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Consumed Hardcover – September 30, 2014
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Guest Review of Consumed by Bruce Wagner
To say that David Cronenberg’s radically poetic, necromantic, numinous, homicidally erotic first novel—if one may call it that because for me his entire oeuvre is novelistic—is about cannibalism would be like saying Borges’ work is about libraries or Escher’s prints are about crows and staircases. (A character making an off-stage appearance in Consumed is Sagawa, the true-life necrophiliac and murderer who cannibalized a woman in Paris and became a Tokyo celebrity after his extradition and release. He went on to write restaurant reviews. All of which makes Cronenberg’s deliriously serpentine narrative more than plausible.) Yet Consumed is a companion to those weltanschauungs, in that it rapturously finger-paints the hallucinatory avalanche of information in our time and how we enter the river of streaming data to emerge from those waters consecrated in the New Dream—the scary, brave old world of unfathomable morphing realities. In this way it resembles Borges’ prophetic “Internet” story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and even “The insects of M.C. Escher” (cf. Cultural Entomology Digest. As in many of the great director’s explorations, insects buzz large in Consumed as well). This novel is ultimately about the human scanner devouring image and text, thus becoming transformed. Like the Ouroboros symbol of the snake consuming its tail, the reader of fiction chases and eats what inexorably becomes its (our) own Tale; the reader-cannibal of Consumed rips out the beating art of the reflected warrior and becomes a hyperlink. One of the characters muses, “But also we realized we needed the net in order to understand what was the basic human condition, what a current human being really was, because we had lost touch with that, our students made that clear to us, and so we were also using the Internet to research our roles playing normal human beings.”
L’Internet, c’est nous. What else is nous?
Aside from all that, Consumed is great fun—a blistering read, crazy sexy, and insanely funny, too. The charismatic celebrity-philosopher couple at its center is Célestine and Aristide Arosteguy—a hilarious riff on Sartre and de Beauvoir; why hasn’t anyone done this before?—and a pair of young journalists/lovers who fatefully converge to unravel Célestine’s mysterious murder in Paris. (A few of the Arosteguy’s lauded works are Science-Fiction Money, Apocalyptic Consumerism: A User’s Manual, and Labor Gore: Marx and Horror.) They sleep with their student-acolytes and as faces of the theory of “Evolutionary Consumerism” are heroes on the world stage. Listen to Célestine: “When you no longer have any desire, you are dead. Even desire for a product, a consumer item, is better than no desire at all. You can see this in the youngest babies. Their desire is fierce. That’s why we say that the only authentic literature of the modern era is the owner’s manual.”
A hilarious sequence takes place at the Cannes Film Festival, where the Arosteguys are on the jury for the main competition. (Cronenberg himself was famously awarded the Special Jury prize for Crash in 1996, for “audacity,” and was President of the festival Jury in 1999.) This section is as pitch perfect as anything of Edward St. Aubyn’s in his recent satire of the Man Booker, Lost for Words. “We were on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival,” recounts Aristide, “the only two members who were not moviemaking professionals. The year before, it had been an American opera singer and a computer-game designer. Sequestered in a deluxe villa in the hills overlooking Cannes, we were to discuss in the most leisurely and free-form manner all questions of cinema and society with our nine jury colleagues—including our president, the Serbian actor Dragan Štimac—while eating the most exquisite meals and wandering the most Arcadian gardens. . . . There was on our jury an aged, angry, exiled North Korean director, Bak Myun Mok. He was not small, Bak Myun Mok, but he was arrogant and therefore slow and unprepared for my attack. Because we were not allowed to bring cameras and cell phones to our retreat, there are no photographs or videos of the expression of my rage, though the aftermath—Bak’s broken cheek-bone, his black eyes, his shredded lower lip—was duly recorded by the police photographer summoned to the villa. . . . Suffice it to say that the voting procedure was quite irregular, the palmarès was a satisfactory pandemonium, and the North Korean film won a Special Jury Prize—for ‘artistic subversion and visual elegance’—in consolation.”
