Man-Eating Philosophers

Will Self

  • Consumed by David Cronenberg
    Fourth Estate, 288 pp, £18.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 00 729915 7

After working on his film adaptation of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1991), David Cronenberg apotheosised both the writer and himself by claiming his screenwriting and Burroughs’s literary style had synergised. Cronenberg apparently mused that were Burroughs to die he might write his next novel. Burroughs expired in 1997, and although Cronenberg has directed many films since then – operas too – while dabbling in graphic novels and other writings, Consumed is his first full-length work of fiction. The influence of Burroughs’s heterotopic vision is certainly present, as is the minatory one of J.G. Ballard, another writer whose work Cronenberg has adapted for the screen, but this is very much the director’s cut – and probably the better for it. Has Cronenberg, with a recent film adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel to his credit as well, become that most paradoxical of things in relation to literary endeavour: a groupie turned performer? With Consumed he enters that select company of cinéastes who have also written creditable literary works: this novel stands comparison with Luis Buñuel’s radiant memoir, My Last Sigh; Werner Herzog’s hilarious confabulation, Conquest of the Useless; and Bruce Robinson’s farcical Künstlerroman, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. However, I’m not so sure Cronenberg’s filmic output is equal to that of Jean Cocteau, Marguerite Duras or Peter Handke.

Part of the problem with creative polymaths is that on exposure to their work in a new medium the viewer, reader or listener can’t help assessing the extent to which their style and methodology has been directly transposed. Cronenberg seems to fend this off at the outset; the opening lines of Consumed read: ‘Naomi was in the screen. Or, more exactly, she was in the apartment in the QuickTime window in the screen, the small, shabby, scholarly apartment of Célestine and Aristide Arosteguy.’ In the final paragraph, the image of one of the characters on a computer screen ‘opened its mouth to speak but then unaccountably froze, then stuttered in a disturbing computer-graphics-creation kind of way, then disintegrated in a shower of sparkling pixel flakes’.

So, this is a novel about seeing, but not Stephen Dedalus’s (and Thomas Aquinas’s) ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’; rather, as befits a film director, it’s a novel specifically about the screen-mediation of reality. In his philosophic commonplace book Straw Dogs (2002), John Gray propounded a new theory of consciousness: ‘In evolutionary prehistory consciousness emerged as a side-effect of language. Today it is a by-product of the media.’ Cronenberg is one of a burgeoning group of artists who are attempting to describe what such a media-derived human consciousness might be like. As far back as eXistenZ (1999), he was investigating the impact of virtual-reality gaming on human perception and cognition, which raises the question: having begun his investigation on film, why has he now opted to represent this emergent consciousness in a creative form dependent on a technology – the codex – which is rapidly being superseded? The explanation may well be this prosaic: Consumed, with its narrative cat’s cradle tightly woven around putatively anthropophagic husband-and-wife French philosophers, wouldn’t be easy to pitch to Hollywood execs. In order for someone to green-light a movie of this story, they’d need to have at least background knowledge of the sexual shenanigans of Sartre and Beauvoir, and of Althusser’s uxoricide – though not necessarily a close acquaintance with their published work.

Certainly Naomi Seberg, one of the novel’s protagonists, is a quick study of technology – but she depends on ‘faster fingers’ (i.e. Google searches) for her savviness, and is pretty much at sea when it comes to the philosophy of the Arosteguys, which seems to consist of two parts Marxian commodity fetishism and one of Huysmans’s decadence: ‘The Arosteguy essay concerned consumer objects and the possibility of beauty that could equal or exceed natural beauty, given the industrial/technological new state of man. Natural beauty became atavistic, nostalgic. Real objects of the innate lust for beauty were now commodities, industrial products.’ The Arosteguys go further, arguing that ‘consumer choices and allegiances were the key to character and to all social interactions.’ Naomi and her boyfriend – another uber-nerd called Nathan Math – function as living embodiments of this, such that no appearance by either of them is complete without a lengthy and weirdly voyeuristic description of the devices they slobber over: ‘Naomi had set up her three wireless Speedlight flash units with the chunky black wireless SU-800 Commander, which controlled and triggered the flashes using infrared pulses, locked in her D300s’s hot shoe.’ Since both thirtysomethings are photojournalists who ‘scratch and sample’ their stories into being, they at least have a professional alibi for such ‘brand passion’, as Cronenberg wryly dubs it; however, as Nathan remarks to one of his subjects: ‘We’re all photojournalists now. It’s no longer enough just to write. We have to bring back images, sound, video.’ The emphasis being, I think, that we’re all photojournalists now, whereas back in the 1930s it was only Isherwood who was a camera.

