For a director who is so indelibly associated with the “body horror” genre, what is often overlooked about David Cronenberg’s film work is the fact that so much of it is actively concerned with the cerebral over the corporeal. This may not be a terrifically controversial thing to say about his 21st century work, which has seen him drift away from genre films generally and into the realm of strange, intellectual melodramas. A Dangerous Method (2011) – to pick only the most obvious candidate from this period – is an attempt to dramatise the ideas of the original psychoanalysts via a historical account of the interactions of Jung, Freud and their mutual patient Sabina Spielrein.
At first glance, a project such as this would seem to be tailored precisely to Cronenberg’s talents. After all, his celebrated horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s – Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) – turn on the spectacle of the physical, bodily manifestation of some central concept, and what could be more Freudian than that? But Cronenberg has never really been interested in psychology or character per se; the carnal havoc of these older films is less often an externalisation of a character’s mental state than it is an illustration of some idea or theme.
The ultimate example of this tendency is probably Scanners, his film about a fatal rivalry between powerful psychics (called “scanners” in the world of the film), which concerns itself with mental activity in the purest possible sense. Not even a concept, but the power of thought itself is the film’s theme, as the scanners not only read minds but take them over, manipulating the weak-willed into carrying out their bidding. But they prove to be capable of much more grandiose mayhem, such as the spontaneous human combustion which marks the climax and, most famously, the gruesome detonation of another scanner’s head, all from a simple exercise of will. Cronenberg finds a simple yet effective means of visualising this invisible force by repeated use of unsettlingly precisely-centred close-ups, in which the actor is allowed to stare directly into the camera lens. The Criterion edition of Scanners smartly continues this motif in the disc’s packaging and menus, demonstrating the importance of this theme to what is otherwise a merely excellent sci-fi thriller.
Cronenberg’s horror movies have aged better than the rest of his filmography, probably in part because the fantastic elements of these films allow him space to explore his preoccupation with ideas – about technology, sexuality, politics – while also channelling this into the tight narrative structures common to all types of genre storytelling. If the first sets him free to follow his imagination, the other forces him to make the best use of that freedom by directing it, never allowing him to forget his audience.
This careful balancing act seems to me to be missing from his recent film work, and the resulting movies are, I think, poorer for it. But the relative shortcomings of, say A History of Violence (2005) or A Dangerous Method are nothing compared to those of his debut novel, Consumed. Absent his productive engagement with genre, to say nothing (obviously) of his crisp visual and sonic style, Consumed is an undisciplined mess from the overall plot down to the very sentences. While there are sparks of life to be found, and a welcome return to some of the concerns of his horror movies, it seems that Cronenberg has not thought deeply enough about how to adjust his imagination – readily attuned to the problems of cinema – to his new medium.
That Cronenberg would turn his attention to literary subjects is not entirely surprising. From the beginning of his career his work was compared to that of William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard more often than it was to that of any other filmmaker. By the 1990s, he had let the other shoe drop, directing adaptations of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1991) and Ballard’s Crash (1996). Both of these are reasonably interesting and worth seeing (I especially like Naked Lunch), and I think that a case for the two writers’ influence on Cronenberg’s formal and thematic preoccupations can be reasonably made. But in the course of reading Consumed, I began to fear that these self-conscious literary allusions have hijacked his own imagination and hobbled his perspective on his own work, reminding me of nothing so much as Joseph Campbell’s retrospectively unfortunate visit to Skywalker Ranch.
Consumed follows the separate but parallel adventures of Naomi and Nathan, a pair of photojournalists and sometimes-couple. Introduced in the middle of their own developing investigations, they each pursue evolving mysteries across the globe: Naomi follows the trail of French philosopher, Aristide Arosteguy, accused of murdering and possibly eating his wife Celestine before fleeing to Tokyo; Nathan finds himself in Toronto to interview Dr. Roiphe, a venereal pathologist who discovered and named a (fictional) strain of sexually-transmitted bacteria. Though the dual protagonists only share one scene together near the beginning of the book, their individual stories develop in a sort of rapport, with elements of one suddenly appearing in the other. Eventually, they converge into one overarching plot, though with somewhat more weight given to Naomi’s encounter with M. Arosteguy in Japan.
During the course of all this, Cronenberg treats the reader to a melange of disparate plot elements, including but not limited to a possible conspiracy on behalf of North Korean intelligence, various unorthodox medical treatments, secret messages in hearing aids, an insect infestation in one of Celestine Arosteguy’s breasts, ritualistic self-cannibalism, and no fewer than two characters writing separate books called Consumed. This agglomeration of various material in the action of the novel is as reminiscent of Burroughs as anything else here, though I was most often reminded of something like Bernard Wolfe’s The Late Risers (1955), in which the ludicrous intricacy of the plot becomes a sort of meta-joke. But if Cronenberg intended for any of this to be funny, he has been far too subtle about it; rather, he seems to have been overcome by all of this additional flash and filigree, often losing the thread of the plot in the details.
