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5.0 out of 5 starsDo words make us who we are?
Reviewed in the United States on July 20, 2013
I read this novel because it appeared in the summer reading lists published by a London newspaper and the plot summary was intriguing. This is a very clever novel about a man who doesn't know who he is, but finds it out as the book progresses, moving from rarefied academia to biotechnology, passing through pre-Soviet Russian utopianism and into real horror, the Common Task and the Malevin Procedure by which radical freedom may be achieved. Add in Dr Samuel Johnson, one of the strongest personalities to survive in writing (here, there is no metaphor), Lenin and his corpse, Stalin and his desire to lead the Revolution for ever. In Elizabeth Kostova's book "The Historian" she imagines Stalin as a vampire, never dying, spreading his evil into all eternity. In Strange Bodies, Theroux refers to such a situation, from a science-fictional perspective. All this, and the nature of self, the soul and fulfillment. The ethical quandaries of allowing powerful individuals to appropriate life-changing technology to enhance themselves into permanent superiority. All in all, this is a good book, well-written, smart, amusing and thought-provoking. I recommend it.
3.0 out of 5 starsAt times beautifully written, consistently readable, solid plot, interesting exploration of identity, weak premise of science fiction.
Reviewed in the United States on April 24, 2020
Possible spoiler: it is utterly unconvincing that human consciousness or identity can be fully represented in the words an individual writes. We are physical, biological beings and many nonverbal experiences and communications are critical to our identities. Thus I see a key flaw in this work. Otherwise, it is a refreshing break from the cheap action and stilted prose that plague the science fiction genre I love.
5.0 out of 5 starsHard to Categorize and Enjoyable Book
Reviewed in the United States on March 4, 2014
I picked up this book based on an interview I heard on NPR. It's different than the usual recreational mystery fiction I've been reading, and I'm glad that I read it. This is science fiction themed mystery that centers around a literature professor and his somewhat banal existence. Add in historical literary characters, a secret organization which seeks a form of immortality, and a whistle-blower of sorts, and you get an intriguing, compelling book which is engaging on a number of levels. I found this book hard to put down, and the ending was, while not surprising or even ambiguous, one that could be interpreted in a number of ways. If you are a fan of mysteries and conspiracy books, you are likely to enjoy this.
3.0 out of 5 starsBack from the dead--but is it really him?
Reviewed in the United States on February 4, 2016
Intriguing premise, a person back from the dead--but is it really him? The mystery unfolds through a diary left behind. Great writing held back by a tight story line that ultimately unravels leading to a story conclusion leaving much to be desired. I'm interested in more from the author, but never really cared for the characters.
5.0 out of 5 starsTook me some time to get into, but worth it.
Reviewed in the United States on August 29, 2015
When I first started reading this book, I was put off by the narrator's voice. It's the voice of the main character, who is an intellectual snob. I have a hard time getting through books when I don't like the characters as people. I put the book down and didn't return to it for over a year. I picked it up again because I had run out of books to read and decided to give it another try. This time, after 20 or so pages, the story started to draw me in. And then I was hooked, and read the rest of the book in a single day. A great book, well crafted, with lots to keep thinking about afterward. Everything I love about a good novel.
Reviewed in the United States on September 13, 2016
I didn't know this author, and would be content with a mildly interesting sci-fi narrative. Much to my delight, it turns out to be a well written and rather moving story. A few parts do drag on a bit much, which is why it didn't get five stars, but still, I highly recommend it.
In an age when our written words are more publicly available than ever, thanks to blogging, social networking, self-published e-books and internet message boards, Marcel Theroux's Strange Bodies presents us with a prospect that seems even more sinister than it otherwise might: the notion that our personalities, our consciousness, our very being, could be reproduced solely from our written output.
Told through a combination of written forms including a psychiatrist's case notes and the memoir of one of her patients, Strange Bodies explores some expansive themes, including identity, our thirst for immortality, scientific ethics and what really makes us the people we are.
Like Theroux's dystopian novel Far North, Strange Bodies has many of the trappings of science-fiction, but this is almost incidental - genre-wise, this is literary fiction more akin to, say, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or the speculative works of Margaret Atwood than full-on sci-fi. The plot has all the drive and thrust of a thriller, with Nicholas Slopen, an academic whose specialism is the life and work of Samuel Johnson, finding himself pulled into a dangerous scientific conspiracy growing from a seed planted in the former Soviet Union, but Strange Bodies is much more than that. It's also a thought-provoking novel about language and how it shapes our identities and relationships.
Nicholas is a convincingly inept hero with numerous faults, although his growing awareness of them and his increasingly heightened understanding as the story unfolds mean it's impossible for the reader not to sympathise with him, often deeply, and his relationship with Jack, an outwardly brutish savant with a seemingly unique talent, is perhaps one of the most touching elements of the book. Theroux also paints a vivid and plausible picture of the fluctuating mental health of Nicholas, and others, throughout: sometimes the fear of madness (as Samuel Johnson himself knew only too well) is worse than madness itself.
Weaving in numerous literary allusions and references, as well as elements of Frankenstein and age-old myths of doppelgangers and golems, Strange Bodies is an exceptionally well-executed novel, often sharply observant, in which the different themes interlock with the neat intricacy of meticulously-crafted clockwork.