Naomi specialises in crime stories; Nathan has a thing for disease. Naomi heads for Paris to uncover the truth behind the grisly images of Célestine Arosteguy’s dismembered corpse that have been posted on the web: has her husband murdered her and eaten of her flesh in some bizarre act of philosophic praxis? The images would seem to imply this; Aristide himself is nowhere to be found. Nathan makes tracks for Budapest where he has an appointment with Dr Molnár, ‘the proprietor of pop-up transplant clinics in places like Kosovo and Moldova’, whose own wiseacre philosophising owes a considerable debt to Burroughs’s Dr Benway: ‘Let poor people in impoverished countries sell their kidneys to the rich, he said. It’s organic capitalism of the best kind and is good for everybody, and should be monetised and industrialised to the maximum degree.’ And of course, Dr Molnár is also a committed snapper, who posts the traducing images of his patients on the walls of the chi-chi French restaurant he owns.

In Paris Naomi encounters Hervé Blomqvist, who was one of the Arosteguys’ student-cum-sex-toys. Blomqvist is another blogger, poster and all-round cyber-macher, whose right-angled penis (a function of a weird condition known as Peyronie’s disease) has made him – in his own mind at least – a hot erotic property. He despatches Naomi to Tokyo, where she ends up in an intensive sexualised photo-shoot with the fugitive philosopher. So, as in many of Cronenberg’s films, it’s disease as much as technology that weaves together the narrative strands of Consumed. While in Budapest Nathan combines eros and thanatos by having sex with Dr Molnár’s patient, the beautiful Dunja, a Slovenian riddled with cancer whose own carnal theorising is more than a little Ballardian: ‘So many women have cancer now. Do you think a new aesthetic can develop … Will non-cancerous women be begging their cosmetic surgeons to give them fake node implants under their chins and around their necks? Under their arms? In their groins?’ But it’s Nathan who develops the new aesthetic: Dunja infects him with a rare STD, Roiphe’s disease, which sends him to Toronto, where he encounters the eponymous Dr Roiphe, another medical showman who has interred his beautiful daughter Chase in a weird atelier where she holds auto-cannibalistic tea parties and operates a 3D printer. As might be anticipated, Chase Roiphe uses her FabrikantBot to print out models of Célestine Arosteguy’s body parts – oh, and multiples of Hervé Blomqvist’s penis. The right-angled penises are artily adapted by Chase to resemble giant maggots which she then implants in the fakery of Célestine’s disincorporation. Because Chase, it transpires, was another of the Arosteguy’s sex-and-semiotics toys, who may have participated with Hervé and Aristide in a ghastly cannibalistic ritual – or possibly only faked it.

The fakery of coincidence binds together the characters and milieux of Consumed quite as much as it would plait the multifarious strands of any 19th-century triple-decker novel. I suppose Cronenberg might argue that the odds against such ‘coincidences’ are considerably shortened in the emergent ‘glocal’ society engineered by bidirectional digital media. A more charitable way of viewing the novel’s frankly preposterous plotting – which fizzles out in a sublation of the virtual and actual presided over by the deus ex machina of conspiratorial North Korean cyber-war – is that Cronenberg is yanking our chain, thereby demonstrating the incommensurability of narrated events and real ones, but neither the mechanics of this text nor its style support such a conclusion. For the plot to be a credible simulation of the tortuous – and torturous – imbrication of web and world, Cronenberg would need to give proper attention to the most significant phenomenological impact of the new technologies. This isn’t the effect on individual perception and cognition – although these are undoubtedly being radically altered – but on interpersonal relations and the social self. Further, if Cronenberg’s abiding analogy is between disease and technology, neither is adequately represented: computer viruses are alluded to, yet these, together with the vast pulses of febrile suggestibility that pass through the web, creating epistemic havoc in their wake, are assumed rather than demonstrated. Disease – like technology – is for Cronenberg still something that can be apprehended within the individual consciousness.

