Cinema Knife Fight Book Reviews Presents:
CONSUMED by David Cronenberg (2014 Scribner / 320 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)
by L.L. Soares and Nick Cato
(THE SCENE: L.L. SOARES is using Skype on his laptop in Canada to have a conversation with NICK CATO, who is in Paris)
LS: We don’t often review books here at Cinema Knife Fight, but we just had to check out the new novel by one of our favorite directors, David Cronenberg!
NC: I’m always weary whenever one of my favorite directors decides to try his or her hand at writing a novel. I was left wanting by Tobe Hooper’s 2011 attempt MIDNIGHT MOVIE, and don’t even get me started on the tedious FOUNTAIN SOCIETY (1999) by Wes Craven.
LS: Yes, we actually reviewed Hooper’s novel together when it was released in 2011. I liked it better than you did – I thought it was a lot of fun. Luckily, I didn’t bother checking out the Craven book.
NC: Count your blessings!
So when I heard the director of one of my all-time favorite horror films—SHIVERS (1975) — was releasing his first novel, I went in not expecting much. And while I had a couple of minor issues with CONSUMED, I’m happy to report Cronenberg wields his pen much better than any of his filmmaking colleagues.
LS: Yes, no matter what you think of the actual novel, Cronenberg can actually write. I know that screenplays and novels are different mediums, but Cronenberg has proven himself capable of both.
NC: Cronenberg introduces us to Nathan and Naomi, two Internet journalists who are basically cyber-age paparazzi.
LS: Nathan’s specialty is medical journalism, and as the story opens, he is doing a piece on a renegade surgeon named Zoltan Molnar, who is notorious for not always being above board with his surgeries. Several of his clinics are in countries where there is very little regulation and he clearly flaunts the law and does what he pleases. The operation Nathan is recording involves a woman named Dunja, who is having radioactive pellets inserted into her breast tissue in a strange procedure meant to remove cancerous tumors.
NC: Meanwhile Naomi is investigating the story of a prominent female philosopher, Celestine Arosteguy, who may have been a collaborator in her own murder after being (allegedly) diagnosed with cancer (although her physician denies this). To make matters more confusing, Naomi is fascinated with the woman’s husband, Aristide Arosteguy, an intellectual cannibal (not unlike Hannibal Lecter, yet with his own personality) who had left a record of his wife’s brutal demise.
LS: Despite the fact that they are lovers, Nathan and Naomi spend very little time actually together, and mostly communicate via their smart phones and on their laptops, using Skype, as Nick and I are doing right now.
NC (looks out at the Eiffel Tower): Yes, exactly. But please put your clothes back on.
LS: Er..sorry about that.
NC: And the one rare time they do get together, Nathan inadvertently infects Naomi with an STD called Roiphe’s Disease, which doesn’t do a lot to build trust in their relationship.
LS: Roiphe’s Disease supposedly no longer exists, it’s one of those diseases that was cured and people don’t get any more, and yet, Nathan has it, and this leads him to Canada and his next story, which centers on Dr. Roiphe, who discovered the STD which bears his name, and his daughter Chase, who appears to have very disturbing psychological issues, that Roiphe asks Nathan to help him study and cure.
NC: Naomi, meanwhile, gets involved deeper and deeper with the mystery of the Arosteguys, first through one of their students/lovers Herve Blomqvist, and eventually with Aristide Arosteguy himself, on the run for the murder and cannibalism of his wife Celestine. This takes her from France to Tokyo, as she tries to get to the bottom of what happened to Celestine.
LS: Of course, it turns out that all of these characters have links to each other, and the more we learn, the more interesting these relationships become.
NC: I found Nathan and Naomi to be frightening and all-too realistic pictures of future-thinking moderns: just about everything they do is via the Internet or through some form of technology. That they even meet in person once in the novel is surprising, as I was expecting Cronenberg to give us, perhaps, a strange form of cyber sex we might not have seen before. And while both characters spend a lot of time longing to meet those they’ve only read about, it’s their fixation with said people that seems to be what makes them thrive. They’re products of our new, impersonal age, happy to be hidden behind a laptop or tablet screen, and would maybe be happier if all their communication could be done online … or through whatever new gadget is waiting to substitute physical human interaction.
