With the publication of his first novel, Consumed, film director David Cronenberg joins an eclectic club comprising auteurs who are also authors. The list of accomplished film directors who have also produced literary works in original book form — as opposed to crafting screenplays by the dozen — is a short yet prestigious one that includes Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Wes Craven, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Elia Kazan, John Sayles, Woody Allen, Ed Wood, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Marcel Pagnol, Federico Fellini, Guillermo del Toro, Chris Petit, Jean Renoir, Samuel Fuller, and Michael Cimino. Hardly any commonality links these dual-media creators, other than the idiosyncratic and visionary talent for filmmaking each distinctly exhibits, as well as some extra-cinematic literary ambition. (Okay, maybe Ed Wood is the odd man out here.)
(The converse list — book writers who have helmed a film or three — is much longer and runs the gamut from Stephen King to Norman Mailer, Paul Auster to Clive Barker, Michael Crichton to Marguerite Duras.)
We know from his cinematic oeuvre that Cronenberg possesses an affinity for certain writers whose work he has adapted to the big screen: William Burroughs (Naked Lunch); J. G. Ballard (Crash); and Don DeLillo (Cosmopolis). So it’s no surprise that Cronenberg’s novel harks to certain salient characteristics found in the fiction of each of these idols. Toss in some flavors from the William Gibson–Bruce Sterling axis of cyberpunk, and you get a pretty accurate portrait of Consumed. That the book is not mere pastiche but seems rather to occupy the shared headspace inhabited by Cronenberg and his exemplary authors, is evidence that he’s deeply internalized not only their works but their worldviews.
The book features an acid-etched contemporary setting — or perhaps a milieu shifted five minutes into the future. With the worst points of our daily existence heightened in an unforgiving light. Cronenberg is not concerned with portraying a balanced global reality, the “world of tomorrow,” but instead one concentrated, fever-dream slice of it: He depicts a Baudrillardian realm of excess and media saturation; simulacra and sensationalism; anomie and louche behavior; technological deracination and mutant clades; obsessiveness and surreal synchronicity. In short, any of the director’s idols would feel right at home in these pages.
Our twin vantages on the multiplex, bizarrely entangled doings in the book are Naomi Seberg (think tragic and beautiful Jean Seberg) and Nathan Math (think naive idiot savant). Alternating sections track their activities as they pursue their ambitious, rather narcissistically shallow goals. (They inhabit the same physical space for only one brief yet pivotal scene.) Not married to each other, they nonetheless exist in a symbiotic power-couple arrangement, a vocational folie à deux that at times seems almost incestuous, as if the pair are brother and sister — a linkage hinted at by the shared first initials, as if they belonged to one of those families where the siblings’ names make an alliterative list. “It’s what marriage has turned into . . . cyber-marriage . . . Somehow the internet is involved.” Both are photojournalists, a particularly Ballardian occupation, and a role whose thematic relevance extends back even further than Ballard, to Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Nathan specializes in medical journalism, Naomi in crime.
When we first encounter them, each is engaged on a different assignment. But their separate missions will eventually dovetail and interlink in obscure yet potent fashion. Nathan’s quest shifts focus in midstream, while Naomi’s remains more or less fixed from the outset. We sense that she and her preoccupations exert the higher gravity or function as a strange attractor that draws Nathan into her orbit. And indeed, by the book’s end, Cronenberg confirms this: “His reality had been displaced by Naomi’s . . . her narrative was more compelling than his.”
So what is Naomi’s idée fixe? Naomi is on the trail of Aristede Arosteguy, the husband of Célestine. The pair are famous postmodern French philosophers in their sixties, likened to Sartre and de Beauvoir, public figures known worldwide. When it appears that Aristede has murdered his wife, dismembered and cannibalized her, the pair become even more notorious. Naomi eventually learns that Aristede has fled to Tokyo, and she pursues him there for a big scoop.
