An all-consuming hunger for gadgetry
Consumed By David Cronenberg Fourth Estate, 288pp, $29.99 RATHER like his fellow Canadian filmmaker James Cameron, David Cronenberg has an obsession with technology. But where Cameron’s investigations of the interface between the biological and the mechanical have tended to give primacy to the surfaces of technology, moving from the metallic chill of the Terminator films to the immersive, over-saturated video game aesthetic of Avatar, Cronenberg’s have tended towards what perhaps may be described politely as the grosser end of the spectrum.
In films such as The Fly, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers and Existenz, Cronenberg has played with brilliantly queasy effect on the increasingly unstable boundaries between the biological and the mechanical, and the visceral interplay between sex and mortality.
Now, at 71, Cronenberg has released his first novel, Consumed, and perhaps not surprisingly it’s distinctly Cronenbergian in its interests and affect, managing to be both bland and sinister, surreal and exquisitely detailed. It’s also, like the best of his films, surprisingly good fun.
A mystery of sorts, Consumed centres on freelance journalists Naomi and Nathan. Selfconsciously contemporary, they have carved out a relationship built around a mutual fascination with technology and consumer electronics, a mostly satisfactory arrangement that allows the comforts of a regular sexual partner and the freedom to pursue not just their careers but also their desires.
But that all begins to unravel when Naomi investigates the perplexing events surrounding the death of French Marxist philosopher Celestine Arosteguy, whose mutilated body is found in her Parisian apartment. The crime shocks France: Arosteguy and her husband Aristide were celebrities given to declarations such as “even desire for a product, a consumer item, is better than no desire at all” and “the only authentic literature of the modern era is the owner’s manual”.
The prime suspect should be Aristide, who disappeared immediately after his wife’s death. However the French police seem reluctant to entertain that possibility, so Naomi decides to find him for herself, a quest that brings her into contact with several of the Arosteguys’ many lovers, before leading her to Tokyo and, fairly quickly, into the orbit of Aristide.
While Naomi is attempting to extract a scoop from Aristide, Nathan, who specialises in medical stories, has been in Budapest, covering the work of creepy surgeon and restaurateur Zoltan Molnar (a keen photographer, he has
November 29-30, 2014 decorated his restaurant with images of his patients under anaesthesia; apparently the goulash is good despite the questionable interior decoration). In the course of covering Molnar’s work on a woman with advanced breast cancer Nathan sleeps with the patient, who gives him a rare STD known as Roiphe’s disease.
Intrigued, Nathan sets off to Canada to find Roiphe, and before long is writing a book with him, and has become slightly obsessed with Roiphe’s daughter, Chase, who has become obsessed with consuming her own body, perhaps as a result of her sexual affair with the Arosteguys while a student in Paris years earlier.
Along with the cancer and the autophagy and the surgery and the sex, Consumed also features malformed penises, North Korean spies, fantasies of insect infestation and a delightfully up-to-the-second riff on 3-D printing. It’s a heady brew, but part of what makes the novel so entertaining is the lightness of Cronenberg’s touch. It would be going too far to say Consumed is self-parodic, but there’s more than a little self-awareness at work in it, as becomes clear in a sequence set during Celestine and Aristide’s ill-fated tenure as members of the jury at the Cannes film festival.
Indeed it’s often difficult to be certain exactly where the satire ends. Even once enmeshed in the Arosteguys’ web, Naomi and Nathan remain jaw-droppingly self-absorbed, obsessed with camera lenses and operating systems, and seemingly incapable of looking beyond their solipsistic self-regard. Likewise the novel’s frequent digressions into philosophical reflection — “was the iPhone a malevolent protean organism, the stem-cell phone … promising to replace every other device on Earth with its shapeshifting self” — manage to be both apposite and delightfully visceral.
Yet there’s a serious point here. For while the novel’s fetishistic relationship with the surfaces of consumer culture can sometimes make it feel like a biopunk version of William Gibson, Cronenberg’s engagement with it is less about the sort of cool-hunting Gibson specialises in than an enactment of the corporatised nature of consumer desire. As Naomi and Nathan play with Garageband and Quicktime on their MacBooks and parse the tricky question of whether to buy Nikons and Canons, it’s difficult not to become aware of how empty these desires are, how their fulfilment has become an end in itself, divorced from more human questions of love or intimacy.
The net effect is distinctly unsettling, more than a little repulsive and sleekly subversive yet never less than entertaining. And as the title suggests, it poses the question of whether we are the consumers or the consumed.
David Cronenberg uses his obsession with technology to disturbing effect