Thursday, September 3, 2009
Hard On for Love: Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro
Is Bunny Munro Nick Cave’s version of Willy Loman with a hard on? In The Death of Bunny Munro the Australian rock ‘n’ roll singer and sophomore author tells the story of a sex-obsessed travelling salesman whose life is apparently spiraling towards its end. Inevitably, comparisons will be made with Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman which premiered precisely sixty years ago in New York City.
Those comparisons are not just a matter of similarly fatalistic titles and the protagonists’ shared occupation. They relate to the unsettling use of memory and self-delusion that both Miller and Cave embroider into their dramatic depictions, taking their seemingly naturalistic works into far more other-worldly and troubling places.
Cave also shares with the great American playwright a moral and political purpose in trying to give an ordinary, even unappealing man his tragic dimension: in Miller’s case this was the salesman as victim of the American Dream, sacrificed to a capitalist machine he can’t stop believing in and lying about; in Cave’s world the morality is ultimately more spiritual, the politics more personal, even if his English anti-hero is so grossly opportunistic and misshapen with desire it pushes the limits of any possibility for empathy.
There’s something else worth noting here. Miller’s work was a play of great outward seriousness and weight, a clear attempt to write a modern classic. Cave’s book is an incendiary piece of semi-pornographic, high-brow trash on the borderlines between disposability and art. The cover photo of a woman’s splayed legs calls to mind a provocative update on the artwork of 1950s pulp novels and tells no lies about the contents inside.
This begs numerous questions. What happens then when a talented rock star produces an excellent novel that is an orgy of male sexual fantasies and exultant misogyny? Will there be more to the public connection than a cross-promotional marketing campaign based on Cave’s celebrity? Is the book, in fact, an important reflection on our sex-obsessed, consumer society, as well as a satiric and tragic grotesque of the male psyche? If so, how will women respond to it? Will it ‘sell’ and to whom?
For some time now there has been a conversation evolving on the feminization of modern publishing – and with it a nascent suggestion the male reader is all but dead. Far more women buy books than men; and when men do read it is mostly non-fiction, while the novel has been left to the determining interests of the female buyer.
The literary machismo of an Ernest Hemingway or a Raymond Carver is less likely to find a mainstream blessing in this chick-lit inferno – let alone a Charles Bukowski (who Cave has attacked as “a jerk” in his recent song ‘We Call Upon the Author’) or a Louis-Ferdinand Celine (whose black humour, vernacular aggression and ecstatic misanthropy in Journey to the End of Night is a very relevant comparison for The Death of Bunny Munro).
As an internationally renowned singer and songwriter Nick Cave has been working this confrontational seam of male identity and ‘sexual politics’ for almost four decades. Not that he has ever tried to dress up his obsessions as political. They’ve been ever-present from early Birthday Party songs like ‘She’s Hit’ and ‘Zoo Music Girl’ (“let me die beneath her fists”) through to a solo career with his backing group the Bad Seeds and a litany of tracks such as ‘Hard On for Love’, ‘Deanna’ (“I am a knocking with my toolbox and my stocking”) and ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, his best-selling duet with Kylie Minogue in which Cave beat Australia’s former sweetheart to death with a rock then drowned her body all the while he proposed his undying romantic love.
Cave has become so established as a cultural icon – the Lord Byron of rock ‘n’ roll – it’s easy to forget the intensity of this dirtier stream in his work, but at age 51 he is exploring it with renewed vengeance. In a rash of recent interviews in the UK he has admitted to obsessing over sex more than ever as a theme.
That was made obvious on Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (2008) his last album with the Bad Seeds, as well as a night-out–with-the-boys, side-band project called Grinderman. The cover art for the self-titled Grinderman (2007) album featured a hunched green baboon masturbating fiercely. Cave happily earnt himself a full house of ‘EXPLICIT’ tags for the songs captured inside. The recording is a cavalcade of mid-life male chauvinist anthems like ‘No Pussy Blues’ and ‘Go Tell the Women (That We’re Leaving)’: “All we wanted was a little consensual rape in the morning and maybe a bit more in the evening.”
The Death of Bunny Munro should carry an EXPLICIT warning too, but the provocative cover art for the Australian edition may similarly protect readers from being too surprised. Ironically, it’s the depth – not the in-your-face shallowness – of the book that is the real jack in the box.
Fans will run to it with open arms whatever, but I’d hardly be the first to have raised an eyebrow in the build-up to it when Cave’s debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989) recently appeared on Penguin’s list of re-issued popular classics. Despite its startling riffs and ladled, hillbilly humour, And the Ass Saw the Angel was swamped beneath the turgid intensity of the mock-Faulkenerian language Cave played with. It was the work of a sprinter (a lyricist) trying to run a marathon (the novel). Thick with alliteration and imagery, a storyteller’s aural presence, it’s still better heard in patches than read in full.
Let’s be frank – for all the hype around Cave’s new novel as the most sought after work at last year’s London Book Fair, the same critical expectations were in place second time around: that The Death of Bunny Munro would feature vivid but un-sustained writing; that it would be a songwriter’s novel which never went the distance.
Instead Cave has produced a pulp masterpiece – a comment that may well damn him with faint and back-handed praise. That’s not my intention. The Death of Bunny Munro is a coherent and tightly structured page-turner, full of highly controlled writing and extravagantly rich character sketches, an often surprising as well as funny and spooky novel that is equal parts Flannery O’Connor grotesque and Stephen King horror story. By the time I had finished my only reservation was to ask why I could not bring myself to say the book was flat-out great. In the end I suspect it was because I was impressed and amused more than I was moved, though there is no doubting the emotion is there.
When Cave’s novel opens the stage is immediately set: “‘I am damned,’ thinks Bunny Munro in a sudden moment of self awareness reserved for those who are about to die.”
