At some point in the late 70s or early 80s, David Cronenberg entered my house (read: my brain) through a late-night, and probably surreptitious, cable screening of Scanners. Like the set-top black box with its two-inch dial that switched the input between SHOWTIME and TV, that movie flipped a switch in my head, with its story of psychics and conspiracies and literally exploding heads. I was, after all, a young man of a certain age (who might have read a lot of horror), and I was hooked into his visions of Mugwumps, Brundleflies, and doppelgänger lady-doctors.
So, though it's been a while since I've checked in with his universe, I was intrigued when I saw an advance copy of his first novel, Consumed. On the top, it's about Naomi and Nathan, a pair of journalists and off-and-on-again lovers, in pursuit of parallel stories: for Naomi, the brutal murder of an iconic French philosopher and her fugitive husband; and for Nathan, the latest research project of Dr. Roiphe, who claimed fame through his discovery of an eponymous STD. At the bottom, they stumble into a strange and unnerving world of body modification, conspiracy, and... 3-D printing. Like many of his characters (again: literally), the story morphs and grows in unexpected directions. It's hard to explain, and it would probably only confuse the issue if I tried. I probably don't have to explain that it's not for everybody. But it's Cronenberg stuff: challenging, ambitious, and incisive in his inimitable way.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with him on the telephone, and I learned some things: Don't call what he does "body horror"; if you think you know what he's thinking, you're wrong; relax, because he's thoughtful and fascinating. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Consumed is available in hardcover and Kindle on September 30.
I read the book over the last two days—I really enjoyed it—and I spent yesterday trying to find a succinct way to describe it. It has a lot of the themes of your earlier work: disease and doppelgangers; bugs; self-mutilation and manipulated reality; mysterious powers. It’s called Consumed, and there areseveral kinds of consumption happening in the book. There’s a lot of stuff. How would you describe this book that you’ve written?
I absolutely wouldn’t describe it [laughs]. You’ve done a very good job. Honestly, working on it from the inside out, you don’t start—or at least I don’t start—with a concept, at all. It just grew organically from the characters; it has thriller elements and so on, but I don’t think it really qualifies as a thriller. It has even some slight sci-fi elements, but I wouldn’t at all call it sci-fi. Though, obviously, you can see connections with my movies, but it didn’t feel like to me. It felt completely different. So I’m really at a loss to describe it myself, other than to present the book itself. I think I’m really too much inside it to have that persepective.
It includes, in a big way, a lot of that “body horror” of your earlier work. Sex and disease, and now cannibalism. Did you intend you return to that, or is it something that just happened?
“Body horror” is an expression that somebody came up with, and I’ve never used it, myself. And I actually don’t even think it’s accurate, because it’s not really a question of horror; it’s a question of almost wonder. It’s always been my feeling--first subliminally, and then explicitly--that the first fact of human existence is the human body, and that that is what we are. So much of art, and particularly religion, tries to steer away from that reality, or that understanding, and suggests that we must transcend the body--that we can live outside the body after the body dies, even. The afterlife and so on. I’ve never believed any of that.
If you’re going to be examining the human condition--what it is to be a human being, which is maybe the most broad definition of art that you can have--you immediately have to deal with the reality of the human body, in some way or another. And of course, if you’re a painter or a filmmaker, someone in the visual arts, the thing that you are dealing with the most is the human body. As a filmmaker, that’s what we photograph the most: the human body. That’s the essence of what we do. So, to say “body horror,” to me, is completely diminishing and a simplistic version of what my concerns are.
Some people--[for] my interest in insects, because they find insects kind of creepy or scary or whatever--call it “insect horror.” [laughs]. But to anybody who loves insects, who is fascinated by them and thinks they’re wonderful, horror is completely the wrong word. So that’s how I feel about this “body horror thing.” I think it’s a misnomer. ... Everybody’s obsessed with their bodies in one way or another, whether it’s in the context of sexuality, or it’s in the context of growing up, or it’s in the context of aging, as I have been doing myself. That’s why I think that it’s a shorthand that is too short. It’s misleading, actually.
You intertwine the physical elements of the story with a lot of commentary on consumerism, that very obviously ties into the title. You write at one point, “Consumerism and the internet had fused.” What are you trying to say about the effect of that sort of ubiquitous availability of everything, of instant gratification?
