There’s always a bit of a mixed feelings that come when you find out a creator you respect is trying their hand in a new medium. As a fan of their work, you can’t help but be excited as a baseline – after all, it’s new material from a creative mind you’ve enjoyed in the past. At the same time, it’s a different medium, so you’re not sure what to expect in terms of how their work will carry over.
At least, those were the two thoughts I was jockeying between upon discovering Consumed, the debut novel by director and body horror pioneer David Cronenberg. Especially surprising since I didn’t even know he was working on a book until it was right in front of me. Yes, it was out of his medium, and the premise listed on the back cover sounded genuinely bizarre, even for Cronenberg. At the same time…well…it’s one of my favorite directors writing a book, so I dove on in. Upon reading the story, I can honestly see why Cronenberg made this a book rather than a movie: as a story, it works in print, but this would make for a really unwieldy film, even from someone like Cronenberg.
The story is split between two protagonists: Nathan Math and Naomi Sebert are a pair of technology-fixated journalists. He works in medical, she specializes in crime. Before I go forward, I should say now: if you’re not that tech-savvy, then in the words of Samuel L. Jackson, hold onto your butts – while not prone to Michael Crichton levels of information dump, Cronenberg, in outlining their tech fascination, often details the specifics of what each of the two are using. It’s actually a nice stylistic touch for just how thorough technology makes up their careers (and to a degree, their relationship), but it can definitely be a bit daunting at first. Anyway, the two are each called away to investigate two seemingly disparate assignments: For Nathan, this involves paying a visit to a surgeon performing a controversial procedure, a trip that culminates in his encountering a form of venereal disease believed wiped out (I told you this would be a bit too out there for film.) For Naomi, this involves the hunt for Aristide Arosteguy, an influential French philosopher who has gone on the lam amid allegations that he has killed his wife and eaten parts of her.
As each dives further into their assignments, they slowly begin to realize these two separate incidents may be connected. What follows is a trip down an appropriately Cronenberg-style rabbit hole including questionable surgery, 3D printers, unusual mental conditions, specialized hearing aids, the Cannes Film Festival and a North Korean conspiracy. I can’t even begin to explain how they’re all connected without giving away the whole book here. It’s the kind of situation that, visually, would call for a whole ball of red string.
Once I was able to wrap my mind around the twisty nature of the larger story, there was one thing that really struck me about this book: even if I didn’t know his name was attached, I would believe that this book was written by Cronenberg just for a lot of the little things.
For starters, the story contains several of Cronenberg’s stylistic elements and themes. Nathan and Naomi are an extension of his often explored relationship between people and their technology. I’m really not kidding when I say this even extends into their relationships. There are moments when each of them, particularly Nathan, reflects on the technology that their partner tends to favor within their work. Their gear is a very defining trait of the both of them, for good or ill. Likewise, the medical aspects of this book feel like a callback to the early body horror days of Cronenberg’s career. Things like the medical procedure Nathan goes to witness, and Arosteguy’s accounts of the fate of his wife feel like a sort of latter-day body horror, containing disturbing elements but in a less overt sense, arguably more grounded in reality.
Further, Cronenberg’s writing style feels similar to the nature of his directorial eye. Many of his scenes are written in a fashion that is quite detailed, but never in an overly prosy sense. He approaches scenes of equipment riddled rooms, bloody crime scene photos, and European operating rooms with a clinically detached eye that lets him give you just enough information to take in the scene without getting hung up on a very stylized image of certain things. For some, this style might be off-putting, but reading it, I was just struck by how much it reminded me of his style in filmmaking. While his perspectives from characters will show some bias, he doesn’t try to stack the deck emotionally for any one person or another; He presents the story as it is and lets you feel as you will about it.
That said, even if you’re a fan of Cronenberg and can get on board with his style, the book does have its drawbacks. The first is the overall narrative is a lot to process. I mean, I wouldn’t call it bad, but it is VERY much a case of ‘your mileage will vary.’ Presentation in particular goes all over the place – both figuratively and literally- as Nathan and Naomi’s investigations take them across three continents, several different philosophies, and even different stripes of cannibalism (this resulting in probably one of the most effective of Cronenberg’s body horror touches) before coming in for a landing.
The ending may be polarizing for some, though I felt it was the most logical end point for the pieces introduced in play at the time. Most of the areas of this I could see people having problems with are more matters of personal taste than prose. The only one I would really say was a major off-putting element for me I with regards to the later parts of the book when things shift from an alternating person view between Nathan and Naomi, jumping instead to a first person account by Arosteguy. To be fair, it’s not a badly written section of story, but the jump to it is pretty abrupt and, and admittedly, I did a doubletake when I first got to that point, wondering why the narrative suddenly switched to first person.
Reading this book actually gave me an experience similar to what I felt the first time I watched some of Cronenberg’s earlier movies, namely Rabid and Shivers. At points, it has rough patches that could stand to be smoothed out. Those rough patches, however, are largely outweighed by the potential within the work. It’s definitely a unique read -I spent a good half hour trying to think of something to compare it to and have come up with nothing yet — and if you’re a fan of Cronenberg, it’s even more interesting to see how he translates. Even with its faults, this is a book that has me interested to see if he has any more projects planned for print. He’s got a lot of promise in being able to carry over his style and philosophies into a medium that could arguably give him even more freedom to really delve into an explore some
of the concepts.
As of now, the book has just come out, so it should be easy enough to find a copy of it. It’s definitely not a casual airport read (as it were) but it’s still an interesting ride if you are curious.
Till next time, folks.
-Cronenberg’s filmmaking style carries over in this writing
-Genuinely unique premise for a first-time offering
-Said uniqueness can be very hit or miss in this case. Like I said above, mileage will vary
-Abrupt shift in perspective in the final third is incredibly jarring