By David Cronenberg

Seventy-one might be considered a ripe old age to be publishing one’s debut novel, but famed Canadian film director David Cronenberg is hardly a rookie, bringing several decades of screenwriting experience to the table.

That background is hard to miss in Consumed, as the full slate of Cronenbergian motifs are in play, beginning with a visit to a slightly sinister, quasi-legal medical clinic, and then proceeding through a melange of sex, disease, fetish, and technology.

The story concerns a pair of young journalists who share a dangerous appetite for the exotic. Naomi is looking into a sensational crime in Paris, where a fashionable French philosophe has apparently killed and eaten his wife, then disappeared. Meanwhile, Naomi’s boyfriend Nathan is doing a piece on a cancer clinic in Budapest, where he contracts an obscure venereal disease that he tracks back to Toronto. The two only meet once in the novel, but as things go on they begin to recognize how their stories share “odd things, funny parallels.”

A lot of Cronenberg’s horror derives from his making metaphors literal. Or, as one of the characters here puts it when talking about paranoid imaginings of bodily corruption, “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.”

If you feel afraid, then that itself becomes something to be afraid of; what you fear becomes real.

This is certainly the way things work in Consumed. Naomi and Nathan have a mainly ethereal relationship, hooking up globally via cellphones and the Internet in “disembodied” states. It’s significant that the only time they do come into physical contact the results are unfortunate.

They are untethered not just from their bodies but from reality. True digital natives, everything they see and do is recorded, filmed, or photographed. The result of all this is to make them prey to various conspiracies that in turn get passed on like a virus. How much of what you see on the Internet can you believe?

This, in other words, is virtual horror: one where mediated reality has taken over. Did the trendy French philosopher consume his wife, Célestine? Being a trendy French philosopher he’s not sure it makes a difference:

spousal cannibalism expanded in the media to the point where it took on a potent reality that was not really connected to my life or to Célestine. I was enveloped in that reality, enshrouded, until it became my own, until my own thoughts, and emotions were displaced by those thousands that came from television, newspapers, the multiple internet sources, the YouTubes and Twitters, yes, even the car radio and the talk shows . . . I was colonized, appropriated. I had to leave my dead husk to shrivel and wither in Paris and become someone else . . .

The horror of virtual reality has consumed him, eaten him alive. This seems to be Cronenberg’s larger point in the novel, which he arrives at by way of a paranoid conspiracy plot reminiscent of writers like Pynchon and DeLillo.

Consumerism and the Internet have fused, we are told, and what we are consuming online is ourselves. The narcissism of Naomi and Nathan, so familiar to observers of digital culture today, has its end point in autophagy, self-cannibalism. We put our entire lives online, indeed live our lives online, and so become the content the Internet feeds on, enveloped and absorbed on “an almost physiological level.”

Cronenberg has been down this road before, but the fact that his weird imaginings seem so relevant today only highlights how far ahead of the cultural curve he has always been. It’s a scary thought, but his nightmares are coming true.

Review first published October 18, 2014.

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