I’m saying many things, and it’s hard to summarize. And in a way, I’m really being an observer, rather than a critic or commentator, through my characters. I have a couple, a French philosophy couple who are modeled somewhat on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and their philosophy is an attempt to redeem consumerism. It’s very easy to demonize consumerism, they feel, and to say it’s a bad thing. But they are saying, No, it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a very human thing, and a good thing. And that it inspires passion and obsession and focus on creativity, and human creativity, and the creativity involved in creating consumer items, and so on. Now, in some way I’m satirizing them. But in another way I’m saying, But you know, they could have a point. In other words, this isn’t a book with messages for the world. It’s really a question of observing and meditating on things and trying to find the reality and the truth that are actually quite complex, and cannot be boiled down.
That’s similar to your films in that you don’t just stop at one or two ideas. Often they just keep going; where you think you’re going to find some kind of resolution or meaning, they actually keep exploring deeper into the void.
Well, it’s because I feel that there are no absolutes. It’s very difficult to find to find something that’s an absolute. In fact, there probably is no such thing. Even the question of What is reality? And certainly that is dealt with in the novel, as well. Especially as it’s communicated by the Internet: The reality as mediated by the Internet is a very iffy thing. But I say, to the extent that reality is neurology, the Internet makes perfect sense. You know, you’re sitting in a room, you have your pet dog at your feet. You’re both occupying the same space in the room, basically. But there are two completely separate realities there: the dog’s reality and your reality. If you were suddenly in the dog’s head, and had the dog’s sense of smell, and hearing and particular kind of vision, suddenly reality would be a completely different thing for you. And of course, people use drugs and alcohol and so on in order to derange their neurology so that they occupy a different reality. Reality is actually not an absolute; it’s a variable for each sentient being. And the Internet makes that a really, really kind of obvious, forceful thing because, as we know, reality as presented by the Internet is incredibly variable and deceptive. The interesting thing for me about writing a novel is that there was—compared with movie making—a lot more freedom.
Is there something about the novel form that facilitated the story, more than film?
I could not have made—I would not have done this—as a movie. The structure, for example. There’s a 40-page section where Aristide Arosteguy [the Sartre character mentioned above—ed.] gives you a first-person monologue. You can’t do that in a movie. You’d have to find some other cinematic structure for it. And I find screenwriting is a really strange hybrid kind of writing, because the only thing you write in a screenplay that actually—literally—gets up on the screen is the dialogue. It’s a very rigorous, compressed, demanding form, which does not encourage kind of intimacy and great expressiveness and discursiveness. It’s like a haiku as opposed to an epic poem. ... And I found that writing a novel was much closer to directing than it was to writing a screenplay, because you cast it, you do the costumes, you do lighting, you do the editing, you do the music. None of those things you actually do in a screenplay, because you have a whole crew that’s going to do that stuff for you. So, for example, nobody likes you to describe in really great detail what somebody’s wearing, or what their face looks like, because you’re going to cast somebody who doesn’t look like that. And you’re going to have a costume designer who doesn’t want to do what you suggested in the screenplay. So you leave that stuff out. It’s a very strange hybrid kind of writing, screenwriting, and I felt very freed to move around within the world of the novel. And when I finished it, I thought, Yeah, of course the next step is to make a movie out of this book. And then I thought, But you know it wouldn’t be easy. In fact, you’d kind of have to completely change your approach to it because it isn’t really all that amenable to the screen form. And then, I finally thought, I actually don’t want to make a movie out of this book, because I’ve done it already. I would be bored, you know? It’s like trying to put it into a tiny container that just can’t absorb the entire… all the fluids.
That would be an intense movie. Speaking of moving around inside the novel, another kind of consumption in the book is consumer electronics. And it occurred to me that they are electronics that consumed their users, and your characters are obsessed with them, at least Nathan and Naomi. You have a lot of detailed descriptions about lenses and ISOs and things like that, so your characters kind of see the world through their lenses and their devices.
Is that, in any way a surrogate for yourself as a filmmaker in creating this book?
I don’t think so, although… No, I really don’t think so. It probably has more to do with my own techno-obsession. I’ve always been a geek. I couldn’t wait to get rid of typewriters and get into word processing; I couldn’t wait to get rid of film and get into digital. ... I’m happy with the way all of those things have developed. But of course, my understanding of technology is that it is, however complex, an extension of our bodies and our brains. Even when it comes to massive war machines. And so it’s natural that the technology comes back and sort of burrows back into us, because it is us.
