You think you know how terrible immortality could be? Forget your sad vampires and your lonely gods — the new book Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux has the saddest version of living forever. And the most saddening part? It's a distortion of the writer's greatest dream: to live on through your words.
Top image: Edwin Hasler.
Some spoilers ahead...
In Strange Bodies, an expert on Samuel Johnson turns up, months after his death, and leaves his friend a document that he wrote while he was stuck inside a mental institution. Is he actually Dr. Nicholas Slopen, back from the dead, or just a madman? And what does this all have to do with the story he writes, about being paid to authenticate a cache of previously unknown letters from Dr. Johnson?
We soon discover that this stranger is not quite Nicky Slopen, but has all of Slopen's memories and identity — and the letters from Samuel Johnson are actually the product of a "savant" who is somehow channeling the long-dead author? Soon enough, Slopen's recollections lead us into murky waters about identity and memory, and what makes us who we are, as he learns more about the mysterious Malevin Procedure.
The whole thing winds up being sort of like the most depressing episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse ever, as Slopen explores living on in a new body and unravels the sad tale of how he got to this distressing point. It's like Dollhouse, if Dollhouse consisted of long discussions of authorship, provenances, Samuel Johnson versus John Milton, literature versus science and the nature of sorrow.
Slopen is a tragic protagonist, even before he falls afoul of the Malevin Procedure and discovers a far-reaching conspiracy to decant people. He's estranged from his wife, and mostly from his children as well, and his academic career is kind of a shambles as he confronts the sad reality of being an expert on a semi-obscure topic in the early 21st century.
Without giving too much away, the Malevin Procedure works by using the written word — which is why there's a guy writing new Samuel Johnson material over 200 years later. And Strange Bodies is often at its best when it explores the notion that words shape our reality and our identities, and that writing fiction is a kind of scientific process.
There's a great debate early on in the book between Nicky and Vera, who is involved with the Malevin Procedure. Vera insists that "there is no natural distinction between the arts and sciences," and Tolstoy and Dovstoyevsky have also "discovered the laws of nature," just like Newton or Einstein. To which Nicky responds that Tolstoy and Dovstoyevsky are novelists, and "by definition, they made things up."
Vera responds: "Bill Gates also makes things up. Is he a novelist? Science, it's a process of creation too. Literature itself is a species of code. You line up symbols and create a simulacrum of life." And then she tells him to close his eyes, and proceeds to describe a scene with such vividness that he sees it perfectly in his mind's eye, and feels transported.
This is the central idea of the book, more or less — that writing actually encodes the world, sort of like a computer, and that really vivid wordcraft can create something lasting and robust. It's a very flattering idea for a novelist, of course, since it elevates the novelist's art beyond mere entertainment into some kind of cosmic worldbuilding.
And yet, the loneliness of Nicky Slopen and the general misery we visit in this novel are a constant reminder that our selfhoods and sense of reality are constructed socially, with other people, and even if you know who you are, you still have to convince other people. Over and over and over. As someone says at one point in Theroux' novel, "the job of words is to construct the fiction of our separate identity."
Trapped in a madhouse, Slopen comes to realize that "reality is not as robust as we think it is" — some things, like gravity and the tides, go on no matter what we think of them. But a lot of the "finer details" of reality are entirely consensual and fragile.
So to some extent this is a book about the lonesomeness and tragedy of living too long and suffering too much — but it's also a cautionary tale about what happens when you see too much of the code of the universe.