Cronenberg's Consumed feels similar to that of fellow Canadian sci-fi writer William Gibson, in that the narrative is globe-hopping in nature and both writers share a fetish for technology.
Length: 308 pages
Author: David Cronenberg
Publication date: 2014-09
I took a film studies course during my undergraduate program that was focused on the works of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, probably the most visible Canadian filmmaker after James Cameron. I remember that the professor introduced Cronenberg by saying that he actually never originally set out to be a director. Rather, he wanted to be a novelist. It was just happenstance that he started making films.
Well, here we are more than four decades into Cronenberg’s career (I'm counting early works such as Stereo and Crimes of the Future), a period that includes films such as Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, A History of Violence and countless, countless others, and Cronenberg has finally gotten around to fulfilling his early dream. At the age of 71, he has finally published his debut novel, Consumed. And, pardon the pun, there’s a lot to chew on here.
Plot-wise, on the surface, this is a book that’s preoccupied with cannibalism and Cronenberg’s take on the “body horror” genre. At the start of the novel, an almost elderly French couple living in Paris, who are renowned philosophers and something of a national treasure, have hit the headlines, as Célestine Arosteguy has been found by police dismembered in the apartment she shared with her husband, Aristide. What’s more, parts of Célestine have been cooked on the stove and eaten. Aristide, meanwhile, has simply vanished into thin air. The general consensus is that Aristide committed the crime, even though the police are not officially treating him as a suspect.
The story, though, really centres on a romantic and professional couple of journalists named Naomi and Nathan. Naomi is on top of the Arosteguy scandal and is working in Paris, while Nathan is in Budapest covering the work of an unlicensed surgeon named Zoltán Molnár. There, he contracts a mysterious sexually transmitted disease known as Roiphe’s disease. He discovers that the doctor who is the namesake of the disease lives in Toronto, so he travels there looking for treatment and another ace medical story.
Meanwhile, Naomi gets a tip that Aristide may be hiding out in Tokyo, and goes there. Faster than you can say “intertwined plots”, the various dots begin to connect to one another between the Arosteguys, Roiphe and his adult daughter Chase, and various hangers-on.
While this book is being marketed as horror – there’s even a back of the jacket blurb from none other than Stephen King – the gore is actually fairly muted and it's more of an intellectual discourse than anything else. In fact, you might consider Consumed to be a philosophical treatise on what it means to age and grow old. Before getting into that, you may be really wondering how Cronenberg, who has penned quite a few screenplays in his time, writes as a novelist.
Fairly shockingly well, it turns out. In fact, this book, at times, feels less Cronenbergian than it owes a similarity to fellow Canadian sci-fi writer William Gibson, in that the narrative of Consumed is globe-hopping in nature (much like some of Gibson’s work) and both share a kind of fetish for technology. Since both Naomi and Nathan are additionally photojournalists, Cronenberg goes into excruciating detail as to what camera gear they’re carrying to the point that by the tenth or so reference to it, you may want to take a sharp, pointy stick and aim it at your eye. (We get it. You’re a filmmaker, so you love cameras.)
Actually, some of Consumed is very autobiographical in nature. There’s a section devoted to the Cannes Film Festival (Cronenberg once led the jury in real life) and how one film winds up not winning the Palme d’Or due to the fact that its country of origin is North Korea, so it wins a special jury prize for “artistic subversion and visual elegance”, instead. The same sort of thing happened to Cronenberg, not because he was from what is deemed an "unsavory country", but because his 1996 film, Crash, which is full of clinical, non-erotic sex scenes, was so audacious that it didn’t win the Grand Prix, but was instead awarded a Special Jury Prize. Art imitates life.
In addition, readers of Consumed might have fun catching pseudo-references to the director/author’s past films; his love of motor racing comes up at least once (see Fast Company), there’s a character that sort of has their head explode on them (Scanners), and there are countless allusions to insects (The Fly).
At the heart of Consumed, though, is a book of ideas. There are a ton of them, and this novel may be used in the future as an adjunct by professors to Cronenberg’s film work. For example, there’s the idea of body decay through aging and disease, and the role surgery and technology plays in trying to reverse that decomposition. The book goes at length into not only venereal disease, but also deformity of sexual organs and the co-mingling of death and sex. (One female character says, “Nathan, I’m a very sick woman. Does that turn you on?”)
More apt, though, for a book called Consumed is the notion that we’re all consumers of material goods. We desire them. As one character points out early in the novel, “[w]hen you no longer have any desire, you are dead. Even desire for a product, a consumer item, is better than no desire at all.” Paragraphs later, this character adds, “That’s why ... the only authentic literature of the modern era is the owner’s manual.”
Consumed is far from being an owner’s manual, but anyone coming to the book for the sake visceral thrills of Cronenberg’s early films is going to be disappointed. While I wouldn’t say that the book is entirely dry, it is very intellectual. There’s a ponderous novella within the novel, so to speak, that tries to engage the mind instead of the eyes. Some of this comes off as pretentious, and I can say this much: this would be a very difficult book to adapt as a movie because, boy, is it talky. And that’s not when Cronenberg writes really long paragraphs that run a page or more.
What’s more, things don’t always totally align, and the story actually ends on a cliffhanger, raising the spectre of a sequel. Cronenberg tries to set us up for this dissatisfaction towards the end, by having one character say, “We can’t worry about meaning... [A]n artist is not a manufacturer.” So Cronenberg wants to be taken seriously, and not be just a popcorn purveyor of thrills and chills a minute. However, the story just... ends, once it really seems like all of the talky bits (some 300 pages of it) are coming to a close, and things are really about to start hopping.
When the late Roger Ebert reviewed Crash, he said in his positive review of the film, “I admired it, although I cannot say I ‘liked’ it.” Those same words hold true for Consumed, a novel that you’ll end up admiring for all of its brain juice, but it’s a tough one to come out and say that you “liked” it, as much of the primeval thrills of Cronenberg’s movies, particularly the early ones, are missing here.
Another thing worth mentioning: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide says of Videodrome that it gets progressively sillier and sillier as it goes along. The same is true of Consumed, which somehow works in North Korea as a major plot point, along with a hearing aid that can pick up inaudible sounds, and non-medically needed amputations. Cronenberg is working towards his own conspiracy theory novel in a way here, and even though the writing is sharp and crystal clear, the plot just gets more and more muddled and unbelievable as things trudge towards its non-conclusion.
Still, you have to admire Cronenberg for going back to what he wanted to do in his student days, before he even picked up a camera and, if anything, Consumed is an interesting, if not always successful, addition to his cavernous body of work. You won’t necessarily “consume” this book in one sitting, but that's because there is much food for though to be had. And, yes, there is another kind of food: cannibalism. Just enough of it to satisfy, even though you'll leave this book wanting more of a fleshy, gory meal and less of the talky-talk.