This accumulative aesthetic unfortunately has a parallel in his prose style. It is here, at the sentence-level, that the influence of Ballard seems to be most apparent. Cronenberg follows Ballard’s technique of describing an object or setting by reference to the technical names of its component parts. So in Concrete Island (1974), for example, Ballard describes a man, trapped in a clearing below a highway interchange, forced to disassemble his own wrecked vehicle in hopes of finding some fresh water:
Slamming down the lid of the trunk, Maitland picked up his crutch and swung himself to the front of the car. He edged himself under the fender, with his bruised hands searched among the brake lines and suspension units for the lower edge of the radiator. He found the stop-cock and forced the tap, cupping the liquid that jetted out. 1
This accomplishes the nifty trick of simultaneously clearly explaining the action while also quietly defamiliarising the objects (assuming that the reader probably does not have immediate visual or tactile sense of a brake line or suspension unit; Ballard could just have easily written “his bruised hands felt about the undercarriage for the radiator’s tap.”), as well as emphasising the novel’s theme of the ready-made, manufactured quality of everyday experience.
Cronenberg is after something vaguely similar in Consumed – the novel seems to be in broad agreement with the Arosteguys that “consumer choices and allegiances were the key to character and to all social interaction” (p. 165) – and thus devotes most of the words on the page to descriptive cataloguing of the various objects inhabiting a given scene. Sometimes this follows a reasonable if obvious thematic strategy, such as his obsessive inventory of the two protagonists’ different camera and recording equipment. Naomi is introduced alongside the contents of her “habitual nest of BlackBerry, cameras, iPad, compact and SD flashcards, lenses, tissue boxes, bags, pens and markers, makeup gear (minimal), cups and glasses bearing traces of coffee and various juices, charges of all shapes and sizes, two laptops, chunky brushed-aluminum Nagra Kudelski digital audio recorder, notebooks and calendars and magazines…” (p. 8) Later, examining the antiquated technology in Arosteguys’ apartment, she notes the contrast with amusement: “the absence of cool electronics: a tape player, of all things; a small 4:3 tube TV set (could it actually be black and white?); and a phone with a cord. […] The Arosteguys seemed to belong to, at the latest, the 1950s.” (p. 9)
Nathan likewise is virtually indistinguishable from his various electronic accoutrements; where Naomi is messy and indiscriminate, he turns out to be fastidious and particular. The contrast between the two of them, and the various resentments that this engenders, is continually expressed in the language of their consumer preferences. His debut scene finds him in an argument with Naomi over a misplaced macro lens for his camera; soon afterwards, he broods over the fact that “he was now stuck with the 24-70mm zoom on his primary camera body, the D3. How close could that thing focus? It would probably be good enough. And he could crop the D3’s image if he really needed to be close. Life with Naomi taught you to be resourceful.” (p. 6) During a photo shoot, Nathan regrets “that he has decided not to use a video camera on his assignments, a fussy rejection that had to do with worries about media storage, peripherals, and other arcane techie calculations. Of course, if he’d been able to afford the new D4s, which could also record decent video […] but he couldn’t keep up with the inexorable hot lava flow of technology, even though he desperately wanted to. Naomi was never so prissy. She just wasn’t wary. She’s already bought a new high-def no-came Chinese camcorder at Heathrow and had downloaded an obscure Asian editing program to work with its difficult files. Even if she’d had to shoot with her BlackBerry, she’d have caught, in all its coarse grain, the weird banter he had just heard. Oh, well.” (p. 16)
All of this is revealed in the opening chapters, and is frankly rather blunt in its effect. As the book continues, however, it becomes clear that Cronenberg does not trust his reader to take the hint, and thereafter resorts too often to bursts of truly unfortunate dialogue to make a connection that was merely explicit into one which is embarrassingly on-the-nose. In a representative scene, Nathan discovers that Naomi has bought an iPhone, thereby breaking their shared devotion to Nikon. Having earlier explained this contrivance by declaring (in the narration) that “brand passion was emotional glue for hard-core nerd couples,” (p. 5) Cronenberg would have us believe that an actual human man – Nathan, chiding Naomi – would say, out loud, “And I know you’re serious about the Nikon withdrawal too. Nikon, that was our defiant consumerist thing, no Sony, no Canon, our badge of professionalism, our shared sex-tech. So now you’ll go with cool eight-megapixel Jell-O-cam rolling shutter no-bounce-flash iPhone hipness.” (p. 67) This kind of thing is best left to narration, or at least to free indirect discourse. It may be the case that Cronenberg’s dialogue needs an actor as a mediator between his words and the audience; deprived of that, his dialogue tends too often to resemble the most overwrought elements of the narration.
