Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Father, son, and holy terror: Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro

Nick Cave, with friend

It begins with a sudden, shuddering, wholly irrational yet undeniable awareness of encroaching doom, Nick Cave’s chronicle of a death foretold letting us in on its ending from the title on down, so we can better appreciate the particular strange, sordid path it takes to get there. The Death of Bunny Munro is Cave’s second novel, his first in the 20 years that have passed since the publication of his debut And the Ass Saw the Angel. This one could be titled And the Asshole Saw the Angel of Death. Bunny’s uncharacteristic vision of oblivion—he’s normally the optimistic type—arrives not in the midst of some serene moment of contemplation but rather in a rented room at the Grenville Hotel, where he lingers in his underwear, drunk, with a prostitute standing by as he tries to placate his wife over the phone, who’s upset because among other things a madman’s running loose somewhere in England, wearing devil’s horns, and savagely attacking women. As his wife airs her fears, Bunny can see CCTV footage of the maniac on the telly. He’s not sure what to make of the guy, but as his story unfolds, we’ll come to see the horned killer as the flamboyant manifestation of Bunny’s Id, his even darker double, deprived of the most basic social skills that even Bunny can boast of, running rampant. The men represent two different kinds of ladykiller. “Some part of Bunny takes all this personally, but he is not sure why.”

Bunny is a salesman of high-end beauty products. His favourite radio program is Woman’s Hour, which he regularly, stupidly quotes when addressing his uniformly female clientele. Virtually everything in Bunny’s life is calibrated to yield more sex. His way with the ladies is perhaps hard for some of us to understand, “but there’s a pull, even in his booze-blasted face, a magnetic drag that has something to do with the pockets of compassion that form at the corners of his eyes when he smiles, a mischievous arch to his eyebrows and the little hymen-popping dimples in his cheeks when he laughs.” In short he is a devoted sexual predator, probably a genuine sex addict—rather unusually for a middle-aged man, he seems to have a hard-on all the time—and he uses whatever tools lay at his disposal to satisfy his need, which creepily enough is not so much for women per se as for their reproductive organs. Some of his buddies describe themselves as tit-men or leg-men, but Bunny is a dyed-in-the-wool vagina man. He fantasizes about vaginas, or even just clitorises, free-floating in space or collected in a little matchbox. He’s especially interested in celebrity vaginas, and has a special thing for Kylie Minogue and Avril Lavigne (who both receive special apologies in the postscript). In waves of inspired perversion and grotesquerie, Cave has accessed the murkiest, most reptilian depths of the male psyche to create this idiot monster. Not as monstrous as, say, the eponymous protagonist of ‘Stagger Lee,’ one of the most irresistibly sick songs in the mighty canon of Cave’s recording career with the Bad Seeds, but you can see how the two might get on together.

Cave, working at his day job

The novel follows Bunny from the discovery of his desperately unhappy and neglected wife’s suicide through his resolution to get right back to work selling and screwing, taking his young, helplessly dad-adoring son, little Bunny Junior, out of school and along for the road trip. What makes The Death of Bunny Munro palatable, even transcendent in its way, is firstly the brilliant, frequently hilarious wit, on par with the best early novels of Martin Amis, who’s crafted a few truly despicable protagonists of his own in his time; secondly its willingness to really sink into an explore Bunny’s sad little soul and seek out the parts of it that eerily reflect something in virtually all men; thirdly, the presence of Bunny Junior, genuinely innocent and wracked with a mixture of wonderment and grief; and fourthly, Cave’s already legendary facility with language. He’s often said that prose, as well as screenplays—he scripted John Hillcoat’s superb 2005 outback western The Proposition—are actually far easier for him to write than song lyrics, which demand a compaction that challenges Cave’s natural inclination toward storytelling, baroque description, and elaboration. His songs are littered with a dizzying array of characters immersed in private worlds of violence, madness and heartache. All three of these feature prominently in his new novel, even the latter, since, while he can hardly make any sense of it, Bunny does seem to miss his dead wife, is literally haunted by her. To say the very least, it’s tough to like Bunny, but it’s tougher not to become engrossed in his tale.

The novel was prompted by Hillcoat’s suggestion that Cave write him a new screenplay. The screenplay quickly became something else, but its origins are detectable in its engaging use of present-tense, and its forward motion. (Oddly enough, there are some fundamental similarities between this story and that of Hillcoat's new film The Road.) It’s also consumed with visuals, Bunny’s attention to minute physical details, even nail polish; Bunny Junior’s attention to all the strange things he encounters on his journey that need interpreting, usually with the aid of his trusty child’s encyclopedia; and Cave’s attention to the spoils of popular culture cluttering contemporary England. It all winds up to a bizarre, entertainingly hallucinatory finish, which also bears a certain cinematic flourish, though it reminded me most readily of the flipped-out ending of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic television series Berlin Alexanderplatz, which Cave is a confessed fan of. (There's even an appearance from a moustahced musician character that could be a Cave stand-in, aligning things even further to Fassbinder's hilarious cameo in the last episode of Alexanderplatz.) Cave has also said he’d like to see The Death of Bunny Munro made into a television series, something that would allow for more expansive character development. But in the meantime the novel has already spread beyond the confines of the page and can also be found as an audiobook, read by Cave, with music by Cave and Bad Seed/Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis, and an iPhone application, in which you’re supposed to be able to actually see Cave read you the book. “Which all sounds like fucking nightmare to me,” Cave quipped at a recent bookstore appearance I managed to catch in Toronto. But that’s hardly a dissuasive sales tactic. Cave’s been serving up his nightmares for public consumption for 30 years now, and there’s a great many of us who still can’t get enough of them.

No comments: