to commit myself to some details with a certain, and perhaps wearisome, degree of exactitude in order to provide evidence to support the contention contained in the first paragraph of this testimony: that I am Nicholas Slopen, and that my consciousness has survived my bodily death. (p. 17)
Body and/or identity-swapping has long been a staple of science fiction narratives (see my earlier review of Daniel Sueiro’s 1968 novel for example). There is a certain thrill in imagining waking up in another body, having another chance to do things differently (or perhaps just do them all over again). But there is also an element of dread, of pondering what would be lost in the translation from one body to another. Would we recall everything? What gaps would there be that would torment us? And what if the body/identity swap occurred without our permission? Would we be who we are elsewhere? What if something that occurred in one of those gaps will affect us in nefarious ways? Would our identity as ourselves remain intact, or would the switch involve some imposition of otherness on what we consider to be our true, core identities?
These are some of the questions that Marcel Theroux addresses in his recent book, Strange Bodies. From the very first paragraphs, where the impossibility of the identity previously known as Nicholas Slopen is shown through the bewildered reactions of former acquaintances, there is a deep mystery that permeates the narrative. Is this new Nicholas, in a body that differs significantly from his old one, really Nicholas? If he is an imposter, then how come he mimics so closely not just the knowledge of the old Nicholas, but also many of his mannerisms? If he is indeed Nicholas, then how come he exists now after death? Theroux explores and then explodes these questions in a narrative that is heavily influenced by science fiction and mystery/police procedural genres without feeling as though it is completely one or the other.
Over the course of nearly 300 pages, the impact of Nicholas’ (re)arrival is seen through the reactions of those around him, his involuntary commitment to a mental health facility, and in his expounding on the life of Samuel Johnson, a former subject of his literary research. Theroux carefully explores each facet of Nicholas’ former life, revealing a life that contained its own possibly nefarious mysteries. Each development slots nicely (almost too nicely; we humans are not precisely machines in our prevarications and bumbling stumbles) into what is established before. What emerges is a tale that causes the reader to both want to read ahead quickly to learn what happens next and to pause for a reflection of what is being said.
One of the frustrations of writing a review as opposed to a full literary critique is that there is much to unpack here in Strange Bodies that a review of the overall narrative which avoids giving the “big reveals” cannot explore in depth. While the mechanism for explaining how the “new” Nicholas has come to be is straight out of mid-20th century Anglo-American SF, it is the implications of this plot device that make Strange Bodies a mostly satisfying read. Too often, writers would focus too much on the means by which the situation has been established and not concentrate enough on the consequences of these developments. Too easily, Nicholas could have been devoid of a personality outside of his “past” self. Instead, Theroux develops Nicholas’ character through not just his flashbacks and musings on Johnson and others, but also in how he chooses to interact with his strange, new surroundings.
If Strange Bodies had to be reduced to a primary theme (there are several, including an exploration of a Faustian bargain through different means), it would be that of the persistency of authorial identity in the act of reading literature. Theroux has referred to this in interviews, but it’s most present in one of his epigraphs, quoting John Milton’s Areopagitica:
For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.
Theroux himself refers to this quasi-immortality near the end of the novel:
But the dead are dead. That may be the truest and most definite fact about human existence. Death is the bass ground that gives everything else point. Every generation seems to know this except ours. I feel I’m entitled to say this. Who on earth is deader than me?
And the dead are dead for good reasons, profound reasons, that we ignore at our peril. There’s a reason why the old father in “The Monkey’s Paw” turns away his dead son when he comes knocking. The world belongs to the living: to Lucius and Sarah, to Leonora and, though it pains me to say it, to Caspar.(p. 288)
Strange Bodies ultimately is a novel that is about death and the quasi-life of literature. It is about our hopes to achieve something that outlasts us, even if we ourselves are lost, at least somewhat, in the process. There are times where Theroux’s points are attenuated by the plot choices he makes, but ultimately his themes on life, death, and our desire to transcend both ring clearly for those readers who view literature as more than just entertainment, but also as something that allows us to commune with the souls that have gone on before us, pondering just who we are and why we are. These sorts of tales have a timeless quality to them and while Strange Bodies may not be perfect in all of its facets, its imperfections reflect our own, making it a powerful read that has lingered in my mind weeks after finishing the last sentence.