Auteur to author: David Cronenberg. Photo: Graeme Robertson/Eyevine
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David Cronenberg’s first novel is so good, he should ditch his day job

Consumed doesn’t read as a novel by a man who has spent most of his life writing screenplays – except, perhaps, that it reacts in the opposite direction, towards an art-house pacing.

David Cronenberg
Fourth Estate, 288pp, £18.99

On the evidence of this superb debut novel and his last two films (the overegged Cosmopolis and the curate’s egg that is Maps to the Stars), David Cronenberg should quit his day job. Why persist in the unrewarding business of trying to make semi-interesting movies when you could switch to writing more-than-interesting books?

Cosmopolis was a star vehicle whose vehicle was the real star. I saw it in 2012 when it came out and all that remains in my memory is Robert Pattinson, looking suitably shamefaced at his unlikely gorgeousness, seated in the back of a super-charismatic limousine, while – rather like in Elvis Costello’s “I Wanna Be Loved” video – various characters get in, do things to, for and with him, then leave. The gloss of it passed before my eyes and slicked out of my brain.

Maps to the Stars frantically aspires to be half a dozen other films. In descending order of yearning: Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard, Magnolia, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Player and Ivans Xtc. Despite pedal-to-the-floor performances from Olivia Williams and Julianne Moore, it is comprised almost entirely of not-quite moments. I’m pretty sure that all I’ll remember of it in two years’ time will be the yucky bit in which a major character is bludgeoned to death with a statuette that is quite clearly not meant to be an Oscar, OK? Because it’s ironic!

Consumed, however, is a subtler and more interesting work. It doesn’t read as a novel by a man who has spent most of his life writing screenplays – except, perhaps, that it reacts in the opposite direction, towards an art-house pacing that in Hollywood is shorthanded as “European”. The scenes here are not snappy or snatched; instead they unspool with a fully novelistic languor. They don’t end on a “button” – a neat, witty, bringing-it-all-together line. The overall action feels as if it were condensed from life rather than expanded from a treatment. There is more than enough body horror in Consumed to satisfy fans of Cronenberg’s The Fly or Videodrome but at its core is a nuanced and moving examination of what it means to age, to become ill and to die in a rampantly technologised age.

I’ve never written a book review in which I’ve quite so much wanted to include an animated graphic, but you’ll just have to imagine this: A and B are two points at diametrically opposite edges of the circumference of a circle. As A starts to move clockwise towards B, so B – at the same speed – starts to move towards A.

A and B are, in Consumed, Naomi and Nathan, two very contemporary journalists – or, as Cronenberg has it, “parajournalists”. That is, journalists who become so embedded with their sources that they start to collaborate with them, in an act of mutual fictionalisation. Naomi’s quest, at least to begin with, is to investigate the apparent cannibalistic murder of the radical French philosopher Célestine Arosteguy by her long-time husband, Aristide. Nathan’s investigation is of an eccentric, amoral surgeon (reminiscent of William Burroughs’s Dr Benway) who performs illegal and perverse operations. After contracting a rare STD from one of the surgeon’s patients (parajournalists could also be defined as “journalists who always shag their sources”), Nathan decides to investigate the doctor who named this STD. As they circle the globe in pursuit of their stories, remaining mostly equidistant, A and B find very soon that they are chasing one another’s tails. Everything and everyone is interconnected. In this, Cronenberg’s global village is strangely like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex – if there’s a tramp in a ditch, it’s the same tramp every time.

Once you’ve been given the elements of author, title, cannibalism and consumerism, you could sketch in about 50 per cent of this novel yourself. Brand names on every page. Strange characters going around saying, “Diagnose me.” Oral fixation metaphors. The expected literary influences are also in evidence: authors whose work (Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, J G Ballard’s Crash, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis) Cronenberg has adapted.

What you couldn’t anticipate, though, is just how exquisitely Cronenberg writes. There isn’t a duff, hurried sentence here. Nor could you second-guess the tender complexity of the book’s innermost relationship – that between the husband and the beloved wife he is supposed to have consumed. Aristide watches over Célestine, who is convinced that her left breast is infested with insects:

What husband has not avidly played the role of voyeur in his own house, watching the reflections of his wife in a window as she examines her vagina or anus with his chromed shaving mirror, one leg propped up on the white metal bathroom chair, searching for some real or feared lesion . . . or telltale discolouration? I would often catch Célestine examining her left breast in the most unconventional way: for sound, rather than sight. She would pull it up towards her left ear, her head cocked, manipulating it ruthlessly, as though it truly did not belong to her but was a ludicrously wrongheaded transplant . . . prodding it in order to provoke the insects into an aural frenzy loud enough to be recordable by the iPhone that sat propped up against a Kleenex box . . .

Consumed may not be to everyone’s taste but, for connoisseurs of Burroughs, Ballard and DeLillo, it’s a delightful and unexpected smorgasbord. 

Toby Litt’s collection of stories “Life-Like” is published in November (Seagull, £19.50)

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue