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Staying alive

London thriller fuses science, literary history

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In fiction, the likes of Dr. Frankenstein have created human-like monsters. In history, dictators and kings have believed in the evolution of a super-race. In present-day medicine, geneticists talk of cloning human beings.

London novelist Marcel Theroux devotes his engrossing fifth novel to the possibility of prolonging life by moving one’s intellect and memory into a new carcass. Strange Bodies, which goes on sale Tuesday, March 4, is both a fascinating examination of what if and a fast-paced literary thriller.

Theroux’s previous novel, Far North, was shortlisted for the prestigious National Book Award in the U.S. He’s the son of American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux and cousin of movie star Jennifer Aniston’s writer/actor partner Justin Theroux. (Paul has three other writer brothers — Alexander, Joseph and Peter. A fourth brother, Eugene, is a lawyer, but was once married to the writer Phyllis Theroux. Justin is their son.)

Marcel seems to have inherited the genes of his wordsmith uncle Alexander, author of the flabbergasting novel Darconville’s Cat. It isn’t often these days that you’ll see in fiction such a wide-ranging vocabulary as Marcel uses: words like shambolic, vitrine, horripilation, shagreen, adamantine and tetragrammaton.

Such diction befits a scholar who specializes in the work of 18th-century lexicographer and critic Samuel Johnson, precisely what main protagonist Nicholas Slopen is. At 39, Nicky’s career hasn’t been too lucrative, however, and that is part of the reason his wife Leonora wants to leave him and take their teenage kids Sarah and Lucius with her.

The novel begins with Nicky’s former girlfriend, Sukie Laidlaw-Robinson, telling us about his surprise visit to her place after his obituary had appeared in the press. He leaves her with a flash memory stick that bears his written record of "the events leading up to my death" and "the continuity of my identity after it."

Sukie’s revelation serves as an introduction to Nicky’s testimony, which makes up the bulk of the novel.

Right at the time that Nicholas is facing his marriage breakup, a wealthy American named Hunter Gould contacts him to have him verify the authenticity of a certain cache of Samuel Johnson letters. The handwriting and turns of phrase seem to be Johnsonian, but Nicky raises questions about the kind of paper used and he suspects fraud.

Nicky’s curiosity about the provenance of the manuscripts takes him to an address in St. James’s Square to meet Gould’s Russian associate, Sinan Malevin. The place turns out to be not the rare-book dealership Nicky expects but a private residence: "a large Georgian town house" of "baronial opulence." He is met at the "huge glossy black door" by Vera — "strikingly small and plain, not more than five feet tall, with a plump, unlined and oddly ageless face."

He also meets a bulky fellow named Jack, supposedly Vera’s brother, who is a savant. Nicky discovers that Jack, under Malevin’s control, is capable not only of duplicating Johnson’s handwriting but also quoting Johnson’s work and using Johnsonian language.

Nicholas learns that Malevin has taken over his social scientist father’s work in both prolonging and manipulating life — simply called the Procedure. Realizing that the work is for nefarious purposes, Nicky soon sees that he’s risking his life to probe further.

We know from the outset of Strange Bodies that Nicholas has himself undergone the Procedure; the original Nicky was killed in a car accident and the new Nicky has been incarcerated in London’s Bethlem psychiatric hospital (long ago nicknamed "Bedlam"). Despite the fact that we know Nick’s ultimate fate, suspense does build throughout.

Nick’s investigating antagonizes Gould, but it also takes him into a surreptitious liaison with Vera. She offers him sympathy when his family leaves him, and takes him to bed. This precipitates a rather banal plot twist in an otherwise refreshingly inventive story — Vera becomes pregnant.

Interspersed with the intrigue are reports by Bethlem psychiatrist Fenella Webster, who is bothered by a tiny doubt that her patient’s claims of reincarnation might have some credibility.

Though there are sorties into Russia and other parts of England and Europe, most of the novel takes place in present-day London. Scenes play out against a backdrop of districts such as Piccadilly, Green Park, Leicester Square, Dean Street, Covent Garden, the Haymarket, Fleet Street and Upper Tooting Road. There are visits to the Royal Academy and to Samuel Johnson’s old house in Gough Square.

Given the context of so much science-based changing of personalities and bodies, readers will appreciate the nice bit of irony in a brief scene between Nicky and his wife after she has left him. She says, "It’s not you I want to change. I want to be a different me. And with Caspar I am. I feel like finally I’m the me I was supposed to be."

Theroux offers witty gems like this while pursuing some serious questions of identity and medical tampering, and also offering enough literary allusions to satisfy any English major.

 

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest novel is called Dating.

History

Updated on Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 1:55 PM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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