The David Cronenberg film Crash (based on J.G. Ballard’s novel) is about people who are sexually aroused by recreating celebrities’ fatal car crashes. The title story in a new book of three novellas by Kingston, Ontario, author Richard Cumyn shares a certain sensibility with Cronenberg’s picture.
“Famous Last Meals” examines a group of friends who regularly organize dinners replicating the supposed last meals of such famous dead people as dancer Isadora Duncan and the sainted virgin soldier Joan of Arc. One of Cumyn’s characters – a dancer who insists on performing despite a painful knee injury sustained in a deliberate car crash – could serve as a Cronenberg muse. Cumyn’s well-drawn characters are not as amoral or creepy as those in Crash, but they definitely have similarities. The players are numb at the core and feel the need to borrow the pain and passion of others.
“Famous Last Meals” is audacious (the same word used by the 1996 Cannes Film Festival jury to describe Cronenberg’s film), but ultimately unsatisfying. The curtain falls on the action far too abruptly, as if the actors had lost interest in their roles and, without warning, exited the stage, leaving the audience perplexed and astounded.
The second novella of the trio is “The Woman in the Vineyard.” There is a 19th-century gothic feel to this short, breathless story about scheming artistes, including a writer who crafts a play designed to drive its lead actress mad. Despite running a scant 51 pages, this story is far more filling than the much longer entry that precedes it.
The third novella, “Candidates” – a contemporary, absurdist political satire about a young man who lands a job with the Prime Minister’s Office and quickly encounters political skulduggery – is out of step tonally with the other two. Moreover, like “Famous Last Meals,” it feels like it’s been done: we’ve seen this movie before.