This is a novel published in 2013 and set in 2008/9, which would seem a little too modern for the interests of Grub Street - hold your horses, you’ll see why shortly.
Ostensibly, it’s a metaphysical mystery, rather similar to Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y, Dr Nicholas Slopen dives down his own rabbit hole of identity loss and confusion after finding some possibly new letters by Samuel Johnson…. - see, told you this book would be relevant to this site.
Nicholas Slopen is quite the stock character; a lecturer and editor of Samuel Johnson’s letters, who is ashamed of his past, ashamed of his poverty and has a wife and children who are ashamed of him. He matches Ariel Manto in The End of Mr Y, and could fit in any number of David Lodge books.
In investigating these new Johnson letters he falls into a conspiracy involving eccentric music producers, Russian gangsters, Russian utopians and a mysterious process called The Process. In doing so, he muses on identity - how much it comes from a physical unity, a unity of memory or whether it is just the epiphenomena of words.
I’m not going to reveal much more about the plot, it had enough twists and turns to keep it lively and Slopen was a critical and interesting enough character to walk around in the head of for several hours - oddly, this aspect of identity borrowing wasn’t really touched on.
I did enjoy the modern London setting; characters watch films at the Prince Charles, buy prints in Cecil Court, mooch around Green Park and go to various pubs I have also been to. I got the sense that, wandering around London in 2009, I might have actually met these characters.
But what really brought the book alive for me was the Samuel Johnson fan-wank.
Slopen is a Johnson fan, and when he reads the possible Johnson letters, he describes them as meeting with an old friend, recognisable by the ‘sinousity of the sentences’ in the same way he recognises the individual walk and shape of a lover. There are a number of other times when Slopen reads Johnson, and Marcel Theroux, the author of this book, describes the feeling of reading Johnson very well.
It turns out the letters are forgeries, written by a man called Jack who believes himself to be (or may actually be) Samuel Johnson. My favourite favourite part of the book is when Jack and Slopen live together for a few weeks and we get to see Johnson navigate the 21st century.
Hanging out with Sammy J in the modern streets of London is a bit of a daydream of mine, I have written a few little sketches on here about Johnson in the modern day and had a number of other scenes planned. I also have, deep in the recesses of my scribblebook, a plan for a novel which engineers Johnson into modern London in a time travel variation of Aristophanes’ ‘The Frogs’.
Whether he is watching Brief Encounter, consoling Slopen on his divorce, declaring lamb dhansak ‘a practical joke’ or extolling the delights of melted cheese at a pizza place, the proxy-Johnson is a brilliant character. Theroux takes a lot of the parts of Johnson’s character I planned to; for example, the part when he goes ice-skating and the story I wrote of Johnson at a roller disco both relate to his fondness for ‘sliding’. This vision of Johnson in the modern world also deals with the main problem I had in writing it, and the reason I stopped. Johnson was a man unhappy in his body in his own timeline, it was impossible to imagine his move to the 21st century would cause him more distress - and so it does in this version, Jack/Johnson needing to be medicated and even restrained on a number of occasions.
I was left wondering, why did Theroux choose Johnson for this book? The theme of identity was tackled by him, but not really one of his most prominent themes. Why not ‘resurrect’ a writer of travels like Swift, or an envisioner of the future like HG Wells, or one of the Russian writers that were regularly referred to? I think part of it is material, we already have a solid picture of Johnson in Boswell and his own works and it is easier to feel we have ‘met’ Johnson then other, blurrier figures. There is also Johnson himself; solid, wise and empathetic - that is irresistible.