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Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Strange Bodies" by Marcel Theroux (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"Whatever this is, it started when Nicky Slopen came back from the dead.

Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months. So when a man claiming to be Nicholas turns up to visit an old girlfriend, deception seems the only possible motive.
Yet nothing can make him change his story.

From the secure unit of a notorious psychiatric hospital, he begins to tell his tale: an account of attempted forgery that draws the reader towards an extraordinary truth – a metaphysical conspiracy that lies on the other side of madness and death.

With echoes of Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Mary Shelley, Dostoevsky’s Double, and George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, Strange Bodies takes the reader on a dizzying speculative journey that poses questions about identity, authenticity, and what it means to be truly human"

After Far North (FBC short rv), the wonderfully written but pretty banal in content as a run of the mill post-apocalyptic story that could have been so much more, I kept an eye on any new offerings from Marcel Theroux, so Strange Bodies went my "wanted list" the moment I found about it. 

The blurb above strongly reminded me of 9 Tail Fox, the second of a loose trilogy by J.C. Grimwood which imho is arguably the best recent series of near-future literary sf (see also FBC's review of the last installment, End of the World Blues).

However on opening the novel, the style and "feel" reminded me of Adam Roberts' books - and to put this in context, I consider A. Roberts the best literary sf writer of today - and Strange Bodies became another impossible to put down novel until finished.

Mostly a current first person narrative from the deceased Nicholas Slopen - crushed by a lorry when biking in London a year or so before the start of the book, his death is strongly documented and cannot be doubted - the dramatic and suspenseful storyline is interspersed with documents that Nicky uses to authenticate his otherwise strange story, documents that include seemingly original letters from Samuel Johnson that nobody has heard of - and Nicky is maybe the second ranked world expert on the famous Dr. Johnson - , excerpts from the diary of his psychiatrist at Bedlam - obviously when someone claims to be a dead man and goes and "harasses" the dead man's wife and children, the madhouse, however euphemistically called today, is clearly his place - revelatory emails and other stuff I leave you to discover...

Here is Nicky as seen through the eyes of Dr. Webster from Bedlam who calls him Q and maybe even gets a little crush on him despite the strong taboo on doctor-patient involvement; at least Nicky figures out soon how to manipulate her; the bolded words encompass the feel of the novel almost perfectly:

"Q is silent for half a minute and then his manner becomes conciliatory:
– I haven’t got long, you know.
– Long?
Q is silent again, then asks if I like haiku. I tell him I do. Q recites.
– This world of dew is a world of dew. And yet, and yet.
His recitation is slow and full of affect. For the first time in our sessions, the countertransference produces a pronounced sense of melancholy. I ask him again why he’s sad.
– I miss my family.
– Your family?  
– My children, Sarah and Lucius."

Except for the relatively conventional device of "powerful interests determined to get their way regardless of morality etc etc" that towards the end distracts from what is otherwise such a powerful and moving tale, Strange Bodies is an extraordinary book that asks these fundamental questions: "who am I", "what makes me me so to speak"? 

While the answers - as they are since after all the book is literary sf so it doesn't claim to find the secret of  life, universe and everything - are not necessarily anything not seen before, the narrative voice is so compelling to make it a top 25 novel of mine for 2013. Worth at least one re-read to appreciate even better the little touches the author puts in here and there, but whose full import is not clear until one understands clearly what is what, Strange Bodies firmly puts the author on my "get and read asap any new book" list.
I will end this with a quote from the actual beginning of Nicky's narrative as the first few pages you can read in say the Amazon sample consist of a sort of introduction from a former girlfriend Nicky appeals to in his last desperate moments...

"My name is Nicholas Patrick Slopen. I was born in Singapore City on April 10th 1970. I died on September 28th 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."



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