Interview: Marcel Theroux, Author Of 'Strange Bodies' In Marcel Theroux's Strange Bodies, dead people inhabit new bodies and immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. Theroux tells NPR's Scott Simon, "I think that everyone who loves books has experienced the feeling of being taken over by another mind."
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Genre-Bending Novel Uses Body Swap As A Metaphor For Reading

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Genre-Bending Novel Uses Body Swap As A Metaphor For Reading

Genre-Bending Novel Uses Body Swap As A Metaphor For Reading

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Marcel Theroux begins his new novel with a scene he manages to make more mysterious than a murder on a dark and story night. A dead man knocks on the door of his ex-girlfriend's shop, and she lets him in and gives him a lift and clean clothes. "Strange Bodies" is a story told by Susanna about Nicky Slopen's return to life, the flash drive he leaves behind, letters that the great Dr. Samuel Johnson might have left behind, a music mogul, a Russian oligarch, a concealed savant, dead people inhabiting new bodies, and an exploration of consciousness - whatever that is. As Nicholas Slopen is cautioned: The truth of this situation is much stranger and more complex than you can imagine.

Marcel Theroux, whose previous novel, "Far North," was a National Book Award finalist, is also a filmmaker. And he joins us from the studios of the BBC in Johannesburg. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARCEL THEROUX: My pleasure.

SIMON: There are so many genres - a word I don't like to use - at play here: science fiction, literary detective story, academic sniping that's worthy of Edward Albee...


SIMON: ...and horror films. So were you trying to bust a few forms here?

THEROUX: I was trying to be as free as possible. I don't really think about genre either, to be honest. I find it constraining. And I know there's a certain embarrassment about talking about science fiction in polite company, so some people prefer to call it speculative fiction instead. Well, I just started with the premise that I wanted someone to come back from the dead. And I started thinking about how on earth that might be possible. And I guess I knew then it wasn't going to be a naturalistic story.

SIMON: Well, yes. Nicholas undergoes a procedure, at some point. It winds up with putting Nicky in somebody else's body.

THEROUX: That's right. By setting myself the task of reincarnating someone, I was inspired by John Milton, who has a line in an essay he wrote where he says that books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain the essence of the living intellect that bred them; in other words, that books are alive, and that they've got the quintessence of the author inside them.

And I think that everyone who loves books has experienced the feeling of being taken over by another mind. And I suppose one of the things I wanted to do in the book was celebrate the act of reading, which is such a mysterious and not sufficiently remarked upon transaction between two consciousnesses, only one of which needs to be alive.

SIMON: Yeah. I remember once when interviewing John Updike, and he said - I have to paraphrase. But he said one of the most influential things he ever read said something like: Fame is fleeting, money evaporates; the only thing that endures is character. And I said, who wrote that? And he said, I think I read it on a cereal box.


SIMON: The point being, you never know when what you read winds up kind of resounding in your life.

THEROUX: That's right. And you sometimes don't know what - exactly what snippets constitute your consciousness, and whether they're things you've thought or things you've read or things that other people said, or things that you read off a cereal box. And I suppose that at the heart of all this is the mystery of what I am, and who is this creature who looks at my feet in the bath and says: Those are mine. You know, I think that's an amazing and mystical experience that's available to all of us every day.

SIMON: Dr. Samuel Johnson, he is a central character. A lot of people who have - I think not just reluctant to do that, but reluctant to write faux Johnson.


THEROUX: Probably wisely.


SIMON: Well, how did you go about that?

THEROUX: Well, I like - you know, Johnson is an extraordinary character, and a rare creature in literature because he's extraordinarily three-dimensional. And I suppose I just - I wrote the book to entertain. I wasn't going to be held back by notions of what was sensible or good taste. If I was going to bring back an 18th century lexicographer, hell, I was going to bring him back.

SIMON: Yeah. You grew up watching a great writer - and not just on tour and not just on "Charlie Rose," but a great writer at work.

THEROUX: Yeah. My father, Paul Theroux, is a celebrated novelist and travel writer. And you're right. I grew up watching him work every day. And I was lucky to have a dad who did a job that I could see; it wasn't a mysterious job that he went to do in an office. I could see how much hard work and application it took, and how many hours he spent at his desk. And, you know, he's still available to me for me to call and say, you know, Dad, I'm really stuck.


THEROUX: I'm still a beneficiary of his wisdom.

SIMON: May I ask, does he give good advice?

THEROUX: Well, you've got to be careful that you don't show anything to anyone too early. I think he's really good as a coach. He's very good for a half-time pep talk; where you feel like you're losing, and you need to screw up your courage to get back out on the field and finish the thing off.

SIMON: Can I call him sometime?


SIMON: I think I - I'm sorry. I...

THEROUX: But no, anyone who's written a lot, anyone who's written a long work of fiction just knows that your mood goes up and down and at times, it seems baffling; and you feel like you should be doing something that is of value to the human race, not sitting on your own in a room, churning out words - or not churning out words.

SIMON: When - what I'll refer to, forgive me, is a science fiction world you describe, in which the souls of the departed find new homes in new bodies - it occurred to me, when I closed the book, that may not be science fiction for long.

THEROUX: No. And a lot of people are trying to make it reality. It's interesting. Every historical period - whatever is the cutting edge of science - is the thing that seems to hold out the promise of living forever. So it's blood transfusions in the early part of the 20th century; it's electricity for Mary Shelley in "Frankenstein"; and now, its nanotechnology and computing - that we'll turn into a hive of nanobots. So we'll have our consciousnesses uploaded onto the Internet in some way that will preserve them forever.

And, you know, the default way of looking at these things is to find them pretty ridiculous. But I think they do speak to something that resonates with all of us, which is that it's going to be so sad to say goodbye, and we really would like to stay longer and bring our loved ones back. And that's never going to go away.

SIMON: And yet - I don't want to deliver unwittingly the end of this book. But toward the end of it, you write: Death is the base ground that gives everything else point.

THEROUX: Well, if you look at Homer, if you look at "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," the immortals in that seem ninny-ish by comparison with the humans. There are no stakes for the immortal; you're going to go on forever. There's something about that that actually trivializes your existence; where for people who live a relatively brief, finite existence on this planet, every moment is precious. And, you know, it's almost a cliche to say it, but that doesn't render it any less true.

SIMON: Marcel Theroux. His new novel, "Strange Bodies." Thanks so much for being with us.

THEROUX: My pleasure.


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