ConsumedConsumed by David Cronenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The ongoing controversy about The Interview reminded me of the running gag in David Cronenberg’s first novel about ‘Kimunism’ and the The Judicious Use of Insects. This fictitious movie causes controversy and upheaval at Cannes, as it is supported by France’s most intellectually daring philosopher couple, who are sympathetic towards the North Korean dictatorship (Cronenberg mentions the scandal of Gerard Depardieu renouncing his French citizenship and being personally awarded a Russian passport by Vladimir Putin).

The book opens with the death of the wife, killed and cannibalised by her husband, who is hiding out in Japan as a result. Cronenberg refers to the bizarre case of Issei Sagawa, who murdered and cannabilised a fellow Dutch student at the Sorbonne in 1981. A French judge declared Sagawa to be mentally insane, whereupon he was extradited to Japan, becoming a minor celebrity and even writing restaurant reviews.

What this means is that a lot of the more outlandish plot elements here are, in actual fact, refractions of real events, which adds another dimension to Cronenberg’s theme of the fusion of entertainment, media, technology and politics. We see the story through the eyes of yet another couple, two journalists, whose obsession with the latest gadgets is almost a fetish.

Cronenberg’s experience as a filmmaker allows him to riff authoritatively on the latest camera and recording technology: “…he consumed her body with that lens (the awkwardly named Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED).” There is a very funny scene where Naomi demonstrates the photographic potential of the newest iPhone by taking pictures of Nathan’s erect penis.

Indeed, much of the novel is blackly and bleakly funny, taking in its stride everything from acrotomophilia (a sexual attraction to amputees) to the fictitious Roiphe’s Disease, which Nathan contracts after having sex with a radical surgery patient, to the Worldwide Genital Mutilation Conference, 3D printing as a medical tool and ‘philosospasms’ (Naomi and Nathan’s pet term for their digressive interests).

The discussion of ‘insect politics’ and the ingestion of insects for both religious and nutritive value reminds us, of course, of Cronenberg’s own movies The Fly and his adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Indeed, Consumed is very much a love letter to long-term Cronenberg fans, running a sustained trajectory from the ‘body horror’ of his early work to his later interest in identity and gender.

Cronenberg’s writing reflects the dispassioned, steely intelligence of his movies. It is rather fitting that Consumed is a genre hybrid, straddling horror, science fiction and satire. Cronenberg writes with such confidence and insight that it is difficult to imagine this is his first novel. Of course, the attention to detail is very much a result of his director’s eye.

What I found fascinating is how the novel format allows Cronenberg to expand upon his ideas in a much more radical way than he is able to do in his movies – to the extent that a movie based upon Consumed would be almost impossible to make in the current socio-political climate. We do not want to upset the Boy King of North Korea, now do we.

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Crooked little vein, dank shuddering heart

Warren Ellis wears his heart on his sleeve, as well as various other organs and bodily fluids. He is an equal-opportunity sacred-cow humper, with Crooked Little Vein cheerfully giving offense to a slew of sensibilities, beliefs and orientations. However, one would be wrong to dismiss this novel as a deliberately tasteless and crass attempt to skewer public morals (despite the ‘Baby Jesus buttplug’).

Tellingly, early on Trix says to Mike that “pervert is a real perjorative, you know”. He replies: “Hey, I’m from Chicago. In Chicago, perverts are people who don’t finish their whiskey and actually sleep with their wives at night.” (This reminds me of the funniest lines in the book, that “straight people are so fucking weird.”)

Aboard a flight to Las Vegas, Mike happens to be sitting next to a bona fide serial killer, aged seventy-one and dubbed The Mad Virgin. The two engage in a philosophic discussion of Mike’s mission to “trawl through America’s sick underbelly” in search of an alternative draft of the American Constitution with inherently magical properties that will set the nation to rights and mend its evil ways.

The Mad Virgin tells Mike: “I am the mainstream. I am, in fact, the only true rock star of the modern age.” And this is Warren Ellis’s point: think of any perversion, crime or atrocity imaginable, and if you can find it on the Internet, then this means it has become the mainstream. What legislators and law enforcers have to be really concerned about are those acts and proclivities that have yet to be defined.

“What a crooked little vein you travel. All the way to the heart of America,” muses the serial killer. And what a journey it is, taking in everything from tantric bestiality to degloving, pumping parties, anus dentata, warm saline testicle/labia infusion fetishists and Godzilla bukkake.

(The faint-of-heart are warned; Ellis, however, elucidates all this weirdness with such boyish enthusiasm and charm that Crooked Little Vein is very, very funny, immensely entertaining and hugely endearing. Not to mention educational. I think I learned more about the Japanese porn industry than is good for my own health.)

And, in-between the ostriches and lizard wankers, this is an old-fashioned love story. Even if the woman in question is described as “a crazed omnisexual vaginalist with a string of lovers from genders they don’t even have names for yet. She’ll break your heart, Mike.” Aww, isn’t that just so romantic!

Predictably, Ellis contends that “crime and sex are inextricably linked.” Much more interesting is his contention that the porn industry is not responsible for the darker recesses of people’s hearts; it merely reflects what is there already. “I’m saying there’s more going on in the modern psyche than can be defined by some Puritan notion of the way life should be,” says Trix.

So beyond the muck-raking and perversion, this is quite a thoughtful take on what it means to be human (and in touch with, and in control of, one’s own sexuality).