Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux is a literary thriller featuring a psychiatric hospital, forgery, and an international conspiracy (available February 4, 2014).
I had to sit here a long while after finishing Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies. Why? Because I was literally stunned by the novel I’d just finished. To use a very trite phrase, I could not put it down.
I want to start with the story first and then finish up with the writing itself. This is sort of like eating your peas and carrots, and saving the steak for last. Strange Bodies is the story of Nicholas Patrick Slopen, a man of letters, a man asked to verify the authenticity of some letters by an eighteenth century lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson.
And that is where we begin.
Except I have to mention one thing here, and this is not a spoiler as it is claimed by Slopen himself in the very opening pages: Slopen is dead, but his consciousness has survived his bodily death. What unfolds after this reveal is a complex web-work of story as we are thrust into one of the truest noir books I’ve read in a very long time. Noir, at its core, is about an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary and dark circumstances. And that’s exactly what happens to Slopen. Strange Bodies begins with verifying the authenticity of some papers, and it ends with… well, I guess I cannot tell you that, can I?
However, what I can tell you is that the story unfolds in a mix of first-person narrative and journal entries. This format works brilliantly to enhance, and serve, the complexity of the story, keeping it fresh, making you want to turn the page. As I read, I was struck by the fact that not only Michael Moorcock’s The Cornelius Chronicles leapt to mind, but also David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Yes, Strange Bodies has the ability to mesmerize the reader in much the same manner, on much the same level, as those two novels.
Now it’s time to move to “the steak”: the writing itself.
This is lyrical, lovely writing. It was truly a joy to read each sentence. And I have to say here that I thoroughly enjoy a novel that shows me new words, words I have to look up in a dictionary. The sentences and paragraphs ebb and flow like a piece of music. Incredibly enjoyable. (And excuse me if I appear to be gushing over this novel. However, I cannot write this review any other way.)
Here’s a fine example of strong, confident writing:
“Since I was very young, I’ve known what it is to live under the shadow of death, in the expectation of bereavement; to look ahead and experience the vertiginous sense of being suspended in time.”
And there is this:
“All madness has a touch of death to it. Here, in the Dennis Hill Unit, I’ve come to see that reality is not as robust as we think it is. Of course, there are things that are indifferent to human opinion– gravity, the moon-driven motion of the tides, the boiling point of water. But the finer details of reality– the state of a marriage, artistic merit, a person’s true nature–have something delicate and consensual about them. That lurch to the wrong, a noble mind overthrown, even Ron Harbottle sacrificing the good judgment he had lived for: it is more than disquieting. Each time someone opts out of our collective reality, it weakens a little.”
I cannot move on without showing you this lovely line:
“And I’m a dreamer who has forgotten his waking name.”
What Theroux has done here in Strange Bodies is call to our attention the nature of reality, what defines reality, and also how we react to not only the collective reality, but to our own. If it could, I would follow you around your house, or while you’re doing your errands, reading aloud to you this novel. I was deeply moved by it, and as a writer, I was shown what truly confident writing is all about… what storytelling is all about.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. In addition to contributing here, Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the International Thriller Writers. Untold Damage is his first novel. Visit him at his website, at needlecity.wordpress.com, and on Twitter @robertklewis.