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

Kyle Seeley
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For emotional value, Emily is Away – a nostalgic instant messaging game – is this year’s best release

If you want to express your lingering teenage angst, there’s no better option.

Every now and then, a game is released that goes beyond what it may look or sound like. It goes straight to the pit of your insides where you thought you had no soul left, and jolts you back to life. Or at least it attempts to. This year, it's Emily is Away.

Firstly, anyone and everyone can virtually play this thing as it’s a crude Windows XP simulator displaying an AIM/MSN messenger client and can run on the PC equivalent of a potato. And it's free. It’s a short game, taking about 30 minutes, in which you play a person chatting away to your friend called Emily (who could be more), choosing from a set list of pre-selected instant messages.

Each chapter takes place in a different year, starting in 2002 and ending in 2006.

You’re instantly smacked with nostalgia thanks to the user screen of Windows XP and a fuzzed out background of Bliss, which was the default wallpaper in the operating system, and probably the most widely seen photo in the world. And your ears aren’t abandoned either, with the upbeat pinging sounds reminiscent of how you used to natter away with your personal favourite into the early hours.

The first chapter starts with you and Emily reaching the end of your last year in high school, talking about plans for the evening, but also the future, such as what you’ll be studying at university. From this early point, the seeds of the future are already being sewn.

For example, Emily mentions how Brad is annoying her in another window on her computer, but you’re both too occupied about agreeing to go to a party that night. The following year, you learn that Brad is now in fact her boyfriend, because he decided to share how he felt about Emily while you were too shy and keeping your feelings hidden.

What’s so excellent about the game is that it can be whatever you wish. Retro games used the lack of visual detail to their advantage, allowing the players to fill in the blanks. The yearly gaps in this game do exactly the same job, making you long to go back in time, even if you haven't yet reached the age of 20 in the game.

Or it lets you forget about it entirely and move on, not knowing exactly what had happened with you and Emily as your brain starts to create the familiar fog of a faded memory.

Despite having the choice to respond to Emily’s IMs in three different ways each time, your digital self tries to sweeten the messages with emoticons, but they’re always automatically deleted, the same way bad spelling is corrected in the game too. We all know that to truly to take the risk and try and move a friendship to another level, emoticons are the digital equivalent to cheesy real-life gestures, and essential to trying to win someone’s heart.

Before you know it, your emotions are heavily invested in the game and you’re always left wondering what Emily wanted to say when the game shows that she’s deleting as well as typing in the messenger. You end up not even caring that she likes Coldplay and Muse – passions reflected in her profile picture and use of their lyrics. She also likes Snow Patrol. How much can you tolerate Chasing Cars, really?

The user reviews on Steam are very positive, despite many complaining you end up being “friend-zoned” by Emily, and one review simply calling it “Rejection Simulator 2015”.

I tried so hard from all of the options to create the perfect Em & Em. But whatever you decide, Emily will always give you the #feels, and you’ll constantly end up thinking about what else you could have done.