The Body is a provocative novella that uses a science fiction premise – the transplantation of old brains into young bodies – to explore the moral and psychological implications of immortality. It is centrally concerned with the young healthy body as the fetish of our times and takes its commercialization to a shocking extreme. The main character’s exclusive focus on the materiality of human existence raises questions of identity, the burden of old age, and the promise of eternal youth.
Adam, the first-person narrator of the novella, is an elderly, London-based playwright in his mid-sixties whose heyday of theatre production is long over. He is greatly troubled by his “ailing existence” and feels out of touch with real life. His children have left and together with his wife Margot he tries to make the best of his advanced years.
During a theatre party where the established directors and writers mingle with young, aspiring actors he gets to know Ralph, one of the young and beautiful. To Adam’s surprise he turns out to be a great admirer of his theatrical work and claims to have seen some of the performances that took place long before his biological birth. Ralph is actually older than Adam. After the death of his wife and a life of failed opportunities he wanted a second chance. In South America he met a young man who offered him exactly that. In an experimental operation the brain of an old person can be transplanted into the corpse of a young one. Only three or four surgeons in the world are familiar with the procedure. Ralph seized the opportunity and now offers Adam the same chance to become young again and live out his dreams. After another meeting Adam is prepared to go ahead with the plan. He makes all the necessary preparations and convinces his wife that he needs a six month vacation for a “walkabout”.
The operation takes place in a run-down warehouse in a bleak industrial estate outside London. Adam quickly settles the business side of this “short-term body rental” and is then asked to choose his new biological self. In the fridge he finds rows and rows of bodies. Suddenly he realizes that he cannot only change his age, but also his gender and race. He is momentarily worried about the large number of corpses and the idea of “shopping for bodies”. Finally Adam settles for a “classically handsome”, Italian-looking man with “a fine, thick penis and heavy balls”. After the operation he wakes up a “newbody”, an old person in a “new facility” that he can wear like a garment. The first few minutes are disturbing: Adam finds himself in a state of limbo – out of his old body and not yet inside the new one. As an elderly intellectual he must learn to accept the physicality of his being and the joy of touching and being touched. In this “new incarnation” he will have the “undeviating contact with reality” of which he has been deprived for a long time.
Adam meets Ralph in a hotel foyer where the two discuss important issues, such as having papers forged and choosing a new name. He walks out of the building as Leo Raphael Adams, eager to explore his new body. He spends hours in front of the mirror and tries to become familiar with himself. To his friends and family he is now invisible. Adam starts on a great European tour to explore his growing sexual desire but also, more reluctantly, his past. When he is not out chatting up girls, he reflects upon his old life and all the missed opportunities. He quickly becomes a fashion model and sought-after society “tart”. He experiments with rough sex and drugs, yet, after the initial excitement, this self-indulgence becomes tiresome and far too expensive. His young, superficial friends are bores and Adam has his first severe doubts about the whole operation.
In Greece, he joins the staff of a spiritual and physical rejuvenation centre for rich, middle-aged women to earn some money and find peace. It is run by Patricia, a 1960s feminist. In Alicia, a shy poet, he finds a companion to talk about writing and literature, though he has to play dumb for most of the time to keep up appearances. Patricia strongly desires him and Adam gives in to her longings. While she wants him all to herself and to show him off, Adam contemplates fleeing. When they are all invited to a fashionable party on a yacht, Adam flees from Patricia and hides in one of the cabins. There he is found by Matte, the owner of the yacht, who recognizes him as a “newbody” by the marks on his neck. Adam is shocked by Matte’s unscrupulousness concerning his vision of immortality. The poor and powerless have to die to guarantee eternal life for the wealthy. The situation becomes ever more threatening, and Matte finally reveals that he wants Adam’s body as his brother is slowly dying and there is no suitable “facility” available. Adam refuses to sell his new self and manages to escape from the yacht. Matte’s men follow him closely, but he succeeds in leaving Greece on the next ferry.
Back in London, Alicia suddenly turns up and reports what has happened in the meantime. Adam finds her a job and then returns to his old home, fearing the worst. He meets his wife and talks to her for some hours in the guise of his new self. Narrowly escaping the men who are waiting outside the house, he rings Ralph and manages to get the address of the warehouse as he desperately wants to slip into his old body again and spend the rest of his life with his family. He calls a taxi and goes to the place where he was operated on some months before. Matte and his men already await him there and threaten to take his body by force. A doctor is standing by to save the body and discard the brain. Adam has taken precautions by pouring petrol all over his body and is more than willing to ignite it, thus ruining all plans to save Matte’s brother. Again he escapes, although he has to realise that he will never be able to return to his wife and family. He remains trapped in the body he so desperately wanted to have.