I once had an English teacher who claimed to be a witch. I don’t mean she was one of those modern wiccans. I mean she thought of herself as an old school, Hansel and Gretel witch. Oh, she didn’t say it out and out, but she always wore black, owned tons of cats and tended to wink during the Weird Sisters part of Macbeth. Also, I feel it’s not standard for sophomores in high school to study Gothic literature for half the year. Between that class and others in college on the 19th-century novel or one form or another of required literary theory (unlike the good doctor, I try not to “burden my memory with exploded systems and useless names”), I have read Frankenstein many times.
What people seem to forget about Frankenstein is that far from focusing on the moralistic can we vs. should we argument that leads to phrases like “Frankenstein food,” the book is much more a take on Paradise Lost (which the monster later reads, unsure if he’s Adam or Satan), and an absurdly melodramatic one at that. Victor Frankenstein creates the daemon—to use his favored term—in chapter five, with little fuss or forethought, and the rest of the book concerns the monster’s anguish (“Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live?”), his wanderings (he’s pretty organic, himself: “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment”) and his creator’s weird Freudian preoccupations. Should he get married, even though the monster threatened to “be with” him on his wedding night? Should he make an Eve for the daemon, as he demands, even though “a race of devils” would then call him a father? (It’s amazing how the guy can conquer death and still be ignorant of birth control.)
Marcel Theroux’s new book, Strange Bodies, is a Frankenstein homage from the start, as indicated by its story within a story structure. The book begins from the point of view of Dr. Nicholas Slopen’s college girlfriend, who encounters our academic main character in her Shropshire crockery shop despite his having been killed in a recent traffic accident. She confirms his death via Google after he leaves and questions him about it when he returns a year later. Before he can explain everything, he dies (again?), leaving behind a thumb drive on which we find the rest of the book—all this reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s polar explorer, Captain Robert Walton, and his letters, which segue into Frankenstein’s story after he encounters the young doctor in his search for the daemon at the North Pole in the beginning of the book. (Our doctors’ first-person narration makes a little more sense in the case of the thumb drive.)
Writing from a mental institution, Slopen recounts encountering an American record executive looking to verify some newly discovered letters said to be by Samuel Johnson, before he buys them. Slopen has edited several collections of Johnson’s letters, so his entry into the plot feels natural, and if our narrator is less interestingly tortured than Dr. Frankenstein, he’s also a comfortable vehicle for the ride. We know this guy, the nebbish from London who isn’t nearly as good as he thinks he is and feels passed over by a city that has become a playground for the wealthy from the former Soviet Union and Middle East. (Remember the time Mr. Bean unplugged all the Christmas lights at Harrods?)
But when a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life, isn’t he? Maybe it’s a little of column A, a little of column B. You’ll grasp what’s actually going on much faster than Slopen does, given the personal trials he endures alongside the story. His wife leaves him for his friend, taking the children with her, and at this point in his late 30s, he has to ask himself why he hasn’t made more money. Then he impregnates a housekeeper named Vera (the woman who watches over the former convict whose body is home to Samuel Johnson’s reanimated brain, locked away in the St. James home of an oligarch from Dagestan as a prototype for a classist resurrection scheme whereby the dying rich take over the bodies of the poor, Slopen having been consulted to test the program’s efficacy, evaluate exactly how Johnson-y this convict is), so that’s a whole thing. They only slept together once! Who’s going to pay for the abortion?
Slopen’s inability to pick up on the plot—he thinks the monster is Vera’s mentally ill brother—becomes a little frustrating, but it’s ultimately what makes him a good narrator and may be what makes this a good book. In such real-world science-fiction, which is to say something that doesn’t take place in space or post-apocalypse, so much depends upon that moment where the possible is thrown out the window. Both sides of the story balance on it. Being a Johnson scholar, Slopen, movingly, can’t deny the creature’s Johnson-ness; being drab, he’s not given to Russo-American conspiracies. He works so much better than Mr. Theroux’s haggard cowgirl narrator in Far North— would she really look at blocks of ice and think they resembled Turkish delights? Slopen’s initial skepticism allows the rest of the book to get even weirder.
Resurrection in the novel works like this: Doctors remake your brain from words you wrote in your lifetime, which was why Johnson, the author of the first definitive English dictionary, made an ideal prototype. It’s not proper resurrection since you wake up in the body of a Russian drifter, but there need not even be that many words used, apparently, since the less prolific Slopen undergoes the procedure himself. (Taken mostly from introductions, would the new version not be even drier than the original?) Yes, our narrator the whole time has actually been this newer Slopen, created to blow the lid off the whole scheme. When both Slopens are alive, there are some eerie scenes of their having the exact same reactions to things. The book is full of other well-realized supernatural practicalities, the kinds of elements that might make any epistemological philosophers and post-structuralists in the audience drool.
Maybe these elements are a nod to the sorts of interpretations that forced me to read Frankenstein so many times, but it’s all extremely effective just as a framing device: These are the words of a dead man, whose brain was comprised of the words of a dead man. Ashes to ashes, words to words. You can’t roll your eyes at the silliness of some of the sci-fi elements, because you’re squinting through all of the layers. Mary Shelley probably understood this too.
An editor friend recently told me you can’t write a good book today without addressing the medium, the fact that you are reading a text, maybe just on one page, maybe just in one sentence. I don’t know if that’s true for every genre, but it probably is for science fiction. Have you seen what they’ve been doing with filmed sci-fi and fantasy these days? The effects are incredible! Or rather, all too credible! Any book must justify the fact that it’s not a script, at a time when The New York Review of Books has Daniel Mendelsohn reviewing the Game of Thrones T.V. show or when Bret Easton Ellis calls Pacific Rim a “pop masterpiece,” as he did in a recent interview with Kanye West (who in a tweet had called it “One of My Favorite Movies of All Time”).
Incidentally, that film’s director, Guillermo Del Toro, has long been at work on a Frankenstein adaptation, because, he told The New Yorker, he sees the daemon as an archetypical monster: “Monsters exist only if the pretense of reason exists. Before the Age of Reason, you cannot generally claim monsters as an unnatural force. There were dragons on the map—as much of a fact as sunrise.” Mr. Theroux’s book is a perfect textual update for this age of overly abundant wealth and information.