Holed up in a Brighton hotel room with a black prostitute whose fingernails have “the detailed representation of a tropical sunset” painted on them (as an author Cave feasts on these little details), Munro is taking a mobile phone call from his depressive and unstable wife Libby. As he tries to calm her he lays on the hotel bed sucking back tiny bottles of vodka from the bar fridge, focusing “on a water stain on the ceiling shaped like a small bell or a woman’s breast.”
It soon emerges he is in the same town as Libby, but pretending to be out on the road and unable to make it home. An undercurrent of hysteria in his wife’s conversation is, by turns, comic and cosmically unsettling – “something has changed in his wife’s voice, the soft cellos have gone and a high rasping violin has been added, played by an escaped ape or something”. Bunny secretly shares the disturbed visions she fixates on: observing CCTV footage of a serial killer with a red-painted face and plastic horns being played on the same local television news; then glancing out the window to witness a fire in Brighton, “a dark cloud of starlings twittering madly over the flaming, smoking hulk of the West Pier”.
‘The starling have gone mad. It’s such a horrible thing. Their little babies burnin their nests. I can’t bear it, Bun,’ says Libby.
By the end of the chapter his wife has hung up and Bunny is getting a blowjob from the prostitute. He realizes that a bath must be overflowing in the room upstairs as the stain on the ceiling above him keeps expanding, till he “feels the soft explosion of water on his chest, like a sob.” This seems both a brilliant image and a self-consciously writerly moment on Cave’s part, typical of his lyrical talent and tendency to excess, but we soon begin to understand it relates as much to an hallucinogenic current beginning to rush through Bunny Munro’s world view.
Like some on-the-make monster out of a nightmare version of Eastenders we soon get to see the wild highs of that first – and witness Bunny in all his over-sexed glory.
Bunny manoeuvres the Punto through the weekend traffic and emerges on the seafront, and with a near swoon Bunny sees it – the delirious burlesque of summertime unfolding before him.
Groups of scissor-legged school-things with their pierced midriffs, logoed jogging girls, happy, rumpy dog-walkers, couples actually copulating on the summer lawns, beached pussy prostrate beneath erotically shaped cumulus, loads of fucking girls who were up for it…
The description goes on for a few unbelievably escalating pages before Kylie Minogue’s ‘Spinning Around’ comes on the car radio to soundtrack the sexual panoply…
Then he sees a group of pudgy mall-trawlers with their smirking midriffs and frosted lipstick, a potentially hot Arab chick (oh man, labia from Arabia), and then a billboard advertising fucking Wonderbras or something and he says, ‘Yes!’, and takes a viscous, horn-blaring swerve, re-routing down Fourth Avenue, already screwing the top off a sample of hand cream. He parks and beats off, a big happy smile on his face, and dispenses a gout of goo into a cum-encrusted sock he keeps under the car seat.
On one level it might be possible to view the entire novel as one long, poisonously troubling wet dream. By the time Bunny gets home his wife is dead and he is left to care for his nine year old son, Bunny Junior. Things really begin to tilt from here on in as Bunny takes his son out on the road, leaving him in the car while he tries to flog beauty products and engages in a series of ‘grief fucks’ and ever more desperate fantasies that increasingly suggest he is losing control of himself and his grip on the world – if this unreliable narrator ever really had a grip at all.
It’s here some of Cave’s best writing emerges as we begin to see the adult Bunny Munro from his son’s perspective, as well as detect a vulnerability in the son’s situation that’s truly nerve wracking and borderline abusive. Cave himself is the father to two teenage sons from previous relationships – he also has twin sons to his current wife, the former Vivienne Westwood model Susie Bick, who are almost the same age as the son in The Death of Bunny Munro. The flickers of sacrifice and hope in the late stages of the novel surprisingly echo Cormac McCarthy’s concluding tone in The Road (Cave was employed to write a soundtrack for the film) and the same latent sense that this is a book written as a bleak, if hopeful letter from a father to his sons.
Cave has Bunny Munro mouth the repeated the statement “I think we are having our childhoods stolen from us” and in a penultimate encounter with his own father – Bunny Senior – we get a glimpse into what may have been the violence that forged his cocksure consciousness. These scenes play like a malevolent Steptoe and Son: a part of the farcical edge Cave indulges in which sometimes undercuts deeper connections even as it adds an unsettling, almost psychotic energy. As the old man shouts Bunny down he states what may well be the theme of the entire book:
‘You are beyond recall. You are a lost cause. But we might be able to save the kid’…
Cave structures the novel in three sections: ‘Cocksman’, ‘Salesman’, ‘Deadman’. It’s hard not to miss the trinity formation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit behind that as both father and son are haunted by the ghost of their wife and mother as they pursue a trail of events that hurtle towards a death of some kind. Hovering in the background on news bulletins is the footage of that devilish, red-horned serial killer making his way, incident by incident, closer to Brighton and Bunny himself.
By the end you begin to perceive that Bunny Munro is actually being set-up as something of a modern-day Jesus, or at least a man marching along the path to his own twisted Calvary. It’s something of a shock to realize then that this piece of pulp fiction is not just about sex or playing for misanthropic laughs or reveling in shock value. That’s it’s really about fatherhood and love and a quest for male redemption in a desire-wracked world. That the true intent of the novel is actually another repeated line in the book, this one from the poet W.H. Auden: ‘We must love one another or die.’ As Arthur Miller once said, “attention must be paid.”
- Mark Mordue
* This article was first published in The Australian Literary Review,
Vol. 4, Issue 7, August, 2009 under the title ‘A rake’s progress’.
- Portrait of Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue by Gerald Jenkins www.geraldjenkins.com