LS: I actually had a little trouble getting into CONSUMED at first. I didn’t find Nathan or Naomi very compelling at first. They both can seem a bit like cyphers at times. As journalists, they seem to be constantly seeking out information for their stories, but they don’t have very strong personalities as people. This changes as the novel goes on, and Nathan and Naomi both get fleshed out more. For me, the novel doesn’t really get interesting until Nathan begins to have a strange relationship with Molnar’s patient, Dunja, an elegant woman who realizes her time is almost up, and Naomi meets Herve Blomqvist, who helps her in her story, but who clearly also wants to get into her pants. Dunja and Herve provide the right amount of personality, early on, to get the story moving in the right direction.
By the time we meet Roiphe and his fascinating daughter, Chase, and learn more and more about the Arosteguys, the novel hits its stride, and we become invested in these characters. I just thought the first 20 pages or so didn’t really grab me. So give this one a little time to catch fire.
NC: Despite a simple murder-mystery set up, CONSUMED slowly reveals this is without a doubt a Cronenberg story, as body horrors, strange fetishes, and an almost pornographic look at technology begin to drip from every sentence. At times it seems the author is almost getting off on explaining the intricacies of his protagonist’s toys (especially the cameras), but in the end what at first seems like technobabble filler actually helps to establish Nathan and Naomi’s traits.
LS: I actually found myself a bit disappointed that this wasn’t a horror novel. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Cronenberg’s early films, like SHIVERS and VIDEODROME (1983), but CONSUMED goes in a much more science fiction direction, although it’s a science fiction of the near future. Just about everything that is presented science-wise is realistic and plausible. There is nothing here that seems outside of the realm of modern technology.
In fact, Cronenberg seems to be very interested in the technological aspects of his story. Brand names abound, as he is always stopping to tell us the exact names of cameras and lenses, as well as other technological goodies. It’s this aspect, in terms of technology and medical terminology, that had the novel reminding me a bit of the great writer J.G. Ballard at times. It’s no coincidence, surely, that one of Cronenberg’s best films, CRASH (probably my favorite of his movies), is an adaptation of arguably Ballard’s most important novel.
Having adapted books by important authors, like Ballard’s CRASH (1996) and William S. Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH (1991), has shown that Cronenberg has an eye for translating challenging prose into provocative cinema, and it’s interesting here that the director is taking a shot at writing prose himself. You wonder if this novel was written with an eye toward eventually turning it into a movie, or if he planned for this to be a completely prose project.
I enjoyed the novel, and I enjoyed watching the various storylines unravel and reveal the ways in which these people are connected. I did feel some of the technical details bogged the story down a little, and that some of the characters are a bit more chatty than they needed to be (especially when Naomi finally meets Aristide Arosteguy, and he tells her the long and complex story behind the death of his wife. He did tend to go on a little long at times.)
I was a bit disappointed with the ending, however, because it feels like it peters out a bit, as the author ignores his main characters, Nathan and Naomi, who have become indispensable to us, and instead uses other characters to wrap things up – and not in a very satisfying way. It’s like the main characters simply disappear from the story at one point, and it felt, to me anyway, like they had earned the right to wrap things up themselves.
But I really enjoyed this novel and I thought Cronenberg did a fine job writing this book. It’s not perfect, but it does present us with some very intriguing characters and situations, and takes us on a thought-provoking journey that involves everything from philosophy and consumerism, to the Cannes Film Festival (where the Arosteguys are jury members – just as Cronenberg had once been), unusual uses for 3D printers, cancer treatment, cannibalism, insects, masectomies, and a political plot involving North Korea.
I give it three knives.
NC: Unsatisfying ending aside, I was surprised I ended up liking CONSUMED, especially in light of Nathan and Naomi. They’re about as close to human drones as you can get, and yet their obsessive natures kept me glued to the pages. The pace of the novel, I believe, is intentionally slow, but it slows down a bit too much at times (in particular, as Mr. Soares mentioned, during Aristide’s lengthy rant about his wife). But it’s the way Cronenberg makes this feel like you’re watching one of his films that demanded my attention. I don’t know what someone not familiar with his films would think, but for me, CONSUMED is a fine debut that captures the aura of the author’s older films, despite it not being a horror story.
I recommend it to Cronenberg fans, but suggest those not familiar with him proceed with caution.
I also give it three knives.
© Copyright 2014 by L.L. Soares & Nick Cato
LL Soares gives CONSUMED, the new novel by David Cronenberg ~ three knives!
Nick Cato gives CONSUMED, the new novel by David Cronenberg ~ three knives!