Debbie Harry in David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983)
David Cronenberg’s work has left indelible marks on my brain. When I first saw Videodrome, Debbie Harry’s cigarette burn scene was a revelation; the psychosexual terrorism of Dead Ringers haunts me to this day; and I can still hear the squelching sounds of Brundlefly’s final transformation clear in my mind's ear.
Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed, is also unforgettable, but only because of how terrible it is.
It’s a well-worn adage that there's a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and Cronenberg has walked that line many times before. Adapting Naked Lunch – a highly confusing novel by anyone's standards – even loosely is undeniably brave. But stringing together a series of cheap shocks with a few shallow references to philosophers and calling it a novel puts Consumed firmly in the latter camp.
For starters, the characters are entirely unbelievable. Like many of the people who populate the book, the main protagonist, Nathan Math, has a habit of openly describing his personality. “I’m a very needy person,” he says on the sixth page. Later, he explicitly states that he does not know what his motive is.
I remember my English teacher telling our class to "show not tell" ahead of our creative writing exam, which, when it comes to fictional writing, is generally a sound piece of advice. Cronenberg – his ability to heed guidance maybe blurred by three decades of critical adoration – does not follow Mr Morris' tip. Instead, it's as if through laying down that caveat early on, he believes he's done away with the necessity of developing characters or providing them with any purpose throughout the narrative.
Nathan’s girlfriend Naomi is less consistent than Nicolas Cage’s acting career. She's writing about two French philosophers, yet has “barely heard of Karl Marx”. Despite this incredible cultural blind spot – and her statement that she has “no education” – later along in the book a photograph reminds her of Simone de Beauvoir and “her eternal president Jean-Paul Sartre”.
Both halves of this two-dimensional couple are supposed to be journalists, and Cronenberg uses their occupation as an opportunity to lament the demise of print media. Despite this demise, Naomi and Nathan are flown around the world by niche magazines, seemingly under no obligation to file any stories.
There’s only so much I can suspend my disbelief, and if I don’t believe that the main characters’ jobs are viable, the murderous North Korean entomologists that arrive in the third act don’t stand much chance of being taken seriously.
The characters also suffer from an inability to speak like humans. Cronenberg’s films are rarely noted for their repartee, but flaws in a script can be overlooked when we’re tumbling through alternative videogame realities or dealing with mallet-wielding toddlers. It’s much harder to overlook bad dialogue when the words are printed right in front of you. For instance, when a character says, “This is making me very nervous… kind of existentially unstable,” or, "I suppose I should shape the narrative for you.”
David Cronenberg (Photo via)
These problems are the result of the fact that Cronenberg simply cannot write. His descriptions range from clumsy to baffling – “The grotesquely swollen knuckles and finger joints looked like goblins wearing translucent latex dresses” is one quote I found by opening the book at random – and depictions of sex, which are extreme and confrontational in his films, become hilarious in print: “The image fermented in Nathan’s brain and downloaded through his penis into Naomi’s hot, distracted mouth.”
The latter quote also doubles as an example of the author’s persistent attempts to drop references to the internet into his writing. Windows pop up and disappear constantly, we are told “global digital parasitism is the new Trotskyism” and someone’s snoring is likened to the green pig from Angry Birds. These references, if it wasn't already obvious, all seem a little incongruous, like Cronenberg wants to write about the disorienting nature of a world where social media has superseded real life, but instead ends up sounding a bit like Bruce Forsyth trying to write an op-ed for Wired.
The book is also littered with long descriptions of recording devices. The reader can barely go 20 pages without a hefty paragraph devoted to SU-800 commanders and d300 hot shoes. If Cronenberg was attempting to use this repetition to highlight the mind-numbing effect of commodified culture – the approach that American Psycho conquered – he failed. Instead, he highlights the mind-numbing effect of obsessing over camera equipment.
In the pre-release copy of the book, the celebrity endorsements – all of which conspicuously come from people Cronenberg has worked with in the past – compare him to Borges, Nabokov and Kafka. Which, considering the goblins-in-latex line alone, is ludicrous. If anyone’s influence is apparent, it’s another one of the director’s collaborators: JG Ballard.
A scene from Crash (1996)
Ballardian tropes can be found in many of Cronenberg’s films: irrational violence, immersive psychosis and machine-mediated sexuality. It was for that reason Ballard said he was the perfect man to adapt his novel, Crash. So it was to be expected that Consumed would show the influence of the author.
But, like so many elements of this book, Cronenberg’s execution falls far short of the mark. He lacks the literary finesse and eerie prescience to adequately pay homage to the late, great experimentalist. Whereas Ballard peered into the chicken guts of society and foresaw the psychopathy of the future, Cronenberg is playing catch-up, trying to draw deep truths from a present he doesn’t understand. Case in point: “Her lips left semen smears on the screen. Commodity fetishism at its finest.”
The worst thing about this novel, though, is not the underdeveloped characters, the comically bad writing or the aspirations to literary status. The worst thing about this book is that it would probably make quite a good film. Trimmed down and stripped of its pretensions, Consumed has all the trappings of a classic Cronenberg.
The lame attempts at shocking readers on paper could become trademark body horror on cellulite. With the right cast, the cartoonish supporting characters could come to life as monsters on a par with Crash’s Vaughan or Scanners’ Darryl Revok. And the plot, as contrived as it is, provides plentiful opportunities to interrogate perversions and challenge the audience with material Hollywood doesn’t have the guts to touch.
This is what Cronenberg does best and is how he's established himself as one of the most interesting, provocative auteurs of our time. The world needs more Cronenberg films. What it doesn’t need is more half-baked vanity projects.
So, David Cronenberg, I beg you, please don’t give up your day job.
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