He attempts to evoke the oddities of mediated life by detailing such new phenomena as ‘the fishy Skype tone [that] bubbles up’; and perceptual peculiarities like ‘the phenomenon of non-presence’ affecting photographers such that their existence while snapping is ‘non-authentic’, and only on reviewing their images ‘did the event photographed emerge in experience’. Nathan is pulled into Naomi’s digitised slipstream: ‘That was life with Naomi – disembodied. Nathan realised he had almost no awareness of getting to his room other than the disconnect in the elevator. No smells, no sights, no sounds. He had been in his phone, Naomi a voice in his brain. On his laptop.’ This spatial lacuna stands proxy for so many others in this novel, which seems strange: a wired world is necessarily a globalised world, and although the characters flit around it there’s no sense at all of their bodies in motion. Nathan is overwhelmed by Naomi’s ‘tendriling [sic] social network’, which, should you wish to track it, ‘you’d have to apply a particularly sophisticated fractals programme to her, mapping every minute of her day.’ This is defeatism on Cronenberg’s part: asserting the medium he has opted for is inadequate to the task at hand, and that only automated systems are capable of fully capturing the way people now interact via the web. We hear almost nothing about the impact of the Arosteguys’ cannibalistic carry-on in the wider world, while the only evidence on the page of Naomi’s ‘tendriling’ is Yukie, a pal in Tokyo who’s … a sucker. The web can, however, be evoked as a metaphor for the emergent consciousness: ‘Célestine was a personal hotspot, emitting her own special wifi signal’; similarly, the way our tech-compulsions impinge on the quotidian can only be described – ‘she had Google Mapped and YouTubed her route to death’ – rather than demonstrated.

He tells it like it is, though, in flat prose with a hollow cadence that undercuts its subject matter’s excess rather than making it resonate. There’s this, and there’s also an oddly constricted and flattened feel to Consumed: Cronenberg may be trying to describe an epochal change in the human Umwelt, but this can’t be reduced to merely a matter of visual perception – let alone to simply being told about such perceptions, cognitions and interactions. Moreover, Cronenberg’s cast of characters numbers only 11 – pretty much the norm for a conventional realist novel, or film for that matter. These characters aren’t tonally distinguished: none has an idiolect or an accent of his own, all of them speak the same Mid-Atlantic argot, which merges with the narration and sometimes sounds like the Argos catalogue rewritten by a doctoral student moonlighting from a thesis on Marshall McLuhan. Naomi’s pet name for Nathan is glossed thus: ‘Than, suggesting a thumb-sucking, asexual state of mind.’

I stress: this is not an ‘anti-style’ or the resistant Teflon-coated style of such Modernistes-nouveaux as Tom McCarthy and Michel Houellebecq; nor is it an attempt to demonstrate the semantic clumping we might expect once consciousness becomes fully technically mediated; rather it’s simply that transposition of style and methodology which is to be expected when an artist migrates to another medium. As a director Cronenberg has attempted many different kinds of film over the years: the gooey if intelligent schlock-horror of Dead Ringers and The Fly giving way to literary adaptations, science fiction explorations and faintly bizarre socio-psychological expositions such as the tedious A History of Violence and the wholly risible A Dangerous Method, wherein Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen – mumming Jung and Freud respectively – established to my satisfaction at least that if actors are to play intellectuals they must always have mind doubles for the risky theorising scenes. Cronenberg’s last outing, Maps to the Stars, was a stylistic departure: in this satirical fable of Hollywood denizens’ ever metastasizing neuroses he couldn’t avoid channelling David Lynch, whose own image-making is informed by a radically different worldview.

