For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our tenth book is Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux and the review is written by Roy den Boer.
An author trying to bend genre fiction into literature has been going on for a while now. The author decides that a much maligned genre (like science fiction, like crime) can be real literature. The whole debate is a construct by critics who feel the need to point it out and interviewers who ask the authors about this decision (as if it is somehow a brave choice). The divide can be traced back to the popularity of crime stories and science fiction stories in the early twentieth century. They were put in pulp serials and sold for pennies. In the meantime, literature in the twentieth century came to be defined by writers who chronicled a white man going through a midlife crisis (see: John Updike). This division was never real, but now doesn’t even exist anymore. Strange Bodies feels like a product of this non-existent battle.
The novel tracks academic Nicholas Slopen, an expert on Samuel Johnson, who is asked to inspect the veracity of some found letters. They turn out to be fakes, but such interesting fakes that Slopen becomes obsessed. His marriage, which has been on the rocks for a while, falls apart completely. As Slopen digs into the provenance of the letters he’s sucked into a conspiracy involving a scientific search for immortality at whatever cost.
Theroux’s prose is excellent. Most of the book is first person perspective from Slopen. His voice is old fashioned, flowery and, yet, easy to understand. It is a tough balancing act, that Theroux pulls off splendidly.
The plot leaves more to be desired. The disparate elements feel like the author’s personal cabinet of curiosities. The only common thread is that he found them interesting. The tale he weaves from Russian Utopian thinking, Samuel Johnson, academic competition, a failing marriage, psychiatry doesn’t feel natural. The plot has a strange tendency to build and build to a reveal, only to move onto a new plot and continue building. All the traditionally ‘big’ moments are passed over in favor of an anti-climax. I’m certain the reader is supposed to take away some great lesson from this, but the novel ends up feeling somewhat cowardly. We get the sense that the writer isn’t comfortable with writing those ‘big’ moments, so he just skips over them.
This problem, as one might think, poses the biggest problem at the end of the book. Theroux wants an emotional ending, after a book that hasn’t deserved this at all. Slopen walks away from the plot before its completion. Nicholas Slopen’s story as a character never got interesting enough to make it the focus of the finale. He’s a failed academic with a lot to prove, he ignores his wife and children until they leave and then realizes how much he needs them. It’s the stuff cliches are made of, although in this case it is set to the backdrop of a tale of bodies being stolen, minds being recreated and Soviet science experiments gone bad. But the ending disregards the tropes of genre fiction in favor of emotion, and falls flat.
Strange Bodies is a pleasant enough read. The prose is excellent, the plot gets started properly and there are a lot of fun episodes throughout the book. But as a whole it doesn’t end up fitting together. The mixing of genres and the way the plot plays out ends up feeling more like Frankenstein’s monster than Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.