Of Insects, Tech and Cannibals

David Cronenberg’s cinematic obsessions, explored between the covers

In the opening pages of his first novel, Consumed, David Cronenberg flicks out a series of images. We see stories and characters on a MacBook Air, an iPhone and a BlackBerry, meanwhile eavesdropping on a conflict over camera lenses—a 105 mm macro versus a 24–70 mm zoom—all of it so technical that the reader imagines Cronenberg standing behind a monitor on set directing the novel as he would one of his films.

The authorial Cronenberg seems as much a character as his characters, an acute and often amused intelligence who frames the story for his readers within reiterated rectangular boundaries. Monitor or book, we are looking over his shoulder through the earlier part of his novel, the action feeling distanced rather than intimate, while Cronenberg himself remains acutely present.

Of course, what a film audience sees onscreen is what a director sees in his head (and sometimes, in hers). But the director’s vision of a film is always mediated by financial considerations, performances that take a film to a new level, or fail to; by the vagaries of weather, the demands of equipment and whether craft services poisons the lead actor before the big scene. I was so conscious of Cronenberg himself while reading Consumed that I kept wondering whether he had written a novel so he could forget about the inevitable compromises of filmmaking and try, for once, to do exactly what he wanted.

This might seem to be an odd thing to say about David Cronenberg, who has an astounding oeuvre extending back more than 40 years and one of the most distinctive voices in film. But when you wear a screenwriter’s hat, you hear grousing. I was once in the room when Robert Altman complained that he could not get a movie made to save his life. For industry people, what is perhaps most astonishing about Cronenberg is not that he has crafted such a singular body of work, but that he has done it while surely facing the same challenges as everybody else.

Over his long career, starting with classics such as Videodrome, Crash and The Fly, we have come to know Cronenberg’s obsessions: insects, for one; gynecologists and gynecology, which is not quite female sexuality, but observed female sexuality. Twins. Violence. Cars. Kafkaesque metamorphosis.

Yet over the past decade, Cronenberg’s films have been changing. His popular 2005 film A History of Violence appears in retrospect to be a hinge between these early obsessions and more conventional narratives he has directed since. It tells the story of a seemingly bland small-town family man named Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, whose hidden history as a killer slowly bleeds into the present. The narrative both explores and subtly mocks conventional film tropes, and the audience loved it: $31 million in box office.

Cronenberg’s most recent movie travels even further along this road. Maps to the Stars, which premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, is a gleefully cynical narrative about corruption in Hollywood, an over-the-top satire about going over the top, in which Julianne Moore plays a fading soap opera star who schemes to land the role played by her late mother in the remake of an iconic and clearly quite dreadful movie. There are no insects, not many cars, but, over nearly two hours, Cronenberg has a lot of fun portraying Hollywood as thoroughly incestuous.

My favourite Cronenberg film remains Spider, in which Ralph Fiennes plays a clinically troubled man arriving at a halfway house, which may or may not be located in the neighbourhood where his mother was killed. Made in 2002, and nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it was released just before A History of Violence, and shares a thematic concern with the permeability of time and inescapability of the past. It is a contained, restrained and very elegant film that casts a master’s eye on Cronenberg’s earlier obsessions.

All of this means that in opening Consumed, I wondered which Cronenberg would show up. And as the first section gets underway, we seem to be back in the land of female sexual mutilation, technology and, soon enough, insects.

The novel initially centres on two freelance journalists, Naomi and Nathan, a couple who seem to be pursuing two different stories. Naomi has begun an investigation into the apparent murder and cannibalization of French intellectual Célestine Arosteguy, whose equally famous husband, Aristide, is suspected of the crime. They are theorists of consumption, and she has been consumed.

Meanwhile, the medical journalist Nathan has arrived at the below-board Molnár Clinic in Budapest, where he is about to witness a rather suspect operation on a beautiful Slovenian named Dunja, whose cancerous breasts Dr. Molnár is planning to inject with ant-like radioactive pellets.

Cronenberg has said that Consumed began as a film script, and these rapid-fire early chapters read more like a script than a novel. There is little pause for reflection, and character is revealed through visuals. We know one woman entirely from her habit of using nail clippers to snip off bits of her skin, which she eats from a child’s tea service. As it becomes clear that Célestine Arosteguy’s left breast has also been eaten, we watch Naomi and Nathan’s investigations slowly intertwine.

Then comes a tonal jump: around the midway point, the novel turns gleefully satirical. The young journalist Naomi has tracked Aristide Arosteguy to a Tokyo suburb, and after they become lovers, we switch into Aristide’s first-person account of what happened to his wife. His story opens at the Cannes Film Festival, where he and Célestine are on the jury (which Cronenberg chaired in 1999). This section has only a tangential connection to the main plot, but gives Cronenberg an opportunity to whack just as hard at the pretensions of European cinema as he did at Hollywood in Maps to the Stars.

“When I grabbed his hair,” Aristide says of the jury deliberations, “and dragged his head towards the solid ebony voting-table leg, the action had produced a satisfying smear of saliva, blood, and mucus on the tiles.”

Maybe Cronenberg starts having a little too much fun, and for a while, the novel meanders. I was losing heart when I suddenly got some of my favourite Cronenberg, the mature master writing at Spider level: Aristide’s account turns into a tender depiction of sensuality in a long-term marriage. “As her body changed (and that change, of course, is invisibly gradual until one of those startling moments of revelation, when the light slanting in from an oddly placed skylight rakes cruelly across the skin, the veins, the toenails, and changes forever your perception of what your lover is) I at first willed my esthetic for womanly beauty to change in order to accommodate her transformation.”

Consumed is a career inside covers. At times brilliant, at times absurdly over the top, the novel is a palimpsest of David Cronenberg’s obsessions, early and late, nesting inside each other, arguably consuming one another. It is a bit of a mash-up, and does not entirely hang together. Cronenberg has revealed that he has asked other directors to make it into a film. Best possible scenario: one of them wrestles the story into shape, and Cronenberg goes on to do the remake.