Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 17: It is Difficult to Find Crisco in Paris, But Not Impossible

When it was first announced, what seems like ten years ago now but was probably somewhat less, that David Cronenberg was writing his first novel I was quite excited and intrigued, but also far from shocked. As I hope I've made reasonably clear of the last sixteen posts in this series, Cronenberg is one of the most literary filmmakers in the English-speaking world. The works of Freud, William S. Burroughs, Stephen King, Patrick McGrath, David Henry Hwang, Don DeLillo, and, most importantly, J. G. Ballard have all, in one way or another, found their way into his films. In terms of style, he has transitioned from a visceral genre director into an arthouse intellectual, without ever, somehow, appearing to be a different filmmaker. He's even retained the viscera, though now it often takes a different form than it once did. Besides that, he'd shown an interest in writing novels in his younger days (though who hasn't?), and while the possibility hadn't actually occurred to me until the announcement, that Cronenberg would one day bite the bullet on this felt (retroactively) inevitable.

That novel, called Consumed, finally came out on September 30, after a long enough wait that I was beginning to wonder if he'd abandoned the project. But no, and one thing that didn't occur to me almost until I had the book in my hands was that this represented the first original Cronenberg story -- that is, not an adaptation of someone else's work (and I'm going to conveniently exclude his short films Camera and At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World) since eXistenZ fifteen years ago. And eXistenZ came eight years after what would have counted as his previous original story, Naked Lunch, a film that is officially an adaptation of Burroughs, but then again who are we kidding here. Anyway, Cronenberg the Writer had been gone far too long, and the notion that his return was in a medium that would, in theory, allow him to expand his natural, unique inventiveness into areas that film, with its financial burdens, might not so easily find room for, was somehow more than I felt I could expect from Cronenberg at this stage in his career. It all made perfect sense but managed to still be unexpected.

And "unexpected" is a word that I don't think begins to encompass the strangeness of Consumed itself. I'll have to begin somewhere, so let's see: to begin with, Cronenberg's facility with character names returns with our protagonists (of a sort) Nathan Math and Naomi Seberg. The political and cinematic significance of that last name does not go unremarked upon, but anyway, Nathan is a photojournalist who specializes in medical stories -- he dreams of landing something in The New Yorker's "Annals of Medicine" series -- and Naomi is a photojournalist of a more generalized, catch-all sort. She is pursuing a story about the eminent French philosophers Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy. The Arosteguys -- aging, sexually adventurous married intellectuals who, once openly, now somewhat more surreptitiously, bring students of both genders into their bed -- are beloved in their home country for their work in and approach to a kind of Marxist consumerist philosophy which posits, for example, that "the only authentic literature of the modern era is the owner's manual." Reading from one such manual, for a camera, Celestine says:

"Auto-flash without red-eye reduction. Set this mode for taking pictures without people." She laughed that rich, husky laugh, and repeated, this time with great drama, "Set this mode for taking pictures without people." A shake of the head, eyes closed to fully feel the richness of the words. "What author of the past century has produced more provocative and poignant writing than that?"

So that's the kind of work they do, but Naomi is reduced to watching videos of Celestine online because it appears as though Celestine's husband Aristide has murdered and partially eaten her. Why he did this is the story Naomi is pursuing. Meanwhile, Naomi's boyfriend Nathan is in Budapest interviewing Dr. Zoltan Molnar, a rather strange oncologist (and restaurateur) whose focus is breast cancer. He's developed an aggressive form of treatment (which I won't bother trying to describe) that has not been cleared by any international governing body in medicine, so he has to work on a sort of black market basis. Nathan is writing a story about him, and along the way he begins a sexual affair with one of Dr. Molnar's patients, a woman ("So many women have cancer these days," she says) from whom he contracts an STD thought extinct called Roiphe's Disease. This he subsequently passes on to Naomi, who is naturally furious when he confesses, and the two of them -- whose sexual encounter that allowed for this transference of disease occurred during a rare moment of togetherness, between the two of them flying to different parts of the world, pursuing different goals -- split yet again, he to Toronto to meet Dr. Roiphe, because, ostensibly, Nathan wonders about the fame, or infamy, that comes from being a doctor like Barry (Convex?) Roiphe, or Alois Alzheimer or James Parkinson, she to Tokyo to track down Aristide Arosteguy. She was led to Tokyo by Herve Blomqvist, former student and lover of both Arosteguys, and a man who tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce Naomi by bragging about his penis which was twisted by another STD which, well, it's all very complicated. But, so, she goes to Tokyo.

