"Strange Bodies" has a marvelously audacious hook — a contemporary reimagining of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," with one of the titans of English literature standing in for the monster.
Theroux's narrator wastes no time in getting our attention: "My name is Nicholas Patrick Slopen. I was born in Singapore City on April 10, 1970. I died on September 28, 2009, crushed in the wheel arch of a lorry outside Oval tube station.
"This document is my testimony."
Nicky Slopen's testimony, it turns out, is being written in Bethlem Royal Hospital, the well-manicured, suburban descendant of London's notorious Bedlam. He's been committed by his wife, who, believing her husband dead, quite sensibly called the police when a stranger claiming to be Nicholas Slopen broke into her house and accosted her and her son.
Yet this false Slopen knows things that only the dead man could know, as his psychiatrist learns when she starts fact-checking his account. An academic specializing in the work of Samuel Johnson, the mostly decent but inarguably dull Dr. Slopen has resigned himself to a desultory university position and a disintegrating marriage. He admits to devoting his life to "trying to re-create some primal ideal of bookishness."
Who in their right mind would want to impersonate him? As Theroux's tale unfolds, that question raises another: If not in his own, whose mind is Nicholas Slopen in?
Slopen's life begins to unravel when he agrees to meet with Hunter Gould, a wealthy music producer who collects rare 18th century books and ephemera. Gould has been unable to acquire anything from Johnson, his favorite English writer, who achieved literary immortality for his "A Dictionary of the English Language," the gold standard by which subsequent English dictionaries were measured.
Famously depressive, Johnson burned all of his personal papers a few weeks before his death in 1784. Now Gould claims to have found a stash of "lost" pages by Johnson, which he hires Slopen to authenticate. Slopen is stunned to find four previously unknown letters. Three of them are unlikely to shake any ivory towers. However, the fourth, undated, missive seems to be addressed to Johnson's dear friend (and object of his unrequited love) Hester Thrale, a discovery that could make Slopen's scholarly reputation and fortune.
Alas, a closer examination of the papers proves they are a forgery, although both handwriting and prose style indisputably seem to be Johnson's own. Gould insists the letters are genuine but finally admits they were penned by a savant named Jack Telauga. In one of the most chilling and moving passages of this superbly eerie novel, a reluctant Slopen is escorted to a basement cell, where he encounters the writer of those pages, "a lump of a man" with "a huge shaved head like a granite boulder and slack gray cheeks." Unnerved by Jack's mute refusal to acknowledge his presence, Slopen attempts to engage him by reciting a poem by Milton, a writer Johnson hated (and whose "Paradise Lost" provided the epitaph of Shelley's "Frankenstein").
To his horror, Jack slowly turns and gazes at him with "the haunted and knowing eyes of a caged ape."
Jack's thuggish corpus is the result of a medical experiment known only as the Procedure. As Nicholas Slopen finds himself drawn to the pathetic savant, the mystery of Jack's gift becomes clear — and so does Slopen's own calamitous fate.
Theroux masterfully braids horror and ontology, Nabokovian doppelgangers and Orwellian satire into a tragicomic narrative that pulls tight as a noose as its secrets are revealed, and the hapless Slopen learns that death is only the beginning of his problems.
"Strange Bodies" is a brilliant, troubling thriller that ends with a revelation that the melancholy Johnson himself might have expressed: Dark as our world is, "There is so much still that is sacred and beautiful."
In "Frankenstein," Mary Shelley's despairing creature cries out to his creator, "If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!" Monstrous as he becomes, Nicholas Slopen still seeks to inspire love. Any reader with a heart may feel it break for him.
Hand's most recent book is the collection "Errantry: Strange Stories."
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp, $26