“Strange Bodies” Underdeveloped and Overambitious

"Strange Bodies" by Marcel Theroux (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Strange Bodies
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

It’s not hard to divine how Marcel Theroux must have thought up the basic seed for “Strange Bodies.” While staring out some bus window, or waiting for sleep to come, or in the shower, he happened upon the idea: “What if you could recreate a consciousness from someone’s writing?” As an author, of course, he latched onto this inspiration around which he constructed a world and a cast of characters, a Russian conspiracy and a 19th-century intellectual. The novel that results is well-written and undeniably engaging; as it progresses, however, Theroux makes obvious that the various story elements he has constructed around his fundamental idea are built on a shaky foundation. Ultimately, the book’s plot and motivation are so gravely half-baked that, were Theroux not a relatively capable wordsmith, “Strange Bodies” would most rightfully belong  among a bookstore’s mystery novels. Excise all that is science fiction from “Strange Bodies” and it might become a somewhat respectable, albeit boring, book; as is, it succeeds only on the small scale of sentences and largely fails as a cohesive work.

One of Theroux’s gravest errors, perhaps made as an attempt to bolster an unlikely plot, is the bizarre structural choices he makes throughout the novel. Its core narrator, Nicholas, is a compelling and well-spoken character, an English scholar whose education is evident in his artful manner of expression. His narration is completely sufficient; the novel could easily function on his words alone. Theroux, unfortunately, is not satisfied with Nicholas—at certain awkwardly sparse points during the novel, he injects an email conversation or an excerpt from a therapist’s diary that adds absolutely nothing to the story or style of the book, particularly as every other character is a far poorer writer than Nicholas. This occurs most catastrophically in the novel’s preface, which is told by Nicholas’s ex-girlfriend, an entirely inept writer. The entire section reads like a teenager’s diary—for example, she quotes Nicholas as melodramatically saying, “‘The Nicky she knew is dead,’” in response to a question about his wife, something the literary-minded Nicholas would never say. Clearly, Theroux is trying to create contrast between her writing style and that of Nicholas, as Theroux himself is a far better writer than the ex-girlfriend character. But by commencing the novel in this woman’s style, what he does instead is ensure that anyone who has never read his work before will wonder until he or she finishes the preface how “Strange Bodies” possibly got published.

After this point, however, “Strange Bodies” hits its stride—its first half is subject to no grave errors of plot or style and is based far more in literature than in the poorly devised pseudoscience that constitutes the novel’s most conspicuous failing. Chief among this portion’s achievements is the character of Johnson, an imagined 19th-century writer whose works and speech are convincingly constructed. Most importantly, Johnson and Nicholas’s passion for his works provide an emotional grounding for the story that is only enhanced when Nicholas discovers his recreated form. Johnson’s transformation from “monument” into “living man who smelled of sweat and woodsmoke, feared death, hunger, and madness,” almost provides sufficient rationale for the novel’s bizarre scientific backdrop.

This sense is cheapened when Nicholas refers to the process of rebuilding a consciousness from that person’s writing as “the Procedure,” an unnecessary moniker more appropriate to a terrible horror movie. As the “scientific” takes an increasingly important role in the story, it progressively loses its compelling nature and its claim to literary status. Not only is this so-called “Procedure” completely unbelievable, but it also seems Theroux has put no effort into making it so. The various bits of explication one encounters throughout the novel are unconvincing and insubstantial; they do very little to further the basic idea of using computer algorithms to convert a person’s writings into his or her consciousness. It seems at times that the scientific theory and geopolitical tension crafted around this “Procedure” exist only to make Johnson’s story possible, because they are so flat and uninteresting by themselves.


So what could be compelling—and is compelling, for the first half of “Strange Bodies”—is ultimately rendered boring and even silly because Theroux does so little to defend the elements of science fiction that form the basis of his work. One sees a glimmer of what the “Procedure” might have become when Nicholas and his own reconstructed consciousness, which has been inserted into another body, interact for a short time and thus explore the philosophical implications of artificially generated consciousness. But this relatively brief period of interaction, as well as the novel’s relatively successful initial portion, do little to redeem a fundamentally flawed premise. Theroux is a decently skilled writer and certainly has the capability to craft a successful book—that is, if he does not get caught up in his bizarre flights of fancy and avoids an excessively ambitious scope. On its own and with extraneous injections from other narrators removed, the first half of “Strange Bodies” would be a decent novel, albeit with an unresolved storyline. But such mystery would nevertheless be an improvement on the messy, half-baked storyline that Theroux has crafted.

—Staff writer Grace E. Huckins can be reached at