Niall Anderson reads the first novel by a cinematic master
When David Cronenberg released his larky virtual reality thriller eXistenZ in 1999, the critical praise it received doubled as a sigh of relief. Gory, ambiguously sexual, half-silly and half-smart, eXistenZ was the sort of film that had made Cronenberg’s name but which he no longer seemed inclined to make. Perhaps significantly, it was the first film since 1988’s Dead Ringers to have been scripted by Cronenberg from an original idea.
Fifteen years on, eXistenZ remains Cronenberg’s last original script. Indeed, with the exception of Eastern Promises (written for the screen by Steven Knight), it is his only film in twenty-five years not to have been adapted from another medium. Some of these adaptations have been better than fine – his take on Patrick McGrath’s gothic chamber-piece Spider is, in particular, a little-seen gem – but the question of what’s happened to Cronenberg’s own stories has been growing in weight. This is, after all, a man who managed to turn his divorce into a fable wherein faithless women are mashed to death by genderless dwarf-children (1979’s The Brood). Even eXistenZ is a metaphoric response to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. You’d think that an imagination that fertile and that off-kilter would have a few unused stories floating around. So where have they been?
An answer of sorts comes in the form of Cronenberg’s first novel, Consumed, which has apparently been in the works for thirty years. It is pretty much what you want and expect it to be: an anthology of sexy violence and violent sex, in which technology and disease operate as twin metaphors for … something. As in the novels of Cronenberg’s hero JG Ballard, you read every page with a sense of mounting futility and frequent boredom, only to close the book and find yourself weirdly haunted by it. It is brilliant; it is terrible. It is terribrilliant.
The plot revolves around two unorthodox romantic pairings. The first pair are elderly Parisian philosophers Aristide and Célestine Arosteguy. The second are American photojournalists Naomi and Nathan, guerrilla reporters in the Vice Magazine style. When Aristide Arosteguy disappears from Paris, leaving the dead – and half-eaten – body of his wife behind him, Naomi and Nathan get drawn into an international web of conspiracy. As is customary in these scenarios, it is difficult to tell the web from the conspiracy, but the web at least involves North Korea, 3D printing, unorthodox Hungarian cancer treatments, and quite a few men with u-shaped penises.
Consumed is quite as busy as that sounds. It is a novel of ideas both in the classical sense and in the slightly frantic sense of having a new idea every page. A first-time novelist but a confident artist in other respects, Cronenberg is uninhibited here in a way he hasn’t been since Videodrome (1982). The difference is that Videodrome, for all its surface busyness, also manages to be suggestive: its final meaning seems to extend beyond the film. By contrast, Consumed is full of willed perversity that never quite comes to rest. The lengthy coda – which is, not to give anything away, all about geriatric sex – seems like a nice rebuke to the techno-fetishism of the first parts of the book, but also basically disowns them.
The other difference between this and other Cronenberg outings is that Cronenberg has always known what to do with a camera. With prose he’s a lot less sure-footed. One result of this is that he builds his scenes as a cinematographer would – lengthy geometric depictions of rooms that finally foreground a single key detail. This gets old pretty quickly. The other result is that he’s always nervously explaining things, such as why all of the characters – regardless of nationality – speak English. This is an effect he would expect us to take on trust if he were filming it, but something about the intimacy of prose makes him want to explain when he doesn’t need to. The final problem with this urge to both describe and explain everything in minute detail is that Cronenberg frequently trips over his grammar: ‘Naomi idly controlled with her laptop’s trackpad, zooming and scrolling, in essence walking through the cramped, chaotic academics’ home.’ (Well, no, I don’t think you mean that the academics are cramped and chaotic.) There is something like this on almost every page. Were the editors at Fourth Estate and Hamish Hamilton simply too lazy to correct their famous author?
For all these basic errors, and for all that Consumed finally eats its own tail, it succeeds in reinforcing Cronenberg’s reputation in a way that few of his recent films have. It has a lunatic energy and a straight-faced way with its own perversity. It isn’t distant, nail-paring and melodramatic in the style of his most recent film, Maps to the Stars. It is Cronenbergian, and nothing else.
Consumed is published by Fourth Estate on 9 October