CONSUMED by David Cronenberg (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada), 284 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NN
David Cronenberg’s first novel is very much of a piece with his cinema. The themes he’s obsessively explored over four decades – bodies at war with their owners, the power of technology to remake (or corrupt) flesh, the mutation and weaponization of ideas – all bristle inside Consumed like the insects one character believes are growing within her left breast.
The novel also has the same hermetic sensibility that distinguishes his best films. As in Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, you get the sense of being trapped with its characters as they burrow into darker and stranger places.
The narrative follows journalists Nathan Math and Naomi Seberg, who fly around the globe chasing stories of body horror. Naomi goes to Paris to explore the lurid murder and possible post-mortem devouring of French philosopher Célestine Arosteguy, while Nathan visits an experimental cancer clinic in Hungary and winds up bedding one of the patients. Sex burbles just beneath the surface of everything Cronenberg’s characters do – and acts as a contaminant, as when Nathan infects Naomi with a rare STD during a layover boink in an Amsterdam hotel.
Alternating between Nathan’s and Naomi’s stories, Cronenberg details their interactions in chilly prose that fetishizes the products they use as much as their bodies or environments. And admirers who experienced the David Cronenberg Evolution exhibit at the Lightbox last year might feel its echoes in Consumed’s plot points the aforementioned breast delusion was at the centre of a short film, The Nest, commissioned for the exhibit.
The individual elements are intriguing, but the pieces of Consumed don’t cohere. The text bogs down in endless digressions – Aristide Arosteguy’s soliloquy on hearing-aid technology goes on for several pages – and the core mystery grows sillier the deeper it’s unpacked. And like a number of Cronenberg’s most recent films, it’s not nearly as funny as he seems to think it is.
Cronenberg discusses his novel with Mark Kingwell at the annual PEN Benefit, Thursday (October 23), 8 pm, at the Fleck Dance Theatre. ifoa.org