Cannibals, sex and surgery—The director's first novel is as strange as his filmsby Moira Weigel / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Consumed by David Cronenberg (4th Estate, £18.99)
If you were trying to capture Consumed in a few words, they would include: cannibalism, consumerism, Cannes film festival, elective amputation, 3D flesh printing, insect larvae and Kim Jong Un. The book’s real subject, however, is the one place where all these things coexist: the internet.
Google “David Cronenberg” and you learn that Consumed is his first novel, and that the “Canadian filmmaker, screenwriter and actor,” also known as the “King of Venereal Horror” or “Baron of Blood,” was born in 1943. Recent photos show a shock of white hair raked back from sharp blue eyes and a brow that is usually furrowed in bemusement. The effect is a wry kind of sternness reminiscent of late photos of Samuel Beckett, or what Beckett might have looked like if he had grown up in “an ordinary, middle-class progressive Jewish family.” That’s how Cronenberg describes his childhood in Toronto. His mother was a pianist. His father was a writer. As a child, Cronenberg remembers falling asleep to the click of fingers on the typewriter. He started writing short stories when he was very young. He also became obsessed with science, especially insects. He spent his first year at the University of Toronto majoring in cell biology before switching to English. After graduation, he began making underground films, learning as he went.
In the 1970s, the Canada Film Development Fund was offering subsidies to independent filmmakers, and after a few years in television, Cronenberg went to work at Cinépix, a company that used state funds to put out soft porn and horror movies. His first two feature films, Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), contained elements of both. The films turned big profits but Cronenberg decided to stay in Canada rather than head to Hollywood. Relying on state funds, he developed an idiosyncratic “trash” aesthetic that used low genre themes and conventions to tell highly inventive stories. In time, he turned himself into a strange crossbreed: a B-movie auteur.
Videodrome (1983) was his international breakthrough. James Woods plays a sleazy executive at a public TV station in Toronto, who stumbles upon a snuff broadcast called “Videodrome” and becomes obsessed with it. The film blends reality and hallucination to the point where it is pointless to debate where one starts or the other leaves off. Cronenberg presents actual and virtual life not as opposed, but as continuous. TV screens become pulsing, pixellated lips that suck characters into them headfirst; TV sets explode, and fling out sizzling guts. The film’s success paved the way for Cronenberg to take on bigger budget projects, such as his 1986 remake of the 1950s cult classic The Fly, about a brilliant scientist (Jeff Goldblum) who builds a teleportation machine that accidentally turns him into a giant insect.
In this, and his next two films, Cronenberg moved fluidly between the “real” world and characters’ hallucinations. He made bodies spray stage blood and break apart into oozing hunks of latex and wax. In January 1986, Screen magazine coined a term to describe the renaissance of low-budget gore that took place with the advent of video: “body horror.”
“The contemporary horror film tends to play not so much on the broad fear of Death,” film scholar Philip Brophy wrote in a special issue on the subject, “but more precisely on the fear of one’s own body, how one controls and relates to it.” Body horror, Brophy explains, “conveys to the viewer a graphic sense of physicality.” The consensus remains that Cronenberg is its first and greatest practitioner. But if I had to pick one word for what obsesses him, it would be metamorphosis.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Cronenberg gradually moved away from body horror proper to make a series of more realistic movies. But even when he left sci-fi behind, he remained fixated on people who become other people.
Take M Butterfly (1993). In Cronenberg’s adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s play, lust for a cross-dressing Peking opera singer turns Jeremy Irons from an uptight accountant working in the French consulate, into a traitor, and finally into an Oriental “butterfly,” who wears lollipop red nail polish, a wig, and a makeshift kimono. Viggo Mortensen’s characters in Cronenberg’s History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) undergo equally radical changes.
In all of these movies metamorphosis is not only terrifying, it is irresistible. Cronenberg teaches us something about the nature of horror: that we are drawn to the genre because we long for mutation as much as fear it and that even everyday desires—say, sexual desires—may need to transform us dramatically before they can be consummated. Cronenberg returns again and again to the idea that the best attitude to change is to embrace it. When Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis was published last year, Cronenberg wrote an introduction in which he pointed out that things might have gone better for Gregor Samsa—who wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a giant insect—if those around him had only responded more imaginatively.
“The reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror,” Cronenberg writes. “Not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience.” In this light, Cronenberg’s film The Fly starts to look like a Kafka remake where Gregor embraces fate. When Jeff Goldblum starts turning into a bug he is not alarmed or ashamed: he is ecstatic. “I seem to be stricken by a disease with a purpose,” he bounds around the walls of his laboratory, exclaiming, “It wants to turn me into something else!”
