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by David Cronenberg

Do you think a new esthetic can develop? Cancer beauty? … Will non-cancerous women be begging their cosmetic surgeons to give them false nodes implants?” Imbued with notions of body modification this unsettling, could Consumed be the work of anyone but David Cronenberg? The acclaimed filmmaker of Crash and The Fly has packed his debut novel with concepts such as “the seductiveness of decay,” one of the favoured tropes of his cinematic oeuvre.

Consumed is late-era Cronenberg. Eschewing the straightforward horror that made its author famous, the novel is closer in atmosphere to the chilly Cosmopolis than the blood-soaked Scanners: more head scratching, less head exploding. This is hardly a drawback, as Consumed is invigorating, unusual, and often brilliant. And the body horror – if more muted than expected – is patently unnerving.

Journalists Naomi and Nathan (both richly developed characters) share a bed and various technological devices, “brand passion [being] emotional glue for hardcore nerd couples.” Naomi is investigating the murder and cannibalization of philosopher Célestine Arosteguy at the hands (and teeth) of her husband, Aristide. Nathan, suffering the unpleasant effects of an STD known as Roiphe’s syndrome, seeks out the disease’s namesake to “discuss the narrative of [his] infection.” During his research, Nathan uncovers connections to the Arosteguy affair, as well as a bizarre and disturbing area of medical obsession.

Cronenberg lards his storyline with delicious ruminations on modern existence. Characters fear that “to not be recorded and videoed and dispersed into the turbulent winds of the net, was to court nonexistence.” Naomi’s iPhone is “a malevolent protean organism, the stem-cell phone … promising to replace every other device on earth with its shape-shifting self.” Piggybacking another person’s WiFi becomes both a form of social infection and an ideological stance: “Be a parasite on their network. Global digital parasitism is the new Trotskyism.”

The ultimate point of Consumed – with its digressions into 3D printing, sexual fixation, and Korean cinema – is hazy. Perhaps Cronenberg is having a bit of meta fun, hiding behind the theory that “meaning is a consumer item. Some people manufacture it through religion, philosophy, nationhood, politics, and some people buy it. But an artist is not a manufacturer.” What is clear is that the novel is challenging fiction that, like Cronenberg’s films, rewards a revisit or two.