Strange Bodies is a hard book to review. I loved it, which presents a problem right from the start. I always have trouble reviewing books I love. It’s also fairly genre-bendy and has, for lack of a better description, bits of philosophy sprinkled throughout. I’ll do my best, and if my best turns out to be terrible, all you need to know is that this book is great and you should read it.
Nicholas Slopen is by all accounts dead. And yet he stumbles into his ex-girlfriend’s shop and gives her a memory stick that contains his story. Written after his death.
Nicholas’s story begins when he is approached about some letters purported to belong to Samuel Johnson. Nicholas is a Johnson scholar and should thus be able to give his opinion on whether the letters are real. They seem authentic, and yet it soon becomes obvious that they are forgeries… (let’s pretend like I am narrating some true crime show)… or are they? The letters are written by Jack, a savant who thinks that he is Johnson. And here’s the kicker: he speaks like Johnson, he writes like Johnson… is he, perhaps, Johnson?
If you are a reader of genre, the mystery of Nicholas and Jack’s existence is not a mystery to you. It is rather hard to spoil this book, seeing how even though what Nicholas is is not revealed directly for a long while, the reader can guess the answer quite easily. There is a twist at the end, and that is easy to keep under wraps, but the idea that you can have consciousness transplanted into a new body permeates the novel.
The book full of strange bodies other than the new Nicholas and Jake. Among them are Vera, who says she is Jake’s sister; Bykov, the voice of reason and somewhat menacing dour Russian bodyguard in one; and Ron Harbottle, Nicholas’ hero and mentor. They are all very much alive and full of their own personalities. This cast is one of the best ingredients of the novel and makes up for some problems with the world-building and the vaguely-described mechanism of consciousness transfer. Consciousness is recreated via the Malevin Procedure (amusingly called ‘secret Soviet technology’ in the promo materials for the book), which involves the mapping of linguistic patterns. Samuel Johnson is therefore an obvious candidate for this operation due to abundance of writings. Distilling your mind from your written works does not seem like a particularly original idea. In fact, it sounds sort of outdated and reductionist. But if you are a book lover who treats every book as a glimpse into its creator’s brain, the idea becomes seductive and sort of cool. I read the second book f Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle soon after finishing Strange Bodies, and he seemed like a great candidate too, because My Struggle is hyper-realistic and incredibly detailed. It seemed like a look into Knausgaard’s mind.
Strange Bodies is thus part fiction, part philosophy. I am not talking about Ayn Rand-type clue bat-style literature, or heavy-handed Soviet propaganda masquerading as fiction. Strange Bodies is similar to The Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The Tale was also philosophical, mixing Buddhism and reflections on time. Strange Bodies mixes in Soviet Cosmism, the Whorfian hypothesis, and ideas about consciousness and the nature of self.
Strange Bodies hit all the right notes for me with its variety of characters, its reflections on parenting and being in love with your children, and its occasional very spot-on observations about human mind. In fact, soon after starting Strange Bodies, I jokingly mentioned to someone that it was my brain in book form (so there we go, transfer of consciousness achieved sans ‘secret Soviet tech’!). I already said it reminded me of The Tale for the Time Being, but what it really reminded me of is Bulgakov’s works. And that is the most direct path to my heart any book can take.
Other bloggers have attempted to review this fascinating book, with much greater degree of success. For example, read Larry Nolen’s astute and smart review, or Liviu Suciu’s review at Fantasy Book Critic.