Entering his eighth decade, David Cronenberg, a director with perhaps the greatest pedigree in horror, particularly body horror, still working today, has decided to write a novel – and it is as intricate and disturbing and, in its own way, as thrilling, as the best of his films. This is a powerfully original book whose characters intersect with the modern technological world with DeLillo-esque precision in a narrative that eventually spins off into a crazed, paranoid, global conspiracy involving 3D printers, breasts filled with insects, advanced hearing aid technology developed in North Korea, cannibalism, profligate sexuality, psychopathology and, of course, the rampant consumerism of the age in which we find ourselves.
The novel opens with Naomi, a young photojournalist, watching an interview with two French intellectuals, Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy, on her laptop – the Arosteguys have written a great deal on consumerism, celebrating the owner’s manual as ‘the only true literature of the age’. They also, like Beauvoir and Sartre, take lovers from among their students and enjoy courting controversy. But now it seems Celestine is dead and her husband is in the frame for the murder. Meanwhile, Naomi’s boyfriend, also a photojournalist, Nathan, in Budapest while Naomi calls from Paris, is on a job at the Molnar Clinic, watching (and photographing and recording) as Dr Zoltan Molnar injects radioactive pellets into the breasts of a young woman, Dunja, from Slovenia. Nathan sleeps with Dunja and contracts a disease that he then flies to Toronto to learn more about. Naomi searches for Aristide, who is fugitive, coming into the orbit of a Herve Blomqvist, a former student and lover of Celestine. In Toronto, Nathan is drawn into the world of a Dr Roiphe, whose daughter Chase is suffering from a disorder that sees her clipping bits of her skin off in the night as she sleepwalks – she uses a small nailclipper (and even this device is lovingly described) and empties bits of skin on to different party plates on a small child’s tea party table, making her way from seat to seat and adopting the manners and habits of each imagined person at the table. It should come as no surprise to learn that Chase too was briefly a student of Celestine and Aristide, or that Zoltan Molnar, and indeed mostly everyone Nathan and Naomi meet, have a part to play in the strange, hyperreal narrative in which we find ourselves.
Consumed begins as a (relatively) straightforward back and forth between Naomi and Nathan, a couple whose courtships thrums with consumerism, the two of them buying and swapping (and stealing fro one another) the most up to the minute gadgets to enable them to do their jobs. Here, for instance, is Naomi on her BlackBerry:
“Naomi dug her BlackBerry Q10 out of the roller’s side pocket. She preferred it to Nathan’s iPhone in any text-intensive context like the ones she usually found herself in; she needed real, physical buttons (you couldn’t type on an iPhone when you had decent fingernails) and was dreading the imminent collapse of the BlackBerry empire.”
And Nathan, on his iPhone:
“Was the iPhone a malevolent protean organism, the stem-cell phone, mocking him who had cameras with real physical shutters whose sound you couldn’t turn off? Promising to replace every other device on earth [sic] with its shape-shifting self – garage door openers, solar timers, television remotes, car keys, guitar tuners, GPS modules, light meters, spirit levels, you name it?”
Their relationship, which is central to the book, and from which all other relationships either stem or are mirrored “was a consumerist dialectic that led to the same commodity.” “They collaborated on their own consumerism.” Later, we learn, “…consumer choices and allegiances were the key to character and to all social interactions.” The writing is endlessly fascinating, whole skeins of ideas unspooling before our eyes. Here, in a fairly typical passage, is Nathan ruminating on Dunja:
“…he segued into a parallel inner dialogue with her about health and evolution, about the theory that concepts of beauty were not just concepts but perceptions of indicators of reproductive potential and therefore of youth; about selfish genes using our bodies as vehicles only to perpetuate themselves, about how perhaps cancer genes using our bodies as vehicles could begin to make their own case for reproductive immortality as well, and so they too would put immense pressure on cultural acceptance of formerly taboo concepts of beauty, concepts which used to indicate disease and nearness to death but now mesmerised and seduced and mimicked youth and ripeness and health…”
The writing is as inventive as, say, a Tom Robbins novel (Consumed is a book unafraid to travel in new direction, resisting the formal dynamics of story and expectation almost up to the last page, but it isn’t pretentious, it is driven by its own inner logic and it is urgent). What problems there are with the book largely arise from the intense density into which it travels: in time, as Naomi catches up with Aristide in Tokyo, we come to inhabit his headspace and the easy flow of the prose slows and becomes somewhat muddy (in part because Ari is himself a heavyweight thinker and so Cronenberg works to distinguish between his characters) – and, as Naomi herself admits when she considers a joint book between her and Nathan on the various intersections each gradually becomes aware of, there is an issue with the fact that “her narrative was more compelling than his…”
And yet and yet and yet. There is something thrilling about the book all the same, something heavy and considered, something gripping and – strange word to use this but bang on the money – mighty. Consumed also pulses with a strange offkey sense of autobiography as Aristide and his wife move among cinema types, judging the Cannes film Festival for instance, as Cronenberg himself has done. When we inhabit the world of the Arosteguys, Ari tells us about his wife’s apparent apotemnophilia:
“She was so convincing in the invention of the details of her malady and the conspiracy surrounding it that it took on a compelling substantiality, like being swept into the reality of a brilliantly written novel or charismatic movie: it’s not that you believe in its literalness, but that there is a compelling truth in its organic truth that envelops you and is absorbed by you on an almost physiological level.”
This could just as easily be someone describing what it is about the book that sweeps you along. It isn’t always an easy ride and there are images and thoughts here that will niggle you in your sleep (I read Consumed at the same time as Charles Burns’ Sugar Skull and the two books did a great job of unsettling me in a troubling but slightly pleasurable way) but for all that it’s a book I’m extremely pleased to have read.
Any Cop?: If you are a fan of Ballad or Burroughs or, of course, Cronenberg himself, we can guarantee you that this is a strange and unusual read – essential for anyone who likes an uncomfortable ride.