A Novel by David Cronenberg:
Do you recall those great lines in David Cronenberg’s brilliant 1986 film The Fly, delivered by Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle?
“Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician.”
Leaving aside the obvious fact that several Irish politicians had Jeff well beat to the punch, I’ve always found that a fascinating sentiment in a great film by one of my all-time favourite movie directors. Now, in his debut novel, the coldly clinical, weirdly funny, perverse and disturbing Consumed he’s got a thing for insects once more. In fact, one of his characters is so convinced that her left breast is a hive to various species of insects that she wants her husband to cut it off. Under medical supervision, of course.
Cronenberg’s characters tend to have rather wonderful names, the kind of names that relegate your own humble moniker to the depths of boring. Here, his two main characters are Nathan Math and Naomi Seberg, two techno-obsessed, implausibly well-off photojournalists who mainly meet at airports, have sex in the nearest hotel and then go off travelling the world separately, seeking out suitably sleazy or just plain odd stories.
In their separate ways they both become involved in the curious case of Célestine and Aristide Arosteguy, two decadent French philosophers, clearly based on Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Aristide is in hiding in Tokyo, having taken theories of deconstruction and consumer consumption a bit too far and decapitated his beloved wife before eating parts of her, obviously not being content with simply amputating that troublesome breast. He’s not your run of the mill cannibal, mind– being accomplished, intelligent and handsome. Sound like anyone you know? And yes, he does actually reference Hannibal Lecter.
Our intrepid heroes conduct parallel investigations, discovering that whilst serving as a juror at the Cannes Film Festival (Cronenberg himself had once been Chief Judge) Célestine had become obsessed with a North Korean entry on insect religion called The Judicious Use of Insects and is convinced that it is directed by an ex-lover, using a pseudonym and working for Kim Jong-un, quietly infiltrating the West with erotic hearing aids.
Believe it or not, in Cronenberg’s coolly capable hands, this all makes a bizarre kind of sense.
I doubt that it need to be said by anyone who knows the respective artists that Consumed is very heavily influenced by J.G. Ballard’s work, sharing that sense of clinical detachment and involving characters who tend to embrace the disasters that hit them. (And of course Cronenberg had done an excellent adaptation of the English writer’s Crash.) They also share a liking for very unusual sex, if it can even be called that. Although admittedly who amongst us has never dreamed of dying in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor, ejaculating over the dashboard at the ultimate moment? (Crash.) Or fantasized of putting Samuel Beckett’s penis through a 3D scanner? (Consumed.)
I know I do. Constantly.
In tone Consumed resembles the period of Cronenberg’s filmmaking career that dealt with his obsessions and concerns with ‘body horror’ as well as the links between disease and sexuality. I was reminded of his comments during an interview where he talked of having beauty contests for the inside of the body, when I read this passage:
“‘So many women have cancer now. Do you think a new esthetic can develop? Cancer beauty? I mean, if there could be heroin chic, the esthetic of the death-wishing drug addict? Will non-cancerous women be begging their cosmetic surgeons to give them fake node implants under their chins and around their necks? Under their arms? In their groins? So sexy, that fullness. And it works so well as an anti-ageing technique, to fill out that sagging turkey neck. Who wouldn’t want it? And the jewelry, the titanium pellets piercing those tits. So S&M/bondage.’ Dunja kept talking in Nathan’s head as he segued into a parallel 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 cancer genes could begin to make their own case for reproductive immortality as well, and so they too would put an immense pressure on cultural acceptance of formerly taboo concepts of beauty, concepts which used to indicate disease and nearness to death but now mesmerized and seduced and mimicked youth and ripeness and health…”
These are radical concepts that would have fitted easily into such pivotal Cronenberg works as The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly or even his son Brandon’s excellent debut film of last year, Antiviral. Not to mention many an interview that he’s given over the years.
And Ballard would certainly have approved of this:
“Célestine sat on my bed and kissed me with as much passion and intensity as she could while keeping her mouth shut tight, as was her new habit, the unspoken fear being the migration of insects from one body to another. I missed the mouth that fell wide open at the first touch of my lips, fell open with the evaporation of social will and any hint of reservation or resistance… I could hear the vibrations of the rails in her flesh, and I could hear the insects too, clamoring for my attention and creating little capsules of sound…”
By now you’ll have gathered that you’ll either love this book or scratch your head in mystification. For me it is hard to be objective as I’ve been a lifelong Cronenberg fan. With the possible exception (I may try it again) of Cosmopolis I’ve always felt instinctively on his wavelength.
Consumed is, like much of the man’s work, by turns funny, decadent, twisted and quite deliciously depraved.
You guessed it: I loved it.