Nathan, meanwhile, starts out profiling an eccentric surgeon, Dr. Molnár. While at Molnár’s clinic, he has sex with one of the surgeon’s patients, the terminally ill yet malaise-attractive Dunja. From her, he contracts a rare STD, Roiphe’s disease. But this infection presents a large mystery, since the disease is technically extinct, no cases having been reported in decades. His uncanny affliction brings him to the Canadian establishment of Dr. Roiphe himself, now retired. There, living on the premises at Roiphe’s insistence, Nathan encounters Roiphe’s manic, demi-demented daughter, Chase. And Chase, it develops, was a student at the Sorbonne with Aristede Arosteguy….
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Naomi has tracked down Aristede and moved in with him (in parallel with Nathan’s tenancy with Roiphe), ostensibly the better to conduct her “parajournalism” investigation, a Tom Wolfean fusion of subject and reporter. The fugitive philosophy professor begins willingly to recount — and possibly even reenact — his crimes. And yet much remains murky. How, for instance, is the whole affair related to an expatriate film director, Romme Vertegaal, resident in North Korea, and also to cutting-edge audiologist Elke Jungebluth, whose miraculous earbuds are programmed with the intriguing “Vertegaal protocol”?
Cronenberg’s prose is scalpel-sharp in its evocation of surfaces, textures, and spaces, befitting his keen directorial eye. His dialogue is often cryptically skewed from one interlocutor to another, in the manner of Ballard’s near-non-sequiturs. In her hospital bed, Dunja says, “Can that camera function underwater?” Nathan replies, “Do you mean tears?” ” ‘No,’ she laughed. ‘The sea. Or maybe a swimming pool.’ ”
Cronenberg lards his plot — at once languorous and propulsive — with quotable aphorisms. “You rarely captured the full attention of an obsessive multitasker.” “The internet is now a forum for public prosecution.” “Natural beauty became atavistic, nostalgic. Real objects of the innate lust for beauty were now commodities, industrial products.” This last aperçu encapsulates the book’s theme, a merciless evisceration of all things consumerist, as might be expected from the title (a title that recurs appended to other texts and projects in the novel itself).
Unlike many critics of today’s digital landscape, Cronenberg does not find fault with the usual villains, social media and texting. In fact, Nathan and Naomi spend minuscule amounts of time communicating with each other online and certainly do not disseminate their every thought via the cloud. They barely use their phones, although Nathan does muse that the iPhone is “a malevolent protean organism, the stem-cell phone . . . promising to replace every other device on earth with its shape-shifting self.” Instead, they are in love with their gadgets, the hardware, the physicality of buttons and sliders and lenses, which Cronenberg describes with fetishistic passion. They use their cameras and recorders like an exoskeleton, a mechanical carapace they have wrapped around themselves to mediate the assaultive physicality of the world and other people. To a lesser extent, their favorite software functions in the same way. Garage Band takes every conversation and allows you to modulate it to your liking. Images can be endlessly tweaked on your laptop. Sometimes the software leaks into the body, as when the muscles of a naked man seem to Naomi to be “sweetened with CGI.” Not surprising from the master of body horror on display in Videodrome and others.
Perhaps the closest prior approach to Cronenberg’s thesis and vibe came in Italo Calvino’s stor, “The Adventures of a Photographer.” Speaking of the protagonist of that story, photography critic Aveek Sen might as well be describing Nathan and Naomi.
“Antonino realizes very quickly that what lurks in his ‘black instrument’ is nothing but a kind of madness. This madness is a forking path. One path beckons outward, toward the doomed and impossible desire to document everything that exists and happens before it is lost forever. The camera must record all reality, all history; only then would it begin making some sort of crazy sense. The other one leads inexorably within, into the labyrinths from which the eyes, windows of the soul, look at the world outside.”
Utterly accomplished and satisfying in its stylish enigmas, feverish couplings, and audit trail of the follies of its image-besotted lovers, Consumed yet features one small flaw. The last ten pages, stepping outside Nathan and Naomi’s purview for an explanatory coda, seem superfluous, a little too much sewing up of loose ends. I suspect that in the movie version of this novel, Cronenberg will discard those on the cutting room floor.