Auteur to author: David Cronenberg. Photo: Graeme Robertson/Eyevine
Show Hide image

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

Photo: NRK
Show Hide image

Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496