Dr. Nicholas Slopen is an expert in 18th century literature who lives in London with his wife and two children. He's not a titan in his field. His marriage is crumbling around him, though he doesn't realize how big the cracks are. The call from Hunter Gould to authenticate a cache of possible letters by Dr. Samuel Johnson comes out of the blue. Slopen's curiosity and his financial needs ensure that he will take the job. The language is perfect. The idiom is spot on. The handwriting is right, too. But the paper is wrong. The letters—even though they sound exactly like Johnson—cannot be real. When Slopen tells Gould and Sinan Malevin, who owns the papers, they are overjoyed instead of crushed.
Slopen presses Gould to explain what's going on. Reluctantly, Gould and Malevin introduce him to a man they call Jack Telauga. They tell Slopen that Jack is a savant who can reproduce original Johnson. Jack doesn't speak, but he writes just like the great lexicographer. The whole story is so strange, but plausible enough that Slopen accepts it. He continues to visit the strange man who lives in Malevin's basement. He grows close to Vera Telauga, Jack's caretaker and putative sister. When Vera has to travel to Moscow for an emergency surgery, she asks Slopen to take care of Jack for her. Gould and Malevin, she says, won't take proper care of him. Shortly after Jack arrives at Slopen's house, Slopen learns that Jack believes he is Samuel Johnson. No only does he believe he's Johnson, he's also very confused about how he came to this strange country. When Jack finds a newspaper dated from July of 2008, he has to be sedated before he can calm down.
Slopen begins asking questions again, refusing to be put off by Gould's vague evasions. What he learns is shattering. Gould and Malevin have found a way to resurrect the consciousness of Samuel Johnson using the man's dictionary and letters and diary and works. The process is not perfect, as anyone looking at Jack and see, but they have discovered a path to immortality. This is not the only revelation from Strange Bodies. The novel is composed of an ex-girlfriend's preface, a secret diary, the notes of a psychologist, and an epilogue narrated by a very surprising character. I apologize if this sounds cryptic, but I'll ruin all the twists if I say anything more about what actually happens.
I'm left with so many thoughts after reading Strange Bodies. Mostly, my thoughts are revolving around the idea that the only real path to immortality is to be remembered. Words are a distillation of thoughts. Thoughts reflect a person's personality. A body is just something to carry the personality around for a while. Malevin and his team are just swapping out bodies like putting a new chassis on a car. But is this the truth? Isn't a person also their foibles and mannerisms and relationships and embarrassments? There are times when Theroux gets philosophical, but none of it is boring. I was especially moved by the characters' meditations about the nature of identity. Theroux has a rare talent for being cerebral and entertaining at the same time.
At the beginning of the last section of Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux quotes Vladimir Mayakovsky's poem "Past One O'Clock":
I know the power of words. They seem a trifle
Fallen petals beneath a dancer's feet
But they hold a man's soul, and lips, and bone.*
I wonder if Strange Bodies started with this poem, or if finding it was a happy accident, because it wonderfully encapsulates the entire novel. Strange Bodies is another of the rare books that moved me so much that, after I finished the last page, I had to close the book and just sit and think for a while. To me, this is proof of an incredible book.
* A full version of "Past One O'Clock," but a different translation than Theroux used, can be read at PoemHunter.