5.0 out of 5 starsAn Astonishing Literary Thought Experiment
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 19, 2013
Strange Bodies details the first-person account of Dr. Nicholas Slopen, a literary academic and expert on the life and work of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Slopen dictates his story from the Dangerous Humans Unit (DHU), a mental institution in which he currently resides as a patient. Because, despite the narrator's unwavering adherence to his identity and life history, Dr. Nicholas Slopen is dead. The novel begins with Nicholas Slopen called upon by music mogul Hunter Gould to verify the authenticity of some letters, supposedly authored by Dr. Johnson. Determining the letters to be fakes, written precisely in authentic style and language but sloppy in physical appearance, Nicholas concludes that only the most elaborate of fraudulent projects could produce such items. He is subsequently introduced to Jack Telagua, a man seemingly mentally deranged, who writes and speaks entirely in the character of Dr. Johnson. Initially accepting that Jack suffers from some form of psychosis, Nicholas begins to believe that there is something more going on. As the story unfolds, Nicholas is brought into a world of metaphysical uncertainty, learning that Soviet experimentation with consciousness has produced a Procedure through which it is possible to replicate one person's consciousness in the physical body (or 'carcass' of another). As the threads come together, it is clear that the Nicholas Slopen relating the story, as dictated in Strange Bodies, has found himself subject to this process. Knowing that his time is short, he lays out to the reader the facts of how he came to undergo the Procedure, while simultaneously working to convince the doctors of the DHU that, despite appearances, he is in fact the dead man, Nicholas Slopen.
Strange Bodies is unbelievably ambitious in its scope. Falling somewhere between thriller, science-fiction, and philosophical masterpiece, this book is one that pushes its readers to confront accepted truths. Most fundamentally, in asking the central question of what constitutes humanness, it posits a lack of uniqueness that runs against widely accepted and celebrated individuality: "The truth is we are virtually identical. We are interchangeable. That is the true beauty of humanity: ant beauty, not peacock beauty. We persuade ourselves that we are unique, but the typologist of human experience would have his work done in an afternoon. Every father weeps at his daughter's wedding, knowing that the tiny sugar plum he held at birth is being entrusted to another man."
Perhaps the most effective way to perceive Strange Bodies is as a contemporary literary form of the thought experiment. It introduces the reader to Nicholas Slopen, dead man, and, through his first-person narrative, is able to reveal the fundamental human reaction to the raw truth of humanness. The Nicholas who tells this story is a man detached from his old physical being, his consciousness now transferred into an unknown body. He must confront the implications of the detachment, what it means for accepted 'facts' of the essence of humanity, but also what it means as an individual, having to convince those he has known and loved (as well as the Doctors who think he is crazy) that he is, in fact, Nicholas Slopen. It is in those moments, when Nicholas in his new physical existence must confront the loved aspects his 'old' life, that Strange Bodies becomes painfully real in its attention to the human experience.
Yes, Strange Bodies is an astonishingly ambitious work. But it succeeds absolutely. Marcel Theroux delivers a work that challenges his readers without entering into the dangerous territory of pretension or overcomplexity. It is a remarkable achievement. I was left struck by Theroux's attention to detail, the sheer intelligence with which he has thought through the premises of the novel, and the extent of the research that must have been conducted to blend the fictional with the factual. Once you have closed the final pages of Strange Bodies, you will find yourself unable to let go of its conclusions and implications. Because what makes this novel so powerful is the efficacy with which Theroux takes a fundamentally philosophical question - of what it is to be human - and gives it a personal perspective. Through Nicholas' extreme experience - the detachment and coding of his consciousness and its transfer into a new physical existence - the reader is taken beyond abstract reasoning and argument, into a world of first-hand experience and perspective.
Strange Bodies is truly unlike any book I have read, walking new ground and breaking down barriers between genres. Utterly remarkable and resoundingly recommended.
This latest take on the Frankenstein theme is a thoroughly entertaining albeit unconvincing read. Marcel Theroux writes with enviable fluency and his narrator grows on you - though Nicholas is initially unsympathetic, you get to like him and to feel for his plight. I thought the early part of the book, dealing with Nicholas's encounter with Jack and the mystery of Jack's extraordinary powers, was the best, reminiscent of the modern gothic school of Palliser and Pears. The middle section, set in Russia, gripped me less, especially the details of the Procedure. And the book does rather tail off, as if Theroux didn't know how to end it. But it offers a solid narrative with some nice twists, enriched by some thought-provoking musings on identity and the formation of consciousness. The author is obviously very talented and I shall look out for more of his work.
5.0 out of 5 starsA sad, haunting and compelling journey into the depths of the human soul.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 23, 2014
I haven't read any of Marcel Theroux's other books, but it's hard to think that he could have written something better than this. At once, it's a compulsive thriller and a literary novel - indeed, the strength of Theroux's metaphysical horror story comes in its ability to meld these two forms of storytelling into a seamless whole, as our narrator - one Nicholas Slopen and a man thought to be dead - turns up one day and spooks an old girlfriend. What follows is a dark and compulsive tale of forgery and conspiracy.
And so there are constant twists and turns ahoy to keep readers of all types hooked, though the sheer breadth of ideas and themes inherent to this novel is downright astounding. Not a page goes by whereupon the writing feels half-realised. Theroux has poured his own soul into the text - a love letter to literature, and the everlasting power of books. Much of the story here concerns the likes of poet and dictionary-maker Dr. Samuel Johnson, and although those familiar with his work will likely find a great more to like about this book, in-depth knowledge isn't essential.
A genuinely sad and haunting novel, this is the best book I've read all year.
Oh the sheer, absolute pleasure of finding a book that has enormous depth of intelligence behind it, in which every sentence is breathtakingly original and beautiful and which races along with tension and suspense. I found myself completely mesmerised by the language and plot of Strange Bodies, oblivious to anything going on around me - an out of body experience that seemed very appropriate given the subject matter... The other reviews have provided very fitting summaries so I won't do that here. Suffice to say I loved it and would recommend it to anyone looking for a book that is ridiculously wonderful to read while provoking the most intriguing questions about our existence. Excellent. My money is on this for the Booker.