The action spans from Hungary to Toronto to Paris to North Korea and includes incestuous partners: Nathan, a journalist with aspirations to be published in The New Yorker’s Annals of Medicine who contracts a once-timely-now-passé STD (Roiphe’s Disease) while doing a profile on a dodgy artist-surgeon, and his lover Naomi, an intrepid techie-gamine in the middle of an Internet investigation of the apparent murder of Célestine Arosteguy; Dr. Roiphe and his mysterious daughter, who are both engaged in exotically cryptic experimentation on each another in his pristine Toronto dollhouse/hothouse; there’s even a nod to Simon Sheen AKA Shin Sang-ok, a (again, true-life) South Korean director who along with his actress wife was kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il in 1978 in order to make movies at the Eternal President’s pleasure. Body-perception disorders, communication from the insect kingdom through high-end hearing aids, false identity and complete loss—consumption—of identities, apotempnophilia (see Cronenberg’s Consumed-related short film “The Nest,” marvelous essay-like musings on jealousy and possession, the blurring of bloodlines and the smearing of blood in the totalitarian politics of family and eros, the fetishization of both disease and cure, the origami of desire fostered by language and mystery, the literal geography of escape that always seem to lead back to the same country (same hyperlink)—the Ouroboros of the Web devouring its tail as we consume the information that has become ourselves—are just some of the threads that weave through Cronenberg’s impossibly possible tapestry of au courant fears and reactions to the all-consuming Now.
I’ve heard of a syndrome that affects the caregivers of partners with Alzheimer’s; in time, they begin a slow, barely perceptible descent into an alternate reality forged by the agonies of empathic adaptation. In this sense, Consumed is a chamber play of folies à deux that are in themselves a metaphor for what is happening to each of us because of prolonged exposure to the virus of technologically enhanced evolution and our inability to keep up. We adapt, but the flavor of that adaptation becomes an encroaching madness that Cronenberg has transcribed, vivisected and somehow—here’s his great, astonishing trick—exalted.
The rapture of the Deep Data.
“If the lie was complex and enthralling—and it was, it was—then there might be a book in it, with the ever-present desire to dig for the chimerical truth driving it on, providing the suspense, and no need ever to certify that truth.”
In Consumed, he’s done just that, and something more:
The truth has arrived, and it’s certifiable.
"Consumed is an eye-opening dazzler. Not for the fainthearted, but for those of us who relish a trip into the shadowy depths, a must-read. Cronenberg's novel is as troubling, sinister, and as enthralling as his films." (Stephen King)
"Classic Cronenberg! Who else can tell such a frightening, thrilling, shocking story about the nexus of the spirit and the flesh? Consumed will, well, consume you." (J. J. Abrams)
"Coming from David Cronenberg, the originality, wit, preoccupation with technology, and uncompromising carnality of Consumed should come as no surprise. He will probably be accused of every sin that can be invented to compensate for human fear of mind and body. This fiercely original book, with the scope and poetic exactitude of Nabokov's best work, has the power to unsettle, disarm, and finally make the reader absolutely complicit." (Viggo Mortensen)
"An astonishing, seamless continuation of what I call his peerless novelistic film oeuvres. With Consumed, he has become the definitive heir, not just of Kafka and Borges, but of Cronenberg himself." (Bruce Wagner)
“Cronenberg may be best known for his films, but this cool, unsympathetic examination of self-absorbed intellectuals shows that his skills as a prose author are not to be discounted. . . . Readers will find it impossible to look away from the grotesque spectacle.” (Publisher's Weekly)
“Cronenberg is a gangbusters novelist. His dense, aristocratic prose is saturated with details of technology, sex, and disease . . . and every salacious bit is elevated to a thing of perverse beauty. Let’s hope Cronenberg makes this book-writing thing a priority." (Booklist)
"Cronenberg's approach to narrative is sturdy and direct... His originality is in what he’s driven to show you, the fierce sculptural intensity of his details and his willingness to linger." (Jonathan Lethem New York Times Book Review)
“Consumed does not disappoint. It compiles a lifetime of obsessions and observations about the merging of man and machine, the fascinating horrors of metamorphosis, the intertwining of sex and death, the anatomy of rage, and the mechanics of social downfall… Cronenberg is a deft and inventive writer. He is fearless in drawing characters who are flawed or depraved but also complex and comprehensible." (Peter Keough, The Boston Globe)
“Cronenberg is doing some complicated things with storytelling and truth in Consumed—things that only a novel could accommodate, at least on this grand of a scale… Compelling." (Karina Longworth, Slate)