Elsewhere, this style serves more diffuse purposes. In one scene, for example, Professor Arosteguy is made to listen to a vinyl record alleged to have the power to link his hearing aids to agents within the North Korean intelligence services. He is presented with the machine to play this on, and the scene begins promisingly enough: “In front of me sat an enormous and complex device which could be called, simply, a record player…” But calling something simply what it is is not what Cronenberg has in mind:
…but whose presence was more like that of an impossibly gigantic specimen of zoo-plankton. Its use of translucent acrylic for its massive platter and various blocks and cylinders; stainless steel for the weights embedded around the periphery of that platter; titanium for its delicate, multi-counterweighted pickup arm; and threadlike drive belts and electrical filaments, culminated in a coruscating, predatory structure that seemed best fitted for frenetic submarine life. […] Clamp the disc to the platter with the acrylic puck, flick up the retro toggle power switch in its steel housing, gently lower the tiny coffin-like myrtlewood cartridge into the vinyl groove, and… nothing. I heard nothing. (p. 205)
The same machine re-appears two pages later: “The acrylic platter of the Spotheim-Koreneef device was spinning hypnotically, its corona of glittering weights, like stacks of coins, shimmering with nano-crustacean avidity.” (p. 207)
You know, nano-crustacean avidity. This does not give any particular visual sense of the object beyond insinuating a vaguely sinister organic quality to what is simply plastic and metal and wires. Opting for shorthand over precision is not a fatal flaw in every case, and is probably permissible here since it can be assumed that the reader has seen a turntable before. Drawing out the prose in this case could also be justified as an attempt to give dramatic weight to the machine – since it is very important to the action of the scene – as well as to control the pacing. Up to this point, Arosteguy is unsure whether or not DPRK agents really have engineered a conspiracy, or if the scenario is another of his wife’s delusions. A bit of excess verbiage delays the resolution of that question, stretching out the scene and presumably increasing the readers’ suspense.
I go into this example at some length simply because it is one of the very few such examples of overly-elaborate description which can be said to serve any kind of function on the page. But Cronenberg does not consistently apply this technique to any discernible purpose, and clutters his scenes with overly-elaborate descriptions of objects of ever-decreasing significance to the matter at hand.
This kind of thing is not only limited to descriptions of the physical world. Following a frenzied bout of copulation with his wife, Arosteguy is shocked to hear her let loose with a gasp, after which she asks him to examine her left breast for insect infestation. Here is how he explains his reaction to her sudden start.
A shot of adrenaline projected brainward and flushed me with a familiar, unmoored anger. When I first got my hearing aids, which were primarily tuned to augment those higher frequencies which are usually the first to disappear with age, it is true that the world instantly became louder and more harsh; it was difficult for someone whose aural landscape had so gradually become more and more muted and dulled to believe that this was hearing as experienced by most people, that this harshness was just the restoration of higher sound frequencies that had been lost. But the most disorienting aspect of this new soundscape was that sounds now carried too much emotion, too much meaning, so that a single sneeze was an expression of rage, the closing of a bedroom door was a pointed separation that would need healing, the smacking of a pillow to reshape it in the middle of the night was an explosive assault that caused my heart to pound with reflexive anger. A recalibration of my reaction to the intensity of sounds was urgently demanded, and though I was constantly recalibrating, those unexpected shots of adrenaline still persisted and confused me. I wanted to jerk out of bed and slam the bedroom door and go for a petulant walk in the wet, dark streets, muttering to myself about spousal insult and betrayal. But I recalibrated. (pp. 216-17)
Then the scene resumes and we eventually learn the source of her surprise. This passage is bad enough on its own (wasting space with stacks of redundant adjectives and lazily repeating “shot of adrenaline,” “higher frequencies” and various forms of the word “recalibrate”), but what is worse is that similar digressions occur on nearly every single page of the novel. The previous paragraph spans pages 216 and 217 of Consumed. Flip back one page and you will find a lengthy meditation on the “distinctly Mexican surrealist folk-art tones” of the Arosteguys’ sexual encounters. Flip forward to page 218, and – after some minor advances in plot and dialogue – we are treated to musings as to whether any husband “has not avidly played the role of voyeur in his own house.” For the apparent benefit of those unfamiliar with the term voyeur, this is further described as “watching the reflection of his wife in a window as she examines her vagina or anus with his chromed shaving mirror, one leg propped up on the white metal bathroom chair, searching for some real or feared lesion, polyp, secretion, or telltale discoloration.” (p. 218) It is not until page 220 that he finally takes hold of her breast for examination.
