In his continuing exploration of David Cronenberg’s Jewishness, Sean Alexander appraises David Cronenberg’s only novel, Consumed.
In 2014, the Baron of Blood and King of Venereal Horror, Canadian Jewish movie director, David Cronenberg, released his last movie to date, Maps to the Stars, and published his first novel Consumed.
It brought the filmmaker’s career full circle. A pre-cinematic Cronenberg once maintained that life as a writer, following in his own father Milton’s footsteps, was preferable to either a life in medicine or one sat behind a camera, directing the kind of visceral and haunting imagery that would become his own genre: body horror and the inescapable effects of disease, injury and the ageing process on human tissue. Cronenberg in fact funded his first student film, Stereo (1969) via a scholarship usually granted only to would-be novelists.
Clearly, authorial intent was deeply ingrained in Cronenberg’s psyche, albeit one delayed by a calling to film auteurism instead. Many of Cronenberg’s formative films were based on screenplays he had written, and even his later works that were based on other novels such as Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996) were adapted for the screen by Cronenberg himself. While Consumed marked Cronenberg’s first (and to date, only) novel, never let it be said that here was a filmmaker entering an area of storytelling in which he was not already well versed.
Consumed tells the story of colleagues/competitors Nathan and Naomi, investigative journalists and occasional lovers, whose personal and professional lives overlap as they each seek more and more sensationalist stories to shock an increasingly desensitized culture awake. Naomi is pursuing a famous French intellectual called Aristide Arosteguy, recently implicated in the murder and partial cannibalism of his late wife, Celestine. Nathan, meanwhile, is absorbed into the life and work of Barry Roiphe, a Canadian physician best known for discovering and naming after himself a form of sexually transmitted disease long since thought extinct, until Nathan himself contracts it. Nathan and Naomi’s individual investigations soon begin to overlap when it’s revealed how Roiphe’s troubled daughter, Chase, was once a student of the Arosteguys, and the pair keep in occasional contact to compare notes using such fetishized technology that would make even Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (1991) blush with embarrassment.
Consumed veers into full-on Cronenberg territory when it becomes apparent that Celestine Arosteguy was complicit in her own death and dismemberment. Convinced that a colony of insects have taken up residence in her left breast, Celestine asks her husband to remove it, their marital connection overriding any medical expertise required. Cronenberg’s obsessions with both insects and bodily mutation collide here in the examination of the real-life phenomenon of apotemnophilia, marked by the compulsive desire for amputation of a specific bodily part. The notion of being infected by bugs or insects will be all too familiar to Cronenberg aficionados from the likes of The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993) and Spider (2002), while the influence of Franz Kafka and his own meditation on entomological mutation in Metamorphosis (a novella for which Cronenberg supplied an introduction recently) lies not just in this insectile corruption but in the novel’s title. Consumption being the historical nomenclature for the disease Tuberculosis of which Kafka was a notable sufferer.
The idea of Celestine’s body being a common ground for the mingling of both insects and humanity continues a resonant Cronenbergian trope, doubly so when one considers the similarities between Celestine’s essay on ‘The Judicious Destruction of the Insect Religion’ with Brundlefly’s own meditation on ‘insect politics’ from The Fly.
The links between insects and Jewishness for Cronenberg is embellished here with the inclusion of explicit Jewish characters like Nathan, and the occasional outburst of a Jewish retort like ‘schlepped’ or ‘schuss’; while Cronenberg’s detailed anatomical descriptions extend to one of Nathan’s own erect penis in all its circumcised glory.
Consumerism, consumption (in every sense) and cannibalism are the novel’s dominant themes, from the fetishized descriptions of Nathan and Naomi’s investigative tools to the ultimate expression of marital absorption that requires one partner to consume the other. When Nathan passes on the once-extinct STD to Naomi, it recalls the fears of mutated fly-babies suffered by Veronica Quaife in The Fly, while the disease’s founder wants to collaborate on a book with Nathan called, what else, ‘Consumed’.
With Consumed, David Cronenberg is not only exhibiting the huge literary influences the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, JG Ballard and Samuel Beckett have had on him but continuing his own tradition of shocking bodily mutation and thematic debates about humanity, disease and their interface with technology.
Most of all, though, this is an unlikely story of romance and love through the ageing process. While Naomi and Nathan’s on-off dalliances have time on their side, the Arosteguys’ sexagenarian status offers a very Cronenbergian mediation on the ageing process and the fundamental sadness of all love stories.
Dedicated to his wife Carolyn, Consumed would reach its own apotheosis with the death of Cronenberg’s spouse in 2017 and his collaborative sister, costume designer Denise, in 2020. Now aged 78, Cronenberg still talks of unmade projects at various stages of preliminary development.
But if Consumed ultimately does mark a full-stop in this most remarkable of careers, the canon of work left behind will belie the decay and degradation of those bodies it scrutinised in such uncompromising detail.
Consumed by David Cronenberg is published by HarperCollins, priced at £9.99.
Art by Gus Condeixa