In truth, Nathan does not share the stage with Naomi. He's a supporting character whose story runs in parallel and seems to bear the same weight as Naomi's, but Cronenberg's head and heart clearly lie first in Paris, then in Tokyo. The bizarre world of Nathan, Roiphe, and Roiphe's grotesquely self-harming daughter Chase could probably support their own novel -- there is enough material in Consumed for several -- but in this novel they exist to provide links to, and back from, Naomi and Aristide. In Tokyo, Naomi, whose fascination with the Arosteguys has always been on the fringe of inappropriate, spiritually and sexually untethers herself from Nathan (the implication is strong that she'd been faithful to him, while the woman from whom Nathan contracted Roiphe's Disease was not his first dalliance) and lets herself satisfy her curiosity about her own physical attraction to an old intellectual cannibal. She's still working on her story, with his full cooperation, and she's also wary, even fearful, of what Aristide might do to her, but as is usually the case with Cronenberg, anything sexual is on the table.

And before you look at that description of Aristide and jump to the conclusion that he's some kind of Hannibal Lecter rip-off, the primary inspiration for the character is made clear as Cronenberg doesn't hesitate to throw into the mix the specter (though he is still, unfortunately, alive) of Issei Sagawa, the Japanese man who in 1981 murdered and partially ate a Dutch student named Renée Hartevelt. This happened in France. Sagawa served almost no time in prison, and not much more in a mental institution. For a while he lived off his own celebrity, writing books, restaurant reviews, appearing on TV, and so forth. I first learned of Sagawa from an essay about him written by Colin Wilson and published in the second of Adam Parfrey's horrific and in many ways detestable Apocalypse Culture books. Wilson's essay tried and failed to make the case that Sagawa didn't deserve to be incarcerated, come on, I bet he won't do it again (he hasn't, for the record, though I don't feel that this counts as "paying one's debt"), and, anyhow, long story short, Sagawa's story has always been surrounded by deplorable apologists, skin-crawling implications about celebrity, and vile jokes (see the interview with Sagawa conducted by Vice magazine and their use of the phrase "tasty little dish," not to mention the headline "Who's Hungry?") that seem to exist to convince the teller that Renée Hartevelt's humanity was theoretical at best. Arosteguy says to Naomi:

"You know, Sagawa, the Japanese cannibal, who still lives right here in Tokyo, said that the Dutch girl's ass tasted like tuna prepared for sushi. That's enough to make it dangerous for any Dutch woman to visit Japan. He's considered a tragic hero here, a media celebrity. An artist. I can envision lineups of Japanese men waiting for the Netherlands tourist buses to unload, each with his Suisin maguro bocho sharpened and ready...Of course, she was a Dutch girl. That made it somehow not so criminal. Maybe even praiseworthy."

