Strange Bodies starts like any good thriller – with a dead body. Except this corpse is walking, talking and whispering secret pet names to an ex-lover. This is no zombie. He’s not out to eat flesh, but to explain, in his own eloquent words, that he’s not actually dead. Although the ex-lover doesn’t recognise the man, there is something familiar about him: the way he talks, his language and, of course, his knowledge of personal details. But the man he claims to be – Nicholas Slopen – was crushed by a truck some months before. The ex-girlfriend is curious, feels sorry for him even, and takes him in. Soon after though, he dies in the middle of her book club. She finds out later that he’d managed to stuff a memory stick between the sofa cushions first. The stick contains Slopen’s testimony of the events leading up to his death, and forms the main bulk of the Strange Bodies story.
Nicholas Slopen is a literary scholar, and he begins his account by confirming that he was killed in 2009 outside Oval tube station. His consciousness, however, lives on, but not for long:
‘I have an unknown but definitely brief period of time to explain the events leading up to my death.’
He is writing the testimony in the secure unit of the Royal Bethlem Hospital (the original Bedlam), and he regularly stresses that his ‘time is short’. He goes on to describe his first meeting with Hunter Gould, a well known figure ‘of some notoriety in the music industry’ and collector of literary memorabilia. Gould wants Nicholas to verify letters apparently written by Dr Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth-century. The text appears genuine, containing many of the quirks of Johnson’s style. But certain details in the paper and the ink appear suspicious, leading Slopen to believe the letters are forgeries. He is intrigued, and decides to find out more about the person who expertly reproduced the text.
The set up, so far, reads like a thriller, but anyone buying this novel based on the first few pages might end up feeling betrayed. There is no spine-tingling investigation. What follows are the details of Nicholas’s daily life and how he gets to know a deeply troubled man, called Jack, who writes like Johnson, believes he is Johnson, but could not possibly be Johnson since the great poet and essayist died in 1784.
It doesn’t take much to work out by this point, about a quarter of the way into the book, that someone (and it’s pretty obviously someone close to Hunter Gould) has come up with a way to transfer the consciousness of a dead person into a living body, and that Jack is an early experiment. It’s clear too that the Nicholas Slopen from the prologue had undergone the same process, something he frequently refers to as the Procedure in his testimony, but decides to withhold any further details. Instead, despite emphasizing his lack of time, he takes the next two-hundred pages to describe his time with Jack, the problems in his marriage and his affair with Jack’s carer.
The only real mystery then is why did Nicholas stuff the memory stick down the side of the sofa in the first place. What did he expect the ex-girlfriend, that he hadn’t seen in twenty years, to prove that he couldn’t while still ‘alive’? Those are hardly significant enough questions to sustain interest for four-hundred pages, although the answers do provide a neat final twist.
That’s not to say Strange Bodies is a bad read. The whole novel is an excellent exploration of identity and immortality, especially in literature, by asking how much of an author’s essence resides in their work. The last section, after Nicholas undergoes the Procedure, is particularly clever too as the perspective (and consciousness) shifts from one Nicholas Slopen to the other, and the thriller elements take over again, for a time, as the new Nicholas sets off to ensure comeuppance for the ghoulish Gould.
Any Cop?: Strange Bodies is like a literary discussion sandwiched between its horror thriller start and procedural final act. Luckily, Theroux’s assured style and accomplished prose somehow, almost, makes it work.