“It’s good – disturbing…skillfully executed in the way that few first-time novels from crossover artists ever are and, more than that, absolutely fearless in its handling of subject matter that most writers wouldn't touch with sterile gloves and a long stick… It's admirable in its unflinching gaze and beautiful in the depiction of its consensually twisted reality.” (Jason Sheehan, NPR)
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Top Customer Reviews
"Consumed" is a cerebral novel about obsessions in a world that is saturated with vice and artifice. The story is not as much about its characters as it is their obsessions; their obsessions trump and eclipse any other aspect of their "personhood." In that regard, the novel asserts a strong implicit point of social commentary: we often describe our society and global community as a place that is becoming increasingly depersonalizing, but in reality the world is merely catering to our obsessions and we don't exercise much restraint with respect to refining our tastes. You could take the novel literally and see the title as having something to do with cannibalism... if that's how you want to read it (yikes). Or, you can (and probably will) read it more critically as a novel that explores and comments upon all of the ways we consume, and become consumed with obsessions that define the boundaries of what it means to be human, for better or worse.
From an aesthetic perspective, the novel is consistent with Cronenberg's films. It's dark, seedy, unabashed, and unafraid of all things underground. I love all of that. On the other hand, I didn't enjoy the work as much from a literary perspective. The writing quality is outstanding, for sure, and you would think this man has been writing novels for some time when you examine his use of language and his ability to structure the story.
My only gripe is with the characters. Basically, I find it hard to see them as anything more then ciphers, or vehicles that exist simply for exploring contemporary obsessions. This is true for many of Cronenberg's films but the difference is that the actors bring layers of nuance to their performance that make you feel like those characters are real (e.g. James Woods in "Videodrome", or Jude Law in "Existenz"). I felt none of that in this novel. But that probably is something I noticed only because I am familiar with the author's films, and was mislead by own expectations. However, the characters are enjoyable insofar as they are intelligent, entertaining, and absurd. In that way the characters in Cronenberg's novels are like the characters in J.G. Ballard's novels: they are there, not for their sake in any deep human sense, but for the sake of exploring.
A French philosopher on the run, under suspicion for killing--and eating--his wife. Their former students, whom the couple regularly invited into their bedroom. A couple of international journalists who are covering the philosopher and the students, and who tend to get invited into their subjects' bedrooms.
Consumed is, at times, a clever, literate novel, but tries to hard on both counts. Too clever by half, too literate by half. When it's not clever and literate, it's tiresome. Really tiresome.
Some subset of readers will like Consumed. But it wasn't for me.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!
In fact the setting of the book is a string of cities, connected by airports, that extends from Toronto through Europe (Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Munich) to East Asia (Tokyo and Pyongyang). Its unamericanness is underscored by the fact that the two endpoints, Canada and North Korea, are both defined by lines they are north of, with the US (or a proxy) on the other side.
There are maybe twelve or fifteen characters in the story, not counting shadowy North Korean operatives and members of entomological societies - oh yes, and a cohort of mostly nameless Cannes Palmares voters. Of the characters four or five seem to be Canadian, including the two protagonists already referred to. (I say seem because their citizenship is somewhat ambiguous or indeterminate, between Canadian and US.) The rest are all European or Asian. As far as I remember none is clearly American. Of course, it is not coincidental that David Cronenberg is Canadian, not to mention a world-renowned filmmaker.
Curiously, something similar is true for all the high-tech gear which is ubiquitous in the story. It is all European or Asian, such as you can find in the electronic stores in international airports. The one prominent, ostensibly American brand, Apple (iPhones, iPads, MacBook Airs, etc.), is really Chinese - or really, at least in the context of the book, North Korean, with its intense cult of personality and crushing totalitarian ways. The only gadget I noticed which is clearly American in origin is the Bovie knife, an electric cauterizing scalpel named after the American doctor William Bovie who invented it. But that was in the 1920's, and there is nothing to say the jaunty blue and yellow model that figures in the story was manufactured in the US - especially given that its owner is a Hungarian surgeon (unlicensed) who practices in Budapest.
