Strange Bodies: Exclusive Interview with Marcel Theroux

Posted by Dale Townshend on May 14, 2014 in Interviews tagged with

The Gothic Reading Group at University of Stirling recently convened to discuss over a glass of wine Marcel Theroux’s terrific novel Strange Bodies (2013). Thank you, Marcel, for having provided us with a fantastic reading experience, and for agreeing to respond to some of our questions and thoughts about the novel.

There are many elements of gothic fiction in Strange Bodies, but there are also elements drawn from a number of different genres, such as thrillers, science-fiction, campus novels, conspiracy and spy fiction. In a sense, the form of the novel is a ‘monstrous’ a patchwork of various forms and genres, in the tradition of gothic fictions such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Was Strange Bodies conceived of originally as a gothic text, or as part of another genre? Has your perception of where the book fits in changed since its publication and reception?

Ha! I love the image of my book as a monstrous patchwork. I didn’t conceive of the book as a gothic novel to begin with. I usually start from a specific problem: in this case I was interested in the idea of a man coming back from the dead and also in that line from Milton about how books contain the essence of an author’s consciousness. And I wondered how that might be possible. Of course, you can see that kind of subject would draw you into a gothic area. But I don’t think that occurred to me at the time. I probably have a natural inclination towards the gothic thanks to a childhood love of Edgar Allan Poe, who I think influenced me far more deeply than I ever previously suspected.

We found the Soviet Era setting created an atmosphere of secret scientific experimentation and danger. What made you select this particular time- period and political atmosphere? Did you consider any other settings for the book?

It was always going to be Russia for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m fascinated by the former Soviet Union. The second is that the idea of the Malevin Procedure came very early on in the book and it seemed to fit in with real tradition of cryptoscience — Russian Cosmism — much of it weirder than the Malevin Procedure itself.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein seems to have had a great influence on the novel, not only in terms of its frame-narrative structure and its concern with both literature and science, but also and especially on the ‘procedure’ and the “mankurts” that it produces. How much influence would you say it had on your writing, and what were some of your other influences? We also picked up several references to Stoker’s Dracula, particularly in the relationship between Nicky and his psychoanalyst, which replays, in both theme and narrative structure, the relationship between Seward and Renfield in the text. Can you comment on this?

I’m sure you’re right. I often think that you have no real control over your primary influences. I read Frankenstein and Dracula for the first time in early adolescence and they had a powerful effect on me. The thing that always strikes me about Dracula is the modernity of it: it takes place in a globalized world where a British lawyer could plausibly be on business in Romania; part of the text is supposedly transcribed from a recording — the first in fiction?
As far as Frankenstein is concerned, I realized, of course, that Mary Shelley had been here before me, but the frame-narrative structure arose for another reason. I felt it was necessary to get a glimpse of Nicholas before we began to hear his story and that’s why I thought of a framing device.

What we found particularly intriguing about the text is the notion of the ‘gap’ that it consistently explores, that is, the gap between life and death, the mind and the body, between what is recorded and what is not, and which parts of a person have more weight than others. The keys that are coded to reproduce an individual are based on writing samples, and despite a disconnection between the conscious and the body they seem to be functional and reasonably convincing copies. How do you think about this gap? What parts of the human experience do you think are missing from the code, and how do you think those missing pieces affect the reproductions? Is this gap the space of humanism, perhaps – that is, an ineffable human ‘essence’ that cannot simply be replicated through, say, cloning practices such as ‘the procedure’?.

I think that some kind of gap is at the heart of the mystery of consciousness itself. William James pointed this out — that when you go looking for your consciousness, all you find is the act of breathing. That’s as far as you get. I like to remind people of that wonderful experience you have when you look at your feet in the bath and think: “Those are mine!” I have a horror of waking up one day to find out that someone has “explained” consciousness. So I treasure that so-far inexplicable gap.

I think the idea that a person has some potentially distillable essence is reductive and not right. I think we’re more porous than that, we’re more connected to other people and we take more from our immediate surroundings.

At the same time, I’m aware myself of feeling inauthentic at times and I wanted to think about that in the book. When Nicky says, “how do I become real again?” I feel like he’s articulating a feeling that many people have had in low moments.

Given that all the coding is done on samples of writing, how would idioms, slang, dialect or even language of the samples affect the reproduction? Do you think that speech, with its ability to highlight and stress intention and meaning, would allow for reproductions that are more consistent with the original? There seems to be a deliberate challenging of what Jacques Derrida terms ‘phonologism’ in the text – that is, the privileging of the primacy of speech and consciousness over writing that he identifies throughout the Western philosophical tradition. Could you comment on this?

One of the things I was interested in doing was celebrating a form of technology that has been succesfully encoding and transmitting some portion of a person’s consciousness for millennia: the book. I took the insight from Milton, but many people have had the experience of being touched or changed by something they’ve read.

