Monday, April 13, 2015

Photography has no language

I was chatting with some colleagues about god knows what, when one fellow said, it's like those people who shop around for a doctor to amputate a perfectly good body part — people do that, you know; it's a condition. And I said, someone should write a novel about that, that would make for some great doctor and patient characters; maybe I should write that novel. And I proceeded to look it up and find that it's called "body integrity identity disorder." Several months later I would discover that David Cronenberg had in fact written that novel; it's called Consumed.

I should've recognized the Cronenbergian appeal of this theme straight away, and he does touch on the issue in Crash and in the short film The Nest, both of which I'd seen. While Consumed is not consumed by this theme, it does flesh it out.

Just how many senses of the word does the title capture?

transitive verb
1 : to do away with completely : destroy
2 a : to spend wastefully : squander ; b : use up
3 a : to eat or drink especially in great quantity ; b : to enjoy avidly : devour
4 : to engage fully : engross
5 : to utilize as a customer

intransitive verb
1 : to waste or burn away : perish
2 : to utilize economic goods

It starts off as an investigation into a murder. Photojournalist Naomi flies off to Paris to delve into the lives of the Arosteguys, famed philosopher couple. But Aristide appears to have fled the country, while Celestine's remains are scattered around their apartment. It appears that parts of her had been prepared, cooked, and eaten.

Naomi's partner Nathan meanwhile is in Eastern Europe photographing the work of a shady doctor who performs operations for the truly desperate. Nathan's dream is to be published in The New Yorker's Annals of Medicine section.

There's a lot of technogeekery in this novel, mostly cameras and lenses, but also hearing aids, 3D printers, and some run-of-the-mill gadgetry.

There's also a peculiarly warped penis. And the sense that everybody is sleeping with everybody else, although they don't; but I guess, you know, the French and the medically perverse, they cast that aura.

Nathan contracts a rare STD and heads to Toronto to talk to the elusive has-been of a doctor after whom the disease was named. Naomi meanwhile follows Aristide's trail to Japan.
"I only smoke Japanese now. I want to become Japanese. I'll never speak French again. Never. They say that Tolstoy learned classical Greek very quickly once he put his mind to it. I'm learning Japanese very quickly. Until then, I speak English or German. For philosophy, at least, you have to speak German. Perhaps I will make Japanese essential for contemporary Western philosophy. If I live long enough."

Naomi was groping. "Photography has no language. Is that why you're so interested in it?"
Cronenberg's expression of journalism puzzles me. Here are these photojournalists following these really complex stories — stories that, in my view, demand more (much more) than pictures to tell them — but for them, the words are an afterthought, easily dashed off, filled in later. It's the picture that makes the story. I can't tell if Cronenberg is saying this is how it is, or how it ought to be. Of all the perversities in this novel, this is the one I can't get past, the one that feels wrong. I guess it's natural for a filmmaker to fetishize the view through the lens; but why then is he writing a novel?

Believe it or not, Naomi's and Nathan's stories do intersect, quite satisfactorily. These characters' narratives are wholly intertwined, even though they barely share any screen time.

Oh, and there's also a North Korean conspiracy, that's involved even in the politicking at Cannes.

I hope Cronenberg writes another book.

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