It does not take a teleportation machine to set such change in motion. In many Cronenberg films, metamorphosis starts from technologies that we use every day. Videodrome takes society’s worst fears about the rise of video and trashy TV and makes them real. eXistenZ (1999), set in a near future when everyone has “bioports” that allow them to plug videogames directly into their spines, remakes Videodrome for the age of the first-person shooter videogame.
In Consumed, Cronenberg himself undergoes a metamorphosis. He has migrated from the movies to another medium—the novel—to investigate how ubiquitous digital technologies shape life today. The plot is Videodrome-level madcap. It centres on a couple of media professionals, Naomi Seberg and Nathan Math. She has a steady-ish gig writing for a gossip magazine called Notorious; he is fixated on writing a piece about medicine for the New Yorker.
At the beginning, Naomi has become obsessed by grisly photos of a hacked-up and half-eaten corpse that she has seen online, and the rumours spreading about them in the “Twitterverse.” The dead body seems to belong to Celéstine Arosteguy—one half of a couple of French intellectuals who are famous for their “philosophy of consumerism”; Celéstine seems to have been murdered and eaten by her partner, Astride. And Astride has disappeared. Naomi goes to Paris to get the story. Meanwhile, Nathan has been photographing a medical experiment called a “lumpectomy” that a deranged surgeon is conducting in Budapest. Nathan ends up sleeping with the patient, who gives him a rare sexually transmitted disease. When he and Naomi coordinate layovers to give them enough time for a rendezvous in an airport hotel in Amsterdam, he infects her.
It is the only time they meet in person in over 300 pages. Consumed is a portrait of an era where almost every interaction, no matter how intimate, is brokered by some form of online corporate media. Although they are physically apart for most of the novel, Naomi and Nathan remain in almost constant contact. They call and text and email files to each other, carrying out a love affair by screen.
Cronenberg mostly writes sentences that cut to the point, but the technological devices that obsess Naomi and Nathan also turn his prose manic. He jets off into lists like “Yukie leaned against the front door watching Naomi while of course texting, Facebooking, Twittering, Instragramming, playing video games, and watching cartoons using a massive clamshell phone of a type unknown to Naomi, which was covered with cute/sinster animé/manga stickers.”
Consumed isn’t just about texting, Facebooking, Twittering and Instagramming. Reading it feels like trying to navigate a stream of online information. Cross-cutting between different stories, Cronenberg produces the sense of multiple realities adrift, in a foggy, 24/7 present where everything is always happening at once and the duration of any given event is unclear. His sentences jerk us back and forth. “Naomi was in the screen. Or, more exactly, she was in the apartment in the QuickTime window in the screen,” and so on. The novel feels at once simultaneous and unreal; as if everything is happening at once and it is difficult to know whether it really happened at all.
There is a deadpan quality to Cronenberg’s delivery, a flat matter of factness, that encourages us to take the most outrageous claims for granted. He introduces a new character in this way: “I had no doubt that if anyone was programming the Dear Respected Leader’s favourite movie director’s hearing aids over the internet from an office in Paris, it would be Elke Jungebluth.” Who is Elke Jungebluth? We don’t know, but we believe in her. The technique recalls Kafka—the narrative’s refusal to comment on its own strangeness makes it even stranger, and often very funny.
At certain moments, as in Cronenberg’s films, the most mundane devices seem to take on a sinister power. In Amsterdam, when Naomi playfully starts taking postcoital snapshots of Nathan’s penis with her iPhone, Nathan wonders: “Was the iPhone a malevolent protean organism, the stemcell phone… promising to replace every other device on earth 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?”
But, for the most part, it is striking how plausible, even how ordinary, this outrageous story is. Virtually every device that drives the novel’s plot twists is an object that we use every day, and the novel’s atmosphere of not-here-and-not-there time will feel familiar to anyone who spends their days working at a computer.
What does all this add up to? Cronenberg seems to be taking a stance on the fretful question of what digital media mean for older forms of narrative—for the novel, the feature film, the TV series and even the kind of long-form journalism Nathan Math aspires to publish. Given his back catalogue, it is hardly surprising that Cronenberg seems to come out in favour of change. If digital distraction is a global epidemic, afflicting all of us, he seems to say, it is a disease with a purpose. Ultimately, however, Consumed remains more atmosphere than argument. As an allegory, it does not give up its secret.