Naomi sat on the floor, her back against the foot of the bed. "Are you taking your clothes off?" she asked.
"Yes," said Hervé.
"You want me to shoot pictures of you naked?"
"I'm not going to have sex with you. Really. I'm not."
Hervé had taken off his tie, jacket, and shirt, and was working on his belt, a fussy alligator-patterned thing with the dual-pronged buckle and a double row of holes which seemed to be giving him trouble. He was hairless and thin through the chest, just as Naomi thought he would be. All those New Wave movies. "If you have sex with me, I will show you something special that Célestine liked very much. It's unusual what she liked."
Naomi lifted her camera and casually began to snap away. (p. 29, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Veteran filmmaker David Cronenberg's first novel, Consumed, is one of the creepiest novels I've read in years. It is a very visually-oriented novel in which the "closeup" is used to make the novel's themes of voyeuristic consumerism visible in often visceral, unsettling ways. Its intense exploration of fetishes and desires is very well done, almost too much in places, making it one of the more unforgettable stories I have ever read.
Consumed revolves around a couple, Naomi and Nathan, and their melding of avant garde photojournalist techniques with some rather kinky sexual fetishes. Nathan becomes involved with a Slovenian cancer patient, Dunja, after arranging to photographing her immediately post-op at the clinic of a shady Hungarian doctor, Dr. Molnár. From her, he contracts a rare and previously-considered eradicated STD, Roiphe's Disease. This leads him to contact the namesake scientist who discovered it. Meanwhile, Naomi has become involved, through a fleeting relationship with a man named Hervé, with a French philosopher couple, Aristide and Celestine Arosteguy, and it is in this tangled relationship where things begin to become disturbingly fascinating: Aristide disappears, after seemingly have "consumed" parts of the now-dead Celestine along the way. Yet what could have led to this? There are some clues in the dialogues the couple had with Naomi about philosophy, sexual mores, and transgressions. Later, as Nathan's own inquiries lead to a convergence with Naomi's own queries into the Aristide-Celestine relationship, there is a further muddying of the narrative waters, as their investigations delve into matters such as madness and consumerism, as though the world of objects were melding into the world of ideals and insanity.
Consumed is at its strongest when Cronenberg devotes time to exploring connections between sexual depravity and consumerist behavior. He peppers his narrative with technical discussions of certain objects, especially cameras, and their functions, before juxtapositioning them with almost clinical details of certain sexual acts. In addition, he mixes the near-nihilistic philosophy of the Arosteguys with their fetishes (the question of Celestine's volition in her death looms large here) to create a truly unsettling set of circumstances for the reader to consider.
Yet there are several structural weaknesses that dampen the effect. In creating characters "consumed" by their desires for answers and for desires' satiation, at times the narrative is too focused on them; the peripheral, in which certain key events occur, is left too unfocused for the reader to follow what is transpiring until very late in the novel. It does not help that certain key events and players are introduced with only a relatively few pages remaining in the novel; there is little time to develop depth and breadth of character or scene import here.
Ultimately, Consumed is a novel more about effect than cause. Cronenberg's characters and their actions and desires exist more to create a reaction in the reader than to explore the causes of these events. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it certainly reads as a flawed, occasionally perplexing first novelistic effort that contains enough unsettling moments to justify reading it. Yet there is this sense that it could make for a more disturbing, powerful cinema, or rather that the cinema medium might be an even more fit storytelling medium for this haunting tale.