The two characters I call the protagonists are Nathan Math and Naomi Seberg, a thirtyish photojournalist couple who travel the world in pursuit of stories. (Nathan specializes in medical, Naomi in scandal.) They are committed in their own way though not married, and operate independently. Constantly on the move, they are more likely to get together in an airport hotel in some foreign country than "home" in NY. Both are gear heads, Naomi actually more than Nathan. She likes to surround herself with her stuff in bed, to make her nest as she calls it. Somehow I could not help but think of the famous money scene in the 1924 Erich von Stroheim movie Greed.
But there's another couple in the story, Aristide and Celestine Arosteguy, a long married pair of French intellectuals - philosophers actually - who are in their early sixties and lectured for many years in the Sorbonne and acquired international celebrity status. (Think Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.) Celestine has disappeared but lives vividly in the imagination of Aristide.
Nathan and Naomi's initially independent journalistic projects become joined and lead them into what ultimately becomes a foursome of sorts with the Arosteguys, with Naomi pairing directly with Aristide in Tokyo and Nathan pairing in Toronto with a surrogate for Celestine, a strange young woman, Chase Roiphe, who studied with the Arosteguys but suffered a trauma and returned home to live with her widowed once famous but no longer physician father.
As things develop contrasts and similarities become apparent in the various members of the foursome (including Celestine, not Chase). There are two dimensions, age and gender. Age is the simpler one. Both members of the older couple, Aristide and Celestine, live life deeply and love passionately and without limit. Both members of the younger couple, Nathan and Naomi, skate on the surface of life and hold love at arm's length. This is pretty cut and dry.
Gender, on the other hand, is for me at least the more interesting. All four enjoy sex (lots of it), not only with their main partners but also with others, whether separately or in threesomes or more. But the women, Naomi and Celestine, are more ready to give themselves fully to their alternative partners, while the men, Nathan and Aristide, hold back and fight off feelings of jealousy in the face of their partners' entanglements.
Cronenberg here makes me think of the great Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. Tanizaki represented men as being unable to control women and having to accept whatever they did and do whatever they demanded, and still run the risk of losing them. (A good example is the man and woman in his 1924 novel in which the woman bears the Western-style name, of all things, Naomi.) This is the heart of the story for me and the crux of the ending. Are Nathan and Aristide finally reunited with Naomi and Celestine or do they lose them forever?
Of course there are other ways to approach the book. One is to focus on the plot and follow it through its twists and weirdnesses and revelations. (But if you are looking for a sci-fi yarn or a techno-thriller or even a horror story you are likely to be disappointed. Also be forewarned that plot goes off in a sort of sideways direction towards the end in a way that seems oddly prefigured by the effects of Peyronie's disease on one of the non-foursome characters.)
Another is to cue off the title and take it as social critique and zero in on the compulsive "you are what you own" consumption that is eating away at our society and everyone's in our globalized world. Or you can see it as about replacement of reality by images and simulacra and spectacle and all that - kind of generic postmodern, but supported by the pervasive presence of cameras and digital imaging devices in the story (and not least in the naughty bits).
Another is to go voyeur and "watch" it like a movie (a Cronenberg movie at that) and do your best to get off on the sex and violence and grotesquerie that permeate the story from beginning to end.
Or, if all else fails, you can take it cynically as a "dark comedy" or even a big joke on those who take literature too seriously. (BTW I think this last is wrong. There is however one truly funny scene in the book involving a not quite as planned act of intimacy between Nathan and Naomi and some ensuing secretory messiness.)
Consumed is definitely a good read, even a great one. The one thing I wonder about is how much it will stay with the reader a month or six months or a year later. I saw eXistenZ soon after it came out in 1999. Fifteen years later I still remember tooth-shooting jaw guns and Death to the Demoness Allegra Geller as if they were yesterday. I'm honestly not sure at this point what, if anything, I will remember from Consumed. But then, maybe once I see the movie I will have my permanent memories.
I'm between a 4 and a 5 but I'm going to give the book the benefit of the doubt and give it a 5.