In his seminal book, The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker memorably describes human beings as “gods with anuses.” The seeming boundlessness of our consciousness, in other words, our capacity to soar, psychically speaking, is forever being undermined by the visceral reality of our bodies — by our need to shit. Man’s dilemma, Becker writes, is that
he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways — the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die.
This mind-body paradox does not seem to evoke the same revulsion in director and writer David Cronenberg. Though he is undeniably preoccupied with decaying and deformed flesh — he has been crowned by critics “the king of venereal horror” — he has also evinced a gleefulness in probing physical transformations, and how they both impact and reflect upon the psyche, over the course of his nearly 50-year film career. His films are often grouped, perhaps reductively, into two phases: his early B-movieish comic nightmares, like The Brood, The Fly, and Scanners, and his more recent work, which flirts with, but never fully approaches, the mainstream: A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method. His debut novel, Consumed, feels closest to middle-period Cronenberg, thematically of a piece with the films Videodrome and eXistenZ, both of which are concerned with people fusing themselves, often literally, with technology. Consumed also shares an oily membrane of sexual transgression with his film Crash, in which James Spader’s character falls in with a crowd of kinksters who find car accidents erotic.
Consumed’s protagonists — though they could hardly be called likeable — are Naomi Seberg and Nathan Math, globetrotting journalists and a couple, of sorts; the majority of their communication takes place over text, e-mail, and Skype. Naomi is in Paris investigating the apparent murder and cannibalization of Célestine Arosteguy, who with her husband, Aristide, had formed a philosophy super-duo of Cronenbergian vintage: intellectual, omnisexual, amoral. Nathan, for his part, is in a shady Budapest clinic for a story about its proprietor, Dr. Molnár, a ghoulish surgeon of dubious license whose extreme practices recall those of Jeremy Irons’ twins in Dead Ringers.
Right away, we are bombarded with gadgetry. The first line of the book is “Naomi was in the screen.” Much of her research takes place in hotel rooms, or more accurately, within virtual reconstructions of the Arosteguys’ lives. Watching an interview with the couple via a YouTube window, she can “feel the furious intellectual heat emanating from them.” Whenever she settles into a new locale, Naomi feels unsteady until she can construct her “nest,” a tangle of wires and plugs for her MacBook Air, iPhone, Nikon, Canon, and Nagra voice recorder. Brand names and model numbers proliferate into an impenetrable web for any reader who is less than a hardcore tech junkie. Nathan thinks that life with Naomi is “disembodied” — not only for their physical distance, but also for her divided attention. Every phone conversation is punctuated with pauses as she gets sidetracked by her devices, which demand as much of her as a squalling infant might. Not that Nathan’s any better — when Naomi suggests abandoning all her cameras and lenses for the built-in point-and-shoot of her iPhone, he feels betrayed.
In an interview he gave to 3sat, a Central European TV network, Cronenberg spoke about the evolution of technology within his lifetime, from the clunky impracticality of typewriters to the slick speediness of today’s smartphones. Despite the sophistication of the computing power we now have at our fingertips, he said, “a screen is not the ideal. We know what the ideal is . . . What we really want is quite dangerous. But that’s the human way.”
A full integration with technology, then: the re-creation of reality in our own image. In eXistenZ, video game creator Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), another character who remains, like Naomi and Nathan, emotionally remote — they’re like machinery in the coolness of their devotion to their self-assigned missions — creates a “game pod” that players plug into via a veiny umbilical cord that goes into orifices in their backs. Once reborn into Allegra’s virtual world, participants find it difficult to determine when the game is over.
I too was unclear, at times, where the boundaries of Cronenberg’s imagination ended and real world innovation began. At Molnár’s clinic, Nathan encounters Dunja, a Slovenian woman suffering from late-stage breast cancer, who is there seeking a treatment that sounds fantastically grotesque: Molnár will perform a multiple lumpectomy by injecting over a hundred radioactive pellets into her breasts, which will surround the tumors and, like intelligent insects, destroy them. Nathan examines the patient: “When you got close, the breasts became complete animals, possibly marine, attached, perhaps, to auto-feeding tubes.” (One often wants to recoil from Cronenberg’s organic/inorganic mash-ups — like a back wound devouring a game pod in eXistenZ — but ask anyone whose life has been saved by medical technology how awful they think it is to integrate with a bit of tubing.) “Real procedure??” I wrote in my notes. Yes: but if this weren’t already a well-established practice, called brachytherapy, surely Cronenberg would have dreamed it up himself. More incredible is when the now-radioactive Dunja, her breast full of “seeds,” is released from the clinic and handily seduces Nathan, despite her having recently undergone radical surgery.
