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.

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