In the 50s in sci-fi, there was a lot of the perspective that technology is inhuman and dehumanizing. But I always thought that was wrong, because it is only human: We are the only ones who create technology that way. And so it is an expression of every aspect of ourselves, the good parts and the bad parts. Nathan and Naomi are just doing what comes naturally, to allow their nervous systems to fuse with digital technology. Because without thinking about it that way necessarily, they recognize it as themselves. It’s sort of the return of the technological extension: It kind of curves back and fuses with us again. And of course, kids who are younger even than you [full disclosure: I am 46, ahem--ed.], never mind me, it’s even more obvious. I mean, a three-month old playing with an iPad. They can do it.
I don’t have a critic’s perspective in that I’m illustrating this in order to show you how bad it is. I’m just illustrating it. I’m just commenting on it. I’m observing it. And I’m not tipping it one way or the other, but I’m letting my characters tip it one way or the other as it affects their lives. It has all the good and the bad of what it is to be human. And so some of it is really great and good and creative and positive, and some of it is really hideous. [laughs] As we see every day on the Internet.
There are often behind-the-scenes agencies in your work, and this time it’s North Korea, which is a fascinating place right now.
That’s a first for me, really, because it’s an actual entity. Usually I invent those.
What was it about North Korea?
It’s strange. It kind of popped up organically and spontaneously from the section [from the book] of the Cannes Film Festival; suddenly there was a North Korean film there, and it just sort of sprouted from there. But of course, I’m always exploring the ways that human beings create reality, shape reality for themselves. The characters in Crash created a strange subterranean underground reality for themselves. And of course, religions do that. Cults do that. You even see brand cults...
So obviously there’s an innate human desire to create sort of a communal reality. In my movies, I’ve been dealing with it on a small scale, small conspiracies, relatively speaking. But suddenly you have North Korea, which is a whole country where a kind of artificial reality has been created. Of course, all totalitarian countries do that, in one way or another. I knew the story about the kidnapping of the film director by the Korean president. It just all sort of clicked, and suddenly there was this strange North Korean element. But it does connect with all those other communal, reality-creating groups that I’ve dealt with.
While reading this, you sense or you want to sense, influences that you might have had. American Psycho came to mind for its brand obsessions. Poe, because I felt this really strong House of Usher thing with the Roiphes [a father-daughter pair with a strange relationship and one really strange compulsion]. And Gibson, for all of his bio-techno stuff. Are there books or authors that are top of mind for you when you think about your filmmaking and writing?
You know, I think I’m beyond the point where I could be influenced by current writers. I think my literary tastes were formed very early on. So, I go back to Nabokov and to Burroughs. But I read [past tense] a lot of sci fi. ... There are so many influences in one way or another. It’s the question of Is it really an influence, or are we both being influenced by the same things in the zeitgeist, you know what I mean? I can’t really sort out what is an influence or what is just We’re on the same wavelength.
Videodrome, for example. I think it, in fact, has influenced a lot of the people that later might be considered to have influenced me. It’s a tangle, and it’s very organic--it’s like the neurons tangled in your brain. [laughs] I don’t mean to say this in order to suggest that I’m beyond influence, but when it comes to writing a novel, I’m more influenced by prose style and so on. And I wondered what my voice would be; I had no idea. It just came out, and I have no idea what it might remind somebody of. But in terms of the content--as opposed to the way it’s expressed on the page--[it was] formed long ago, I would say.
With your work, I’ve often been compelled to laugh. Often it’s real uneasy laughter, of course. Is humor intentional?
Oh, I hope so. If it’s not, then I’ve really screwed up. [laughs] No, I mean, there’s a famous incident where someone at Cannes asked me Have you ever considered doing a comedy? And I’ve said I don’t think I’ve done anything but comedy. All of my movies are funny, certainly on one level or another. That’s another reason why the whole “body horror” thing has to be very minimalistic. And I would say Consumed is definitely a really funny book. It’s dry humor in some ways, I would say. I think it’s kind of tender and sensitive and quite passionate. ... In any case, there is humor everywhere in the book, on every page. Definitely.