Admittedly, the scenes I am criticising above all come from the same large-scale portion – a long, confessional interview with Aristide Arosteguy which takes up most of the third quarter of the novel, in which he explains the reason for his and his wife’s strange behaviour. This glutinous prose could be said to be a reflection of the analytical, compulsively associative personality of the cultural theorist. But this would only be a fair explanation if not for the fact that every single character, as well as the third-person narrator, communicates in this style. Dialogue, narration and description alike take turns interrupting the plot, though these digressions are most often attributed to one or another character’s moments of spontaneous reverie; although I did not keep track, I would be willing to bet that Cronenberg included some variation of the transitional phrase “He suddenly remembered…” (“It occurred to her that…”, “He was overcome by the thought of…”, etc.) more than any other. Despite the ostensible inner origin of these bons mots, every line is written in the same monotonous voice, making a style that is already a test of the attention span into a true chore to read.
Stylistically, there does not seem to be a lot here that is reminiscent of much of his film work. In contrast to the bloat of Consumed, Cronenberg’s visual and sonic style has a reputation for being sparse, even cold. But I prefer to think of this quality as a kind of classical precision, a welcome break from the sloppiness of many of his 1980s genre-film contemporaries, whatever their other pleasures (his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) is an instructive example in this case, as it works both as an unusually quiet and mannered horror film while also remaining faithful to a novel which, at more than 400 pages, had a fair amount of its own issues with digression and narrative sprawl). Even his more recent movies maintain this general brisk competence, despite some bouts of nervous cutting.
In terms of structure, some echoes of his other films can be found in Consumed. Most prominently, the plot fails – or perhaps I should say declines – to resolve itself, at least not on the terms which had been established throughout the rest of the novel. The central mystery of Mrs. Arosteguy’s status, on which hang the contingent questions of the degree of her husband’s criminality and the extent (or even existence) of a North Korean conspiracy, is never definitively answered; indeed, the reader is given what seems to me to be contradictory information here, leaving open the possibility that at least one of the two protagonists is being egregiously misled. The ultimate fate of one of those protagonists is also left to the imagination, and the novel ends with what seems to be a minor, ambiguous scene of a tertiary character.
We have seen this kind of thing from Cronenberg before, most memorably in Videodrome and eXistenZ (1996). In both of these, the logic of the first parts of the film seem to suggest what is essentially a mystery plot, and the narrative follows protagonists who attempt to get to the bottom of things (Max Renn in Videodrome begins the film searching for the source of a strange TV transmission; in eXistenZ, videogame designer Allegra and her bodyguard Ted try to discover the identity and motives of a mysterious group of assassins). By the end, however, not only has the mystery been essentially discarded, but an entirely new world has been established, causing the characters to behave in dramatically new ways (Max becomes brainwashed into shooting the crew at CIVIC-TV and later himself; Allegra and Ted turn out to be assassins themselves).
But in these two examples, Cronenberg at least motivated these changes via the use of some accompanying framing device (in Videodrome, it is possible that Max has been hallucinating; the protagonists in eXistenZ are revealed at the end to have been playing a virtual-reality videogame throughout the story up to the point of the climax). In Consumed, the narrative shifts gears abruptly and ends just as soon. For all of the care which Cronenberg and his characters take to describe every last bit of set dressing down to its constituent atoms, this neglect of conventional closure is jarring indeed; one of the final sentences describes a character “[s]taring blankly at that sinister new hole in the universe, his umbilical brutally cut” (p. 308), a state of mind that the attentive reader may be able to relate to better than she might prefer.
Obviously, this is not an oversight on Cronenberg’s part. He is more than capable of resolving even as ambiguous an ending as the one found in Consumed into some kind of traditional narrative logic, just as he has proven himself adept at moving a plot forward at a sufficiently breezy pace in the past – a review of even the weakest of his films will demonstrate that. It is tempting to conclude that it is not the novel’s traditional virtues of character, plot or narration which interest him here, but rather that he prefers to use the form as a frame for his various aphoristic observations. Which is to say, Cronenberg is once again in thrall to ideas. A lazy reading of Consumed could point to superficial instances of “body horror” – Mrs. Arosteguy’s breast invaded by bugs, another character’s contracting of Roiphe’s Disease, a third ravaged by cancer – but what’s tortured into deformation here is not the characters’ bodies but the prose itself. Down to the very letters on the page, the novel form here has been infected by the author’s need to offer up disjointed (and, frankly, rather banal) observations on, yes, technology, sex, politics and other symptoms of How We Live Now. Visible on various pages is the skeleton of an interesting, narratively coherent, psychologically observant work, but this has been buried by the rhetorical excesses of Cronenberg’s prose style.
The novel of ideas is a perfectly legitimate genre with a respectable pedigree; Cronenberg simply seems to have no special aptitude for it. I do not want to sound anti-intellectual – Cronenberg set out to create something like Consumed, and he has accomplished it. It is an interesting trick, but I can’t imagine anyone reading this for pleasure, much less finding themselves consumed by it.
- J. G. Ballard, Concrete Island (Picador, 1974), p. 33. ↩