Edmund Wilson wasn’t an admirer of genre fiction, mystery novels especially. He asked, testily, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?”
I held Wilson’s comment in my mind while reading Marcel Theroux’s new novel, “Strange Bodies.” It’s a pop narrative with a payload of plot contrivance. I wouldn’t call it genre fiction exactly; it’s too eccentric for that. But its machinations snap together like something bought at Ikea.
Mr. Theroux’s novel is a techno-thriller with echoes of both “Frankenstein” and a Sherlock Holmes whodunit. It’s the kind of book in which people fall and bonk their heads on doorknobs at inopportune moments. It’s got brain implants and reincarnation and Russian bad guys and sneaky murders. It’s all pretty baroque.
The good news about “Strange Bodies” is that Mr. Theroux, when he can extricate himself from the Silly String of his plot and find some open ground, is a superb writer. His novel would charm Wilson, were he alive, when it didn’t bore him out of his mind.
Mr. Theroux — he is the son of Paul Theroux — is the author of four previous novels, including “Far North“ (2009), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. My favorite among his books is “The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes” (2001), a prickly entertainment that rummages around in his literary family’s dynamics.
How good can Mr. Theroux’s prose be? One woman in his new novel is described as “so etiolated by Bikram yoga that she looked like gristle.” Another has “false eyelashes so big and silver they opened and shut like Venus flytraps.”
This author has a well-stocked mind. Noting the smell of blood in the air, his main character says, “It was Assia Wevill, wasn’t it, who said Ted Hughes’s hands smelled like a butcher’s?” At another point, this man declares, “I seemed to have turned into a superfluous and pitiful character, like someone in a William Trevor story.”
The plot in “Strange Bodies” spins around Dr. Nicholas Slopen, an impoverished Samuel Johnson scholar whose wife, a classical musician, has left him. She’s taken their kids and fled with a wealthier, groovier man. Slopen is 39 and comprehensively miserable about his blasted life. “I could barely,” he says, “afford to buy books in hardback.”
A notable thing about Slopen is that when we first meet him, he’s already been killed in a car crash. So who’s this man who’s walking around, telling everyone he is Nicholas Slopen? Before long, the new fellow — Slopen 2.0 — is tossed into a mental hospital.
It wouldn’t be sporting to give too much of this book’s plot away. The narrative hops back and forth in time, and comes to involve a cache of newly found letters apparently written by Johnson.
Watching Johnson perambulate around London is an upside to this novel’s plot. A downside is that Mr. Theroux, given his novel’s interest in various kinds of authenticity, too often spells out its themes, most of them about the nature of humanity. “Oughtn’t we to celebrate our sameness, our commonalities?” we read. “The truth is, we are virtually identical. We are interchangeable. That is the true beauty of humanity: ant beauty, not peacock beauty.”
This novel is also filled with little cliffhangers and small utterances that could appear in an Arthur Conan Doyle novel:
“I was drawing closer to the hidden chamber of the infinitely dark truth”; “I felt a chill come over me”; “This was the thread that I followed into the heart of the labyrinth.”
On some level, Mr. Theroux is sending up mystery conventions as well as aping them. There’s an element of spoof here, if not a successful element. The novelist John Barth was once accused of writing spoofs. He replied that the word sounds like imperfectly suppressed flatulence.
There are beautiful things, real things, tucked in this novel. When Slopen comes across apparently new prose from Samuel Johnson, the style is so familiar to him that he becomes emotional. It is as if he were seeing “the gait of a loved one on a distant hillside, the smell of my children’s hair, the varied sensations evoked by my mother’s cooking.”
Slopen, a young fogy, explains this novel’s sensibility, somewhat, by stating that his father was technically a Victorian. “He was born in 1899 and was in his 70s when I was conceived.” The foxy humorist in Mr. Theroux can’t resist adding that Slopen was thus “the belated product of 19th-century testicles.”
It’s this side of Mr. Theroux, unboxed by plot and pastiche, that you want to come out and play.
By Marcel Theroux
292 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.