David Cronenberg Novel Review Essay

At 71, after nearly 50 years of making such nightmare-inducing films as “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983), and “The Fly” (1986), David Cronenberg has published his first novel. “Consumed” does not disappoint. It compiles a lifetime of obsessions and observations about the merging of man and machine, the fascinating horrors of metamorphosis, the intertwining of sex and death, the anatomy of rage, and the mechanics of social downfall.

He unleashes a pandemonium of Boschian imagery related with an entomological precision and an Olympian detachment. He delights in puns — both visual and verbal (starting with multiple meanings of the title) — and relishes a sardonic, rueful irony.

Perhaps the book’s greatest irony, though, is that it is a book at all; it depicts the triumph of the endlessly evolving and alienating new technology in the supposedly obsolete medium of print. For print still has its appeal for Cronenberg’s pair of 30ish photojournalists, the hip, louche lovers Nathan Math and Naomi Seberg — though they are otherwise cocooned in the latest developments in media and technology.

Nathan, for one, dreams of getting a story in The New Yorker’s “Annals of Medicine” about a disreputable Hungarian surgeon who, among other illegal practices, obliges the compulsions of apotemnophiliacs — fetishists who insist on amputating healthy body parts. And Naomi is pushing a story about Aristide Arosteguy, a trendy French philosopher, a kind of Jean Baudrillard crossed with Hannibal Lecter, who has earned superstar academic status with his radical critique of consumerist culture. Apparently he has put theory into practice and murdered and consumed his wife and fellow philosopher, Célestine.

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Though lovers, Nathan and Naomi, out of necessity and by inclination, limit their relationship mostly to iPhones and the Internet. Both compulsively record everything as it occurs and sometimes share it and sometimes don’t. Their only physical contact in the book is a one-night stand in an Amsterdam hotel, where Nathan inadvertently exposes Naomi to a rare sexually transmitted disease — the supposedly defunct Roiphe’s disease — which, in typical Cronenbergian fashion, proves to be a key plot device.

Not one to overlook a promising story opportunity, Nathan drops his Budapest subject and heads to Toronto to visit the man who discovered and named this nasty infection, the sinister, goofy Dr. Barry Roiphe. And though she’s annoyed when Nathan tells her about his indiscretion, Naomi nonetheless keeps in touch as she searches for her own eccentric doctor. She heads for Tokyo, the last known location of the wanted and at large Arosteguy.

Though they are in different hemispheres, it proves to be a small world after all, and not just because of the Internet. Their “he Skyped/she Skyped” narratives intersect with a little help from the usual suspects. Naomi lists them: “Weber. Capitalism. Vatican. Luther. Entomology. Sartre. Consumerism. Beckett. North Korea. Apocalypse. Oblivion.”

Any questions? And that’s just the beginning. No small part of the novel is its relentless itemizing of state-of-the art devices, a litany of product placement rivaling that of Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.” In an interview Naomi finds on YouTube, Célestine announces that “ ‘the only authentic literature of the modern era is the owner’s manual.’ ” At times, with its relentless cataloging of brand names, models, and specs, “Consumed” might fit that description.

But it also qualifies as authentic literature in the more traditional sense. Cronenberg is a deft and inventive writer. He is fearless in drawing characters who are flawed or depraved but also complex and comprehensible. For him, nihil humanum alienum est — nothing human is alien — and he doesn’t have problems with the non-humanum either.

As for narrative, he knows how to keep the pages turning — and sometimes his skill verges on the self-parodic. Dan Brown has met his match at absurd, cliffhanger chapter endings. Try to resist reading on when you come to a concluding sentence like “As Naomi left the office, she could not help thinking that Dr. Trinh’s shoes were somehow significant.” Or an opener like, “It is difficult to find Crisco in Paris, but not impossible.”

What does it mean? As Dr. Arosteguy puts it, “meaning is a consumer item.” Here’s hoping that consumers have a taste for Cronenberg’s novel, and that it whets their appetite for an eventual movie adaptation.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

"Consumed is an eye-opening dazzler. Not for the fainthearted, but for those of us who relish a trip into the shadowy depths, a must-read. Cronenberg's novel is as troubling, sinister, and as enthralling as his films." (Stephen King)

"Classic Cronenberg! Who else can tell such a frightening, thrilling, shocking story about the nexus of the spirit and the flesh? Consumed will, well, consume you." (J. J. Abrams)

"Coming from David Cronenberg, the originality, wit, preoccupation with technology, and uncompromising carnality of Consumed should come as no surprise. He will probably be accused of every sin that can be invented to compensate for human fear of mind and body. This fiercely original book, with the scope and poetic exactitude of Nabokov's best work, has the power to unsettle, disarm, and finally make the reader absolutely complicit." (Viggo Mortensen)

"An astonishing, seamless continuation of what I call his peerless novelistic film oeuvres. With Consumed, he has become the definitive heir, not just of Kafka and Borges, but of Cronenberg himself." (Bruce Wagner)

“Cronenberg may be best known for his films, but this cool, unsympathetic examination of self-absorbed intellectuals shows that his skills as a prose author are not to be discounted. . . . Readers will find it impossible to look away from the grotesque spectacle.” (Publisher's Weekly)

“Cronenberg is a gangbusters novelist. His dense, aristocratic prose is saturated with details of technology, sex, and disease . . . and every salacious bit is elevated to a thing of perverse beauty. Let’s hope Cronenberg makes this book-writing thing a priority." (Booklist)

"Those who enjoyed Naked Lunch will find much to like here." (Kirkus)

"Cronenberg's approach to narrative is sturdy and direct... His originality is in what he’s driven to show you, the fierce sculptural intensity of his details and his willingness to linger." (Jonathan Lethem New York Times Book Review)

Consumed does not disappoint. It compiles a lifetime of obsessions and observations about the merging of man and machine, the fascinating horrors of metamorphosis, the intertwining of sex and death, the anatomy of rage, and the mechanics of social downfall… Cronenberg is a deft and inventive writer. He is fearless in drawing characters who are flawed or depraved but also complex and comprehensible." (Peter Keough, The Boston Globe)

“Cronenberg is doing some complicated things with storytelling and truth in Consumed—things that only a novel could accommodate, at least on this grand of a scale… Compelling." (Karina Longworth, Slate)

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