In Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux envisions life after death, complete with failed marriages, body and soul switcheroos, and Samuel Johnson.
Strange Bodies ties together disparate traditions: horror films, 18th-century English literature, science fiction thrillers, academic satire. What were you trying to accomplish?
I’m someone whose consciousness was formed from pulp fiction, video games, films, television, as well as so-called highbrow literature. Growing up, I struggled with a feeling of guilt that some forms of entertainment I really enjoyed were considered infra dig, or unworthy. I yearn for books that both grab you by the lapels and have philosophic scope. When I began Strange Bodies, all I really knew was that I wanted it to be about someone who came back from the dead. I followed that thought to its logical outcome without thinking about genre, but perhaps inevitably bringing someone back from the dead evokes certain genres.
The novel conjures Dr. Samuel Johnson, with passages in Dr. Johnson’s style. Why Dr. Johnson?
Dr. Johnson was so prolific, so written about, it feels possible to imagine hanging out with him. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s fantasized about going for pizza with Dr. Johnson or watching box sets of The Sopranos with him. Also, at the heart of the book is a Soviet-era procedure that recreates a person’s consciousness from their words. It seemed the procedure would most likely work on someone with a lot of extant words.
Can we read the novel as a treatise on the nature of consciousness?
I think consciousness is astounding. It’s an insufficiently remarked upon miracle that each of us is an embodied consciousness, capable of looking at our feet in the bathtub and thinking: “Those are mine!” Being a self-aware entity in a vessel of finite duration is the essence of being human. It’s the mortal tragedy from which flow the big questions: How do we make the most of our time here? How should we relate to other self-aware entities? I was also interested in the enduring fantasy of prolonging life—or consciousness. Google recently announced it’s investing a great deal of money in researching life-extension and combating aging. Every era of scientific discovery rekindles the fantasy of living forever and overcoming death.
Even undead, your protagonist shows love for his children, a soft spot for his ex-wife, and genuine humor.
I knew that to persuade the reader of the reality of Nicholas Slopen’s translated consciousness, that consciousness needed to contain specific ordinary things: worries, memories, regrets, longings, love, tenderness: things like fluff and car keys in a coat pocket that could be either banal or poignant, or perhaps both. Some kinds of human behavior are tragic, some comic, and some are both at the same time. When I studied English literature at university, it was inculcated into us that tragedy contained the deepest responses to life. But my hunch is that the deepest and most human response to life is not tears but tender laughter.