An all-con­sum­ing hunger for gad­getry

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

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

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