At one point in Consumed, we are told by Célestine Arosteguy’s lover-cum-GP, Dr Trinh, that ‘she had an affection for Schopenhauer, which led her at times into a kind of fatalistic romanticism.’ Dr Trinh prescribes Heidegger to wean her patient off ‘that sickly Asian taste for cosmic despair’, but I suspect this is a remedy of Cronenberg’s – although one he himself has neglected to swallow. His own image-making partakes of the same planar characteristics as his prose: operating-theatre lighting gives equal weight and definition to objects, persons and places; London, Switzerland and Toronto are all accommodated in the same laboratory of the soul. Cronenberg has said he wishes to ‘anatomise’ his actors, and his cinematography makes of them a collection of evenly lit body parts, just as Célestine Arosteguy was reduced to her gory constituents (or possibly wasn’t). For Lynch, a transcendentalist, the human subject is only a portal to the noumenon, hence the plush darkness his images well up from; but for Cronenberg – a can-do Canadian and a psychological realist au fond – the shadows must be banished, the truth surgically excised and the patient cured of her taste for cosmic despair.

An evocation, perhaps, of the break-point between electro-mechanical and digital-electronic technologies, the hearing aids designed for Aristide Arosteguy by his audiologist, Elke Jungebluth, in collaboration with yet another of the philosophes’ pedagogical fuck-buddies, Romme Vertegaal, are calibrated using a vinyl record and a turntable. It’s this steam-punkish conceit that introduces the plot-resolving North Koreans and their activities on ‘the international techno-political stage, where cyberkampf was the name of the drama being played’. Cronenberg, in the light of the recent North Korean cyber-hacks of Sony Pictures, may be being modish here: ghosting Célestine Arosteguy to Pyongyang is simply a way of saying that, no matter what, the show must go on. But I fear the truth is more creatively adventitious: just as in his films Cronenberg swoops down like a magpie to scoop up shiny ideas then arranges them to his own bright satisfaction, so Consumed is another fortuitous assemblage. If the novel were to be pitched to an exec over lunch at Morton’s, the line might well be: ‘Remember that Japanese guy, Issei Sagawa, who killed and ate a Dutch woman in Paris? Imagine if he was in fact celebrated French husband-and-wife philosophers who got mixed up with the North Koreans, like that guy Shin Sang-ok and his wife who were kidnapped to make movies for Kim Jong-il.’ After all, in the novel Célestine becomes convinced that her left breast is infested with insects, and according to her husband she pitched the scenario very effectively: ‘It took on a compelling substantiality, like being swept into the reality of a brilliantly written novel or charismatic movie: it’s not that you believe in its literalness, but that there is a compelling truth in its organic life that envelops you and is absorbed by you almost on a physiological level.’

Unfortunately, despite everything there is to feast on in Consumed, all I’ve absorbed from the novel at a physiological level are the same sorts of image I’ve sopped up over the years from Cronenberg’s films – films that tend to add up to rather less than the sum of their body parts. What I’ll take away from Consumed is not an elegant thesis on the screen-mediation of consciousness, but the ‘cannibal party’ held around Célestine Arosteguy’s corpse (or possibly a simulacrum of it), at which ‘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.’

Cronenberg, on his busman’s holiday, may be telling rather than being on camera duty, but the sick song remains the same. I too like to ‘tell’ films, mostly because my enjoyment of the medium has now been compromised, at least in part because of Cronenberg’s own work, which, while superficially radical in terms of subject matter and approach, still cleaves to the same old tropes of entertainment, and has been thereby formative of the new dispensation: a level of verisimilitude applied to the depiction of sexual acts and acts of violence that, in and of itself, elevates such images – when promiscuously combined with jihadists’ beheadings videos – to the level of the Baudrillardian hyperreal. I’m not blaming Cronenberg for this, but he does strike me as being one of the visual artists whose conviction that in exercising their libidinal imagination they are advancing political freedom has, somewhat perversely, encouraged us in the delusion that technology can be controlled by us rather than vice versa.