Nathan and Dunja both speak of rather unusual sexual proclivities with a disarming matter-of-factness. Nathan refers to the “seductiveness of decay,” as though he alone has managed to skirt the youth-obsession of culture at large. He’s even turned on by Dunja’s swollen lymph nodes. “My shape is changing,” Dunja tells him, with no apparent alarm. “It’s really starting to become a non-human shape.” In Crash, James Spader’s character, James Ballard, says that after years of hearing warnings about road safety, it is “almost a relief to have found myself in an actual accident.” Perhaps for Dunja it’s the same: a kind of liberation that comes with having what you dreaded was inevitable finally come to pass. Unfortunately, we never find out — her character turns out to be merely a plot device to launch Nathan to the real subject of his story.
Before she exits, though, Dunja infects Nathan during their liaison with an STD thought to have been eradicated — Roiphe’s Disease. (I checked; not a real thing.) Nathan passes the infection, which holds great potential for dread (I thought of Jeff Goldblum shedding body parts and storing them in his medicine cabinet in The Fly), to Naomi, but somewhat disappointingly, a simple course of antibiotics takes care of the matter. Nathan, though, decides to go speak with Roiphe himself, an aging Canadian Jew — like Cronenberg — about how it feels to have your namesake disease rendered obsolete. But Nathan finds that Roiphe has uncovered another ailment. The doctor’s retirement job is caring for his adult daughter, Chase, who is suffering from an affliction that far outclasses Roiphe’s Disease I — and who has her own connection to the Arosteguys.
Naomi’s plotline at this point begins to converge with Nathan’s, though they never meet in person again after their Roiphe’s Disease transfer. It doesn’t really matter — we’re not exactly rooting for them to make it — and in fact both mains are consistently overshadowed by the supporting cast, which comprises almost entirely eccentric gentlemen of a certain age (Cronenberg recently turned 70 himself). Naomi finds herself holed up in a Tokyo apartment with Aristide, who tells her one story about Célestine’s fate, then another. Neither seems entirely true, but in the latter, Célestine succumbs to apotemnophilia, a form of body dysmorphia in which sufferers feel compelled to amputate a healthy limb. In this version — a clear and distressing echo of Dunja’s radiation treatment — Célestine imagines that her left breast has been invaded by insects. (It will not surprise fans to learn that as a young man Cronenberg considered becoming an entomologist. For him, he says, writing a film is like conducting a science experiment.) Célestine’s body delusion extends further when she sees a film that she interprets as a message from an ex-lover about her “disease,” and finally Dr. Molnár is brought back on stage to offer the suffering philosopher some relief. This retelling comes entirely from the imperious Aristide, and even when he is finished, Naomi’s passivity lingers. By the end of the novel, we don’t hear her voice at all.
* * *
Consumed is a book of entanglements, like the nest of wires Naomi constructs on hotel room beds. Threads are introduced that induce dread, and seem to promise a reckoning to come — the STD, Molnár’s cavalier attitude toward medicine, Roiphe’s late-night observations of his daughter, which carry with them a whiff of incest. But then they simply peter out, in favor of eleventh hour wrenches thrown into the plot, involving an audiologist, North Korea, and a 3-D printer, used (naturally) to create plasticine models of mutilated body parts. We end with neither Naomi nor Nathan, but instead with one tertiary player having a Skype conversation with another and then wondering, after the program ominously winks out, with whom he has really been speaking. Perception is unreliable to begin with, and even more so when filtered through pixels.
