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Consumed: David Cronenberg’s Foray into Body Horror Prose

Consumed

A Book Review by Shane Joaquin Jimenez. 

The Nest (2014), the latest film by David Cronenberg, is comprised of a single unbroken GoPro shot. A topless woman sits on an examination table in a dungeon-like basement, pleading for a mastectomy. Her left breast, she says, is filled with a swarm of insects—wasps, perhaps—and her left nipple needs to be surgically removed so that the bugs can escape. If that doesn’t work, she wants the entire “nest” removed. The man behind the camera, Cronenberg himself, asks if this procedure will satisfy her. “Yes,” she answers vacantly. “I’ll be happy.”

The Nest is not a stand alone film project for Cronenberg, but rather a trailer of sorts for the auteur’s first novel, Consumed (2014). The Canadian Cronenberg is best known for his body horror films—such as The Fly (1986), Scanners (1981), and Videodrome (1983)—which do not use external monsters to create horror, but rather find horror within the human body itself. Cronenberg’s work in the genre explores the physical and psychological horror of one’s own body violently changing through disease, mutation, or psychic intrusion. Picture Jeff Goldblum’s gruesome transformation in The Fly, or the famous exploding head scene in Scanners, and you get an idea of the warp and woof of body horror.

Following his 1999 virtual reality body horror film eXistenZ (1999), Cronenberg’s work has largely expanded outside of the horror genre, with films like A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) opening him up to a more general film-going audience. Still, these post-body horror films have managed to maintain a transgressive, psychologically compelling edge. Consumed, his first novel, blends the two arcs of his cinematic career into one chaotic, perverse, thoroughly Cronenbergian narrative.

The novel follows Nathan and Naomi, lovers and freelance photojournalists, who don’t let facts or due diligence get in the way of a juicy story. Obsessed with social media and the latest generation technology, Nathan and Naomi are drawn to opposite ends of the earth at the beginning of the novel. Nathan contracts a rare STD and flies to Toronto to write a story on the reclusive doctor who discovered the disease, while Naomi travels to Tokyo in pursuit of a fugitive French Marxist philosopher accused of murdering his celebrity philosopher wife Celine and committing “spousal cannibalism” (136). As the threads of these two stories begin to tangle together, larger geopolitical forces emerge from the shadows, threatening to consume Nathan and Naomi both.

The venereal horror prevalent throughout Cronenberg’s filmography is prominently featured in Consumed’s obsession with cannibalism, which takes a surprising number of forms—from self-mutilation and consumption to the use of 3-D printers to digitally “print” consumable artificial flesh, and finally to regular “vanilla” cannibalism.

CronenbergCronenberg philosophizes on the nature of cannibalism through the voice of Aristede Arosteguy—a quintessential rockstar French philosopher, whose appearance resembles Jacques Derrida, but whose possible crimes bring to mind Louis Althusser, the French philosopher who did in fact murder his wife.

“‘You know,’ Arosteguy says, “‘everything that has to do with the mouth, the lips, with biting, with chewing, with swallowing, with digesting, with farting, with shitting, everything is transformed once you have had the experience of eating someone you were obsessed with for forty years’” (136).

Cronenberg’s work has always exhibited sympathy for freaks and their sexual appetites. Like the woman in The Nest, Arosteguy’s wife Celine suffered from apotemnophilia, the psychological disorder where one does not feel they are “complete” until a certain healthy limb has been amputated. The insects that she believes live in her breast may be a metaphorical substitute for the more prosaic body horror of breast cancer, but this doesn’t alleviate the pervasive unease one feels when reading the sexuality with which Cronenberg’s prose describes both apotemnophilia and cannibalism:

The sequence of the photos told a little story. Célestine is dead and has been dismembered, as per the police photos, with her body parts strewn randomly around the apartment and her torso on the couch. Hervé, Chase, and Arosteguy himself, gradually revealed to be completely naked as the shots’ perspective widens and they emerge from behind various elements of furniture, take their turns biting small pieces from her thighs, her hips, her shoulders, her belly—but never all three in one frame, which suggests that one of them is always assigned camera duty. Blood is dripping from their mouths and from the bite-sized wounds they are creating, and there is a glazed, zombie-like affect to all their faces which somehow embraces primordial pleasure as well as toothy efficiency. Célestine’s severed head, hair swept back as in the video but now parted to display a crudely cracked open and hollowed-out skull, sits on the small table next to the old Loewe TV, watching the ghoulish trio with half-closed eyes (her brain is eventually to be found on the kitchen drainboard). And most shockingly… Célestine’s torso begins the session with two full breasts, and when all the mouths have had their way with her left breast, violently ripping and tearing and seeming to eat it on camera, what is left is a raggedly circular bloody wound, not a clever mastectomy scar. Her right breast, though also savaged, remains attached to the torso. (272)

The idea of being “completed” by an act of violence brings to mind Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash. Shocking audiences at the time, Crash subversively mixed violence and sexual fetishism with scenes like James Spader’s character having sex with a wound in Rosanna Arquette’s thigh after a car wreck. One also finds echoes of Cronenberg’s Videodrome, famous for its images of videotapes being inserted into a large orifice in James Woods’ torso, in a curious symmetry between that film’s mantra (“Long live the new flesh”) and the novel’s “discovery” of a hidden message in a North Korean propaganda film: “Cut off your left breast, that rustling bag of insects, because if you don’t, those insects will spread their insect religion to your entire body, including, and especially, your brain” (194).

Consumed does not only derive its title from cannibalism, but as a play on the nature of consumerism as well. Nathan and Naomi are obsessed with acquiring material objects, and entire passages of the novel are populated, Bret Easton Ellis-style, with the name brands of phones, computers, and cameras (one can glimpse the directorial mind of Cronenberg at times, as he pontificates on the superiority of certain camera apertures or editing software). Cronenberg’s dissection of modern life and consumer culture echoes the work of novelist Don DeLillo, whose novel Cosmopolis was adapted for the screen by Cronenberg in 2012. The book’s central relationship between Nathan and Naomi, digitally garbled by technology, recalls the numbed, disconnected way characters interact with one another in Cosmopolis and other DeLillo work. Nathan and Naomi spend the length of the novel physically removed from another, connecting as disembodied ghosts through email or Skype to discuss their latest purchases. For them, as perhaps for all of us, “Consumer choices and allegiances were the key to character and to all social interactions” (165).

Let us return to that short film by Cronenberg. The first-person use of the GoPro and the patient’s nudity give the film an exploitative, almost pornographic air. As the woman pleads to the man behind the camera to cut off her breast, she looks directly into the camera and the initial voyeuristic mood of the film becomes something else, because it is us, the viewer, who the woman pleads with. We are the surgeon in the basement. We are implicated. “I would like to discuss the narrative of my infection with you,” (83) the diseased patient says to us—but it is, after all, our narrative too.

Shane Joaquin Jimenez lives and teaches in Portland, Oregon.

Consumed will be published on September 30th, 2014.

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