David Cronenberg’s films always feel like science fiction; his cool, clinical approach gives a chilly sci-fi atmosphere even to such ostensibly “realistic” films as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
With his first novel, Consumed, Cronenberg turns this sensibility to fiction, and the result is—unsurprisingly, given Naked Lunch and Crash—more than a little flavored with William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, and it also includes a fair amount of the classic Cronenbergian body horror of Dead Ringers. Like his films, it’s creepy and unsettling, packed with imagery that will lurk around your subconscious for days.
At the center of Consumed are a pair of freelance journalists, Naomi Seberg and Nathan Math. She’s in pursuit of “some juicy French philosophical sex-killing murder-suicide cannibal thing”: the apparent murder and dismemberment of French academic Célestine Arosteguy, whose remains may have been eaten by her husband Aristide. He’s investigating a “controversial Hungarian breast-cancer radioactive seed implant treatment thing,” the invention of the flamboyant Dr Molnár, which involves injecting “one hundred and twenty radioactive pellets […] encapsulated in these titanium seeds, into each breast, surrounding the tumors that are growing there.”
While Naomi meets erstwhile associates of the Arosteguys (a former student/lover, a doctor contemptuous of Naomi’s lack of education), Nathan has a brief affair with Molnár’s cancer patient, Dunja (whose post-surgery injuries are, to his eyes, “too sexy. In a fetishistic way […] too Helmut Newton”) and contracts an STD called Roiphe’s disease, which he then transfers to Naomi in the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol Hotel during a detached night of sex, nude photography, and bickering. From there, they shoot off again in different directions: she to Japan after Aristide Arosteguy, and he to Toronto after the original Dr Roiphe in an attempt to learn more about the disease. As Naomi and Nathan become more deeply entangled in the lives and psyches of their subjects, the story becomes ever stranger, involving a film director possibly working secretly in North Korea and sending secret messages through a film at Cannes, hearing aids with mysterious settings, 3-D printers used to print out scans of a deformed penis, apotemnophilia, French language trauma, and insects.
All in a day’s work for David Cronenberg, you might say. In fact, so much of it exactly what you would expect from him—especially if your ideas of his films are shaped largely by his earlier work; pre-M. Butterfly, to put an arbitrary stake in the ground—that you occasionally wonder if he’s not deliberately sending himself up. There’s a scene where Molnár asks Nathan for the photos he’s taking of the patient’s breasts, each with “a dozen clear plastic wire-like tubes running into it, making it look like an umbrella that had been popped inside out by a strong wind”, so that Molnár can hang the pictures in the restaurant he owns. Dr Roiphe’s daughter, Chase, engages in one of the most unpleasant forms of self-mutilation I’ve ever seen described (it involves nail clippers and a child’s plastic dinner set). Hervé, the former student and lover of the Arosteguys, is afflicted with Peyronie’s disease, which involves “the mysterious growth of a hard, inelastic fibrous plaque along one side of the penis just under the skin, causing it to bend alarmingly when erect”; this abnormality turns out to be one of the things the Arosteguys found most sexually appealing about him.
Perversity and grotesquerie abounds, insistently so; in that respect, the novel seems to be operating in the register of his earlier films. There are, for instance, echoes of Videodrome’s Brian and Bianca O’Blivion in Dr Roiphe and Chase. Perhaps this isn’t all that surprising; in an interview in the Guardian, Cronenberg says, “I can say that the novel that I wrote now, I really expected to have written when I was 21 instead of 71, but it couldn’t have been the same novel and I doubt that it would have been as good. I really don’t think it could have been.” In its energy and content, Consumed feels like a younger man’s work—specifically, a younger David Cronenberg’s, though with the confidence of someone who has been telling stories for decades.
One doesn’t often think of Cronenberg as someone who works in a comic register, but Consumed has a mordant wit about it that’s reminiscent of Burroughs—indeed, both Dr Molnár and Dr Roiphe seem like avatars of Burroughs’s own Dr Benway, the former full of Benway’s flamboyance and both possessing his grandiose self-regard and casual attitude toward biomedical ethics.
There’s also an obsessive attention to the pieces of high-end tech gear that Naomi and Nathan tote around in their work: Nathan’s Nikon D3 camera with its 24-70mm zoom and his Swiss Nagra Kudelski SD audio recorder, Naomi’s “beloved MacBook Air”, her BlackBerry Q10 (later swapped for an iPhone with its flash of “5,400 Kelvin degrees of cool-blue daylight”), and her compact Sony RX100 camera. Consumer goods are one more thing to be fetishized in this world; they are also the primary tools by which Naomi and Nathan interact. Apart—which they are for the vast majority of the book—they text and Skype; together, they take intimate photographs of one another on their phones and cameras. They are a thoroughly modern couple in that respect, even if they both depend on publishing in books and magazines for their livelihood, dreaming of publication in The New Yorker.
All of this is rendered in precise, clinical prose that makes the humor funnier and the horror more heightened. It’s easy to mistake Cronenberg’s detached observation of his subjects for contempt, but his perspective is not so much contemptuous as analytical, like a naturalist peeking out from a well-concealed blind. As in his films, he leaves it to the audience to decide what to make of these characters with their flaws, fetishes, and damage; they exist on a very wide spectrum of human behavior with greater or lesser degrees of what most people would consider aberrance. He doesn’t judge his characters, nor do they judge the people they encounter. Naomi and Nathan are oddly guileless, even innocent—or perhaps they’re so jaded that it comes all the way around into some new form of innocence, which leaves them vulnerable when the conspiracies and delusions surrounding the Arosteguys collide in the novel’s final act, to be consumed by the stories that they sought and consigned to an uncertain offscreen fate.
That Consumed often feels like a throwback to Cronenberg’s earlier cinematic work is either a bug or a feature, depending on one’s point of view. Horror-inclined fans who have found his recent films too “naturalistic” will enjoy seeing the master of body horror working in something like his classic mode, even if it’s on the page. Others might feel that he’s simply treading again over well-worn paths that were left behind years ago. But Cronenberg is one of those artists who constantly circles the same material—the tensions and interactions between body and mind, biology and psychology, technology and flesh—so of course any novel he writes would circle around those same obsessions. In an apples-to-oranges comparison, Consumed may not achieve the same heights of transformative greatness as his best films, but it is unquestionably a disturbing and distinctly Cronenbergian exploration of the themes that he’s pursued throughout his career.
Consumed is available now from Scribner.
Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter. David Cronenberg has been one of her favorite filmmakers since—against everyone’s better judgment—she watched Naked Lunch as a teenager.