In his blurb for the book, Viggo Mortenson, a frequent Cronenberg collaborator, writes that the author “make[s] the reader absolutely complicit.” An element, perhaps, of this complicity is that we see the absence of certain consequences for characters as evidence of clumsy plotting, rather than a reflection of life without moral absolutes. (I found myself oddly disappointed that Nathan’s Roiphe’s Disease wasn’t particularly virulent; I was expecting a more punitive outcome to his affair with Dunja.) Cronenberg, a staunch atheist, said in the 3stat interview that he sees “no morality or ethics in the universe, other than what we create. Therefore, they are very changeable.” His characters are almost unbelievably accepting of flamboyance and perversion. Naomi fantasizes about having a notorious Japanese cannibal, Issei Sagawa, interview the possible cannibal Aristide, and thinks, “It was just sick enough to be yummy.” Or just sick, period — journalism at its yellowest. It’s as though judgment skips character and narrator entirely, and is passed on to the reader. Upon meeting Dr. Molnár, who fairly tramples upon the Hippocratic Oath, Célestine and Aristide are “overwhelmed, horrified, and also delighted.” There is a sense of joy in experiencing the full spectrum of human behavior.
Many critics, in their analyses of Cronenberg’s tales of body horror, miss this sense of humor. “I have not made any films that are not funny,” he said in the 3sat interview. “This is the human way of dealing with the absurdity of human existence — you have to have a sense of humor, even if it’s a scary one.” Every horror film has within it laughter, even if it’s just from relief after a jump scare and corresponding burst of adrenaline. It seems impossible to miss the hilarity in the sheer outrageousness of Nola, the mother in The Brood, giving birth to her demon-children by tearing them out of amniotic sacs with her own teeth, or in Geena Davis wrenching off Jeff Goldblum’s jaw at the end of The Fly. Consumed, too, is frequently darkly funny. Though the intricate plotting is reminiscent of that of many bestsellers, at the sentence level Cronenberg’s prose is watchful and deliberate in its depictions of amusing oddity. One moment has Dr. Molnár shaking a pair of “oddly shaped forceps” at Nathan’s camera and remarking that the images it takes are vivid enough to lick: “The doctor’s mask bulged with the gestures his tongue was making to illustrate his approach to photography.” Such carefully placed doses of surrealism are pleasantly destabilizing reminders that we are not in typical potboiler territory or even, maybe, on planet Earth. Later, Aristide compares life with Célestine to an acid trip:
where suddenly the colors all shifted toward the green end of the spectrum and your eyes became fish-eye lenses, distorting your total visual field, and the sounds became plastic, and time became infinitely variable, and you realized that reality is neurology, and is not absolute.
In his essay “The Awe-Inspiring Beauty of Tom Cruise’s Shattered, Troll-like Face,” Chuck Klosterman takes issue with a film critic who complains about movies that concern themselves with questioning the nature of reality. It is, Klosterman argues, actually one of the only questions left to ask. “We can’t alter reality,” he writes, “but reality can’t exist unless we know it’s there. It depends on us as much as we depend on it.”
Cronenberg’s work comes down to more than “venereal horror,” of course, but his characters often experience the phenomenon of their inner lives, their preoccupations and neuroses, literally rising to their surface of their skin. Aristide speaks of the deadening of Célestine’s libido post-menopause, and then her sudden belief that her breast has been invaded by insects; her body is changing, and it’s almost as though it is no longer hers. But the couple, for all their dalliances, are utterly committed to each other, and their love prevails easily through this reshaping of their status quo. Where The Fly is essentially about a romance cut brutally, tragically short by a terminal disease, the Arosteguys are relatively at peace with the inevitability of bodily decay. Our reality is constantly shifting, after all, particularly now, as our technology becomes more and more deeply integrated with our flesh. We’re getting increasingly adept at using it to re-build the world in our own image, which is also what a movie or a novel does. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes: “The real world is simply too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die.” Cronenberg, in his many films and in this book, creates worlds which express with singular vividness that we will someday decay and die; he doesn’t seem to have trouble admitting it at all.
Alanna Schubach is a freelance writer living in Queens, NY. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America, the Village Voice, Dame, Refinery29, XOJane, and more. Follow her @AlannaSchu.
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