Consumed by David Cronenberg (Fourth Estate 2014)

Consumed“Sex times technology equals the future.” That was J.G.Ballard’s oft-repeated mantra, exemplified in its most extreme form in his 1973 novel Crash, a perverse and surreal parable of our love affair with the automobile. Ballard’s formula is also at the heart of director David Cronenberg’s first novel, Consumed, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Shanghai Jim; on occasion it reads like a collision of middle- and late-period Ballard, combining the clinical sex-tech-death manias of Crash with the dark, coiling mysteries of his “detective period” (Cocaine Nights through to Kingdom Come). Cronenberg filmed Crash in 1996, with many critics (Ballard included) noting the uncanny symbiosis of director and author; to some the affinity was clear from the start, from the venereal apocalypse of Shivers (a disturbing sex-horror take on JGB’s own High-Rise) to the porn-tech future of Videodrome (certain elements of which – a refuge for TV-addicted down-and-outs; a surrealist transformation mediated by deviant technology – might have stepped straight from Ballard’s own dark satires). This curious synchronicity reflects, in part, their shared background in medicine, a joint fascination for McLuhan and Freud, and a hyper-analytical turn of mind that finds covert meaning in our relationship with technology: a meaning Cronenberg explores, with customary precision, in Consumed.

Celebrity husband-and-wife philosophers Aristide and Célestine Arosteguy are a national institution in their native France, sixtysomething rockstars of the highbrow circuit. When not appearing as guest panellists at the Cannes Film Festival, or penning pop-philosophy bestsellers, the college-prof couple somehow finds the time to conduct risqué affairs with the prettiest of their undergrads (either sex will do). Imagine the shock, therefore, when Célestine turns up dead: murdered, mutilated and (it’s alleged) partially-eaten by her own husband, who immediately flees the country.

Enter hip and sexy young photojournalists Naomi and Nathan, an oh-so-modern couple whose busy schedules permit them to meet only in airport hotels or Skype links. While researching a cheerfully unconventional plastic surgeon in Prague, Nathan has a casual fling with one of his terminal patients; from her he contracts a rare STD, Roiphe’s Disease (by this author’s standards, an unusually humdrum microbial cameo), which he inadvertently passes to Naomi. Tracking down the retired scientist who discovered the virus, he learns Roiphe now has a new subject of scientific study: his own troubled daughter, who’s developed a disturbing predilection for auto-cannibalism after a brief stay in Paris – studying with, you guessed it, Aristide and Célestine Arosteguy…

Meanwhile Naomi has traced Arosteguy to Tokyo, and (against her better judgement, and ours) embarks on an affair with the alleged cannibal, who does nothing to discourage her worst suspicions – quite the reverse, in fact. He offers her the exclusive on his eat-and-tell story, even attempting to justify his deed as the ultimate expression of love; rather than run screaming from his apartment, however, Naomi finds herself drawn deeper into his seductive power. So when he begins to describe Célestine’s growing obsession with former lover Romme Vertegaal (a missing film director she believed had defected to North Korea, and was seeking to communicate with her via a pseudonymously-signed movie, The Judicious Use of Insects), and her subsequent conviction that one of her breastswas infested with bugs, bugs that her husband could hear only with a certain North Korean-designed hearing aid, Naomi starts to realise this isn’t your average philosopher-eats-wife tale after all…

Those increasingly dissatisfied with Cronenberg’s recent film output may find much to enjoy in Consumed, in some ways a return to his science fiction roots. He demonstrates throughout a fetishistic obsession for technological detail, listing the acronym-heavy technical specs of billion-megapixel cameras and 3D printersin the affectless tone of a Bret Easton Ellis sociopath name-checking fashion labels. This avalanche of minutiae is, of course, the geeky grist to his satirical mill; as the title suggests, Consumed is less a study of venereal parasitism than a snarky assault on the temple of commerce. The real disease here isn’t some innocuous STD, but consumerism itself – an especially virulent contagionwhose victims, unusually, have no wish to be cured. Consumerism is desire unconstrained, set loose by technology: sleek, sexy, ever-cleverer technology, infusing us with an unquenchable compulsion to devour more and more…until the only thing left to consume is ourselves. Cronenberg argues his case with cool, calm insistence, often through humour every bit as dry as Ballard’s; certain lines (“Naomi estimated from the detail of the pubic hairs, especially as the camera moved, that the video bit rate was reasonable, probably the AVCHD high standard of twenty-four megabits per second”) have a deadpan wit that’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and his outré plot commands our queasy attention from the start.

We’ve come to expect an unflinching attitude to physical detail from Cronenberg as a director, so it comes as no surprise to find this clinical tone reproduced in the novel; readers of a delicate disposition are therefore best advised to stay away, unless they have a high threshold for oncological porn, sexual mutilation and malformed genitalia.If in the end it amounts to little more than a creepily unerotic shaggy dog story, in which the dog has three legs, a deformed doo-dah and a cold and unlovable disposition, Consumed has enough points of zoological interest to commend it to fans of its poker-faced creator. Whether it will find much of an audience beyond that circle is open to question, though those with access to a 3D printer may find their sex lives given a transgressive boost.