In principle, I supposed you could code speech too. I’m never entirely sure how good a copy of Nicholas has been made. The second Nicky seems to me like an improvement on Nicky I, but that must be at the expense of some accuracy.

It’s been a long time since I read any Derrida — and I don’t think I ever understood any.

Vera, we are led to believe, may have cut in samples of writing from authors other than Nicholas Slopen when she was producing the code that would be used to recreate his personality in another body. In theory, vast arrays of writing from numerous authors could be used to produce composite personalities, a kind of genetic engineering process for consciousness. How do you think a code produced in such a manner would affect the consciousness that would be produced?

Don’t you ever find yourself unwittingly parroting something you’ve read somewhere? Or haven’t you met someone who you felt was reproducing second or third-hand opinions? I think genetically engineered composite personalities are walking among us right now. I’m aware of feeling like a composite personality at times and struggling to reach a point where what I’m doing or saying feels fresh and authentic.

Nicky constantly refers to people, living or dead, as ‘carcasses’, privileging the consciousness over the body. Yet, his recollected memories of his children focus on their bodily functions. Similarly, the figure of Samuel Johnson, or the reproduction of him, seems to be especially concerned with the physical ailments that he suffered in his original body. Do you think that the characters’ preoccupation and relationship with the physical bodies, painful and grossly secreting as they are, is an inseparable and influential part of consciousness, which exists without being coded in, or is it something that might be intentionally included in the coding process to create a connection between the created consciousness and the host body?

Well, I think you’re absolutely right and that the body is a hugely undervalued component of our consciousness. I suppose I wanted to keep coming back to what’s corporeal, because that is some part of the dribbling, weeing, pooping truth of who we are, no matter how much we suppress it.

This pertains to a broader, more philosophical question raised by your novel. On the one hand, in its concerns with consciousness that can be forged and constituted through language, Strange Bodies seems to challenge the primacy of the Cartesian cogito – the kind of ‘refutation’ of Descartes to which you at one point refer. On the other hand, though, consciousness in the novel seems to be somewhat of a transcendental, ahistorical essence insofar as it can, eventually, be transferred into another body, and presumably passed on interminably. Could you comment on what appears to be your complex relations to Cartesian notions of consciousness and the mind/body split in Strange Bodies?

I’ll do my best. I suppose I draw a distinction between the preverbal consciousness that apprehends the world and the verbal consciousness that’s responsible for presenting a self to the world. This second, slick, salesman consciousness also enacts a version of the self for our own benefit which we sometimes take to be us, but isn’t.

I think William James is closer to the truth than Descartes — when you burrow down into your own experience, you don’t find someone thinking, you find a creature breathing. I suppose I think of this as an essence closely related to the body itself and the early experiences that formed it: I’m imagining a sort of vulnerable, blinking, semi-marsupial looking thing— which is the kind of consciousness many of us both started out with and will end up with.

The second, smooth, presentable Tony Blair face of our consciousness is only an aspect or a phase. But I think that’s the only part that could be copied in the Malevin Procedure.

In keeping with much recent gothic fiction, you seem to have an ambivalent relationship with psychoanalysis in the text. Can you comment on how you regard the ‘efficacy’ of psychoanalysis as a means of treating Nicky’s ‘pathology’ in the novel?

I’m a fan of therapy and analysis, broadly speaking. It seems good to me that there are people whose job it is to help us think about our happiness and mental health. But clearly, Nicky isn’t mad or even mentally ill. He should probably have had therapy much earlier in his life, to tell the truth, but the problem he’s presenting now is a real one. It seemed to me inevitable that anyone in Nicky’s position who insists on telling the truth about what happened to him is going to be locked up.

When Nicky finds Hunter’s klyuchka, the key from which the reproductions are produced, rather than destroying both keys he swaps his key for Hunter’s. Do you think that Nicky, despite everything he went through, is still looking to perpetuate his own existence?

No — I think he genuinely wants to destroy Hunter and the Common Task.

It is implied that the key that will be found among Hunter’s things with be used and will produce another reproduction of Nicky, but do you think that Hunter is really gone for good? Do you think that another key will be coded based on any writing that Nicky didn’t find and destroy, or perhaps that there might already be other keys coded to Hunter that were already in use?

All I could imagine beyond the ending as written was a pair of eyes opening in the facility in Kazakhstan. This is Nicky 3, presumably. All he — or perhaps she — needs is a copy of Strange Bodies and a bit of luck to take Harper et al down. But for my purposes, the story is over before then. Nicky 2 — whatever he is — is reaching the end.

How can you see your fiction developing or changing after this splendid novel? Where to next?

That’s what I’m asking myself now. I’m working on something. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much. Thank you, by the way, for your great questions.

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux is out now in paperback, £7.99 (Faber & Faber)

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