So Cronenberg, unsurprisingly, is fully aware of what he's throwing together here, and even manages a gesture towards the somewhat fraught history Japan has with the Netherlands. As if Consumed didn't have enough going on in it. This is, in fact, a very plot-heavy novel. Unexpectedly so, though it is unexpected in ways that perhaps it shouldn't be. And maybe the phrase should be "incident-heavy," because the structure of Consumed flits between being tightly put together and a loose one-damn-thing-after-another sprawl. To my mind, this is largely to the good. Cronenberg's films, particularly those made from his original scripts, have never lacked for narrative drive, and Consumed pushes that to lengths that are intentionally absurd. This isn't to say that I believe that by the time the novel's plot has folded into itself a section about serving on the Cannes jury, the secret, sinister power of one of the films in competition, the truth of Celestine Arosteguy's pathology (or is it?), and so forth, again, that isn't to say that Cronenberg is making fun of anything in particular, any kind of storytelling style, I mean. But Cronenberg's is a curious but genuine sense of humor, and he's in complete control of how darkly ridiculous his plot becomes.

Ridiculous, but gripping. That along with everything else, David Cronenberg is a born storyteller is a compliment he's not often paid, I'd guess because everyone is usually so understandably busy figuring out the implications of his stories to pay much attention to how good those stories are. In Consumed, he's building perhaps the ultimate Cronenberg story out of the various meanings and applications of the word "consumed." Some of this is blatant (cannibalism) and even a little tired (consumerism) but when apotemnophilia, the desire to have body parts amputated, and a wild critique of Communism have been included into an already head-spinning collision of juxtapositions, even the tired stuff becomes new.

Plus it's that tired stuff that gives the novel its blood. Before beginning Consumed, my great concern was that the prose wouldn't be up to snuff. You can be a great film writer and a shit prose writer, and vice versa, and I had no particular reason to believe that Cronenberg would turn out to be one or the other. As it turns out, the consumerism facet of the novel is the key to the prose, because it's this facet, especially when set in front of some of the more grotesque material, that best reflects J. G. Ballard back to the reader, and back through the book. Early on, Cronenberg writer about how Nathan and Naomi for all intents and purposes fetishize their various computers and camera gadgets, complete with long blocks of brand names and descriptions of their various features -- a little of this goes a long way, and there's a lot of it, but it's in no way irrelevant. Anyway, as I was saying, early on Cronenberg writes about how, because of their jobs, this couple shops (separately, it must be noted) for their electronics in airport stores, and text to each other the various finds they've made or deals they've noticed that the other might want to look for when the other inevitably passes through that airport themselves. This is laid out as a vital part of their relationship, and if there's a more Ballardian part of Consumed I didn't notice it. And Cronenberg's prose, while in many ways not much like Ballard's, nevertheless works the same way. He matches Ballard's pathological-space-alien disinterest in what's happening, the nonjudgmental psychotic clinician's report. In short, the prose is exactly what it should be.

In the end, Consumed goes in a direction I was not sure, at the moment, I wanted it to go, but I can't now say that I'm sure it even took that direction. When I consider the evidence provided that the thing some characters claim happened happened, or rather that a thing didn't happen, or...well, anyhow, there's not much reason for me to necessarily swallow this whole, if you'll pardon the pun I didn't realize I was making, but anyway, there you have it. Which is the other thing about the ending, and the title, and I realize how vague I'm being about all this but if and when you read the book I suspect you'll think like me, which is that by the end you could say that Consumed is beginning to eat itself.


Will Errickson said...

"Adam Parfrey's horrific and in many ways detestable Apocalypse Culture books."

Heh, nailed it. I'd kinda forgotten those books, altho' I only had the first one. That was a long time ago though. Also, this is the most insightful review of CONSUMED that I've read yet. I guess I shouldn't be surprised!

John said...

Sounds fascinating, not that I figured there was a big chance it wouldn't be. Anyway, you've certainly helped persuade me to give it a look one day. (A slight quibble: I don't share your view of Ballard's writing as expressing a "space-alien disinterest"--I think it's the other way around, but the psychology is largely implicit, or communicated through the details themselves.)

Some of this, mixed with stuff I've read elsewhere online, has given me some new-ish ideas (to me, anyway) about the "function" of horror stories that I'm tempted to bore you with here. Maybe I'll save them for an email down the road.