Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro

A Rock Star’s Midlife Crisis or Valid Literature?

by Cole Waterman

9 February 2012


There is No Interventionist God

Though his work is informed by Biblical archetypes, Cave has maintained he does not believe in an “interventionist God”, a declaration made in the opening line of his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call and reiterated in many interviews. However, Cave is quick to point out he is not an atheist; rather, he takes a more Deistic approach to the nature of God, clarifying he does not believe in a deity that “makes people’s lives better” by changing “the march of events.”  For, as Cave argues, to believe a God would intervene in his subjects’ lives to enact positive results also implies the opposite—that He would cause negative effects as well. In short, if the observable good in the world is caused directly by God, the bad must be as well (or, at the very least, the bad is not prevented by the all-powerful deity, still making Him responsible). Rather than perceiving God with such fickle and decidedly flawed human characteristics, Cave views the human-Divine interaction as one realized via human imagination, claiming “it is through the process of the creative imagination taken flight that God both speaks to us and through us,” as Anna Kessler phrases it. Thus, the Divine is not external, but internal, in the creative and artistic impulses most humans have, a notion Cave may have inherited from Leo Tolstoy. It is by giving these impulses voice that we commune with God, Cave argues. With this knowledge in mind, it becomes clear how the characters and dilemmas in And the Ass Saw the Angel and Cave’s songs are but stand-ins meant to address the fallacies of interventionist God principles and elucidate Cave’s personal theology.

With the publication of his first novel serving as both a tribute to and a laying to rest of Cave’s fixation with the Southern Gothic and Old Testament brutality, a new phase of the artist’s career began in earnest, one which again followed the Bible’s lead as a guiding force. In his lyrics, where once had been judgment, there was now compassion; where there had been demons, there were now angels; in place of bitter disavowal, there existed a hopeful longing; instead of doubt, a trace of faith reigned. As his Bad Seeds sideman Mick Harvey has said, “Nick’s writing can be broken into two parts. In the ‘80s you could say he was obsessed with the Old Testament. In the ‘90s, he’s obsessed with the New Testament. There’s the old fire and brimstone Nick, and the newly humanitarian Nick.”  This is not to mean Cave suddenly gave up these influences and, to use the parlance of our time, “went soft”. Rather, the Gothic, violent, and ugly elements inherent to Cave’s work continue to inform his art, though their degree has lessened as Cave’s output has become more expansive, his writing growing at once more personal and universal. Suffice to say, his work still retains the mark of these forces, though it is no longer dominated by them.

Successfully kicking his long-term heroin habit and trading the Book of Leviticus for the Gospel of Mark, and with the confidence of being a published novelist whose first book was mostly lauded by critics, Cave proceeded into the most prolific and creative phase of his career. He kept at the rigorous one-album-per-year work schedule, continuing to sharpen his talent and broaden his musical palate and lyrical concerns. While he retained his penchant for storytelling, the frenzied din of his earlier album’s music increasingly fell by the wayside as he began veering toward stripped down, piano-based love songs (his musical development going in the opposite direction of his peer Tom Waits, oddly enough).

Such a dramatic shift culminated with the aforementioned The Boatman’s Call, a confessional album detailing Cave’s emotions in the wake of his break-ups with Gothic blues songstress PJ Harvey and Viviane Carneiro, the mother of one of Cave’s sons. Religious yearning and frequent allusions to Christ saturate the lyrics, which also bear a debt to literature not seen on previous Cave efforts. The album garnered Cave’s greatest critical acclaim to date and comparisons to Dylan’s own great break-up album, Blood on the Tracks. In the following years, Cave and his Bad Seeds delivered arguably their strongest, and most literate, stretch of albums—2001’s No More Shall We Part, 2004’s double-album punch Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, and 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, the most recent featuring Cave’s homage to no less a literary giant than Homer in the eight-minute epic “More News From Nowhere,” a veiled reinterpretation of The Odyssey.

Amidst such a dedicated work schedule, Cave’s literary inclinations began turning once again. Between recording albums and touring, he embarked on possibly his most ambitious creative undertaking—the writing of his second novel.

Work on what would become The Death of Bunny Munro began while Cave and the Bad Seeds toured Europe and America in support of the group’s 2008 album. “I wrote this book by hand, in a notebook… on the tour bus, backstage, at parties, airports, on the plane,” Cave recalled in an interview with The New Yorker. According to its author, the book’s first draft was completed in six weeks.

Interestingly, the idea for the book did not stem from Cave, but came from the mind of Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat, a longtime friend and collaborator of Cave’s. Cave acted in and wrote the score for Hillcoat’s 1989 film Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, penned the original screenplay for the director’s 2005 Western The Proposition, and composed the score for Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). According to Cave, Hillcoat asked him to write a film script based on a traveling salesman. In doing research for the project, interviewing salesman and such, Cave noted a dark aura of alcohol, drugs and womanizing loomed over the profession, and with his imagination overcome with possibilities, he felt the subject matter more suited for a novel than a screenplay.

The resulting novel opens with the ridiculously named titular character in a motel room with a prostitute, their torrid liaison playing out as Bunny watches a television newscast of a costumed devil going on a murder spree across the country, killing his victims with a trident no less. The degree of Bunny’s immorality is captured in the fact that he receives oral sex from the prostitute while on the phone with his sobbing wife who pleads for him to come home to ease her out of a particularly vicious depressive episode. Returning to his home after this one-night stand, Bunny finds his mentally unhinged spouse has had enough of his philandering ways and has hung herself, their son present during the suicide. From this point, the narrative surges forward as the hopelessly self-absorbed Bunny takes his cataract-afflicted son on a final sales round throughout England.

As a whole, the work bears little in common with Cave’s previous novel. Written in a far more accessible style, in a linear format, and from an objective third person perspective, it is a far cry from the experimentation of And the Ass Saw the Angel. Aside from trading mid 20th Century American Deep South for 21st Century English suburbia, the defining difference between the two text’s styles is Cave’s favoring subtly in his second novel over the in-your-face obviousness of his first. With The Death of Bunny Munro, the religious allusions are far from overt representations, the great philosophical questions are subtle to the degree that one could argue it is erroneous to perceive them at all, and the characters are depicted as developed people, rather than archetypical stand-ins for loftier concepts. Whereas Cave’s first novel saw him working through the patterns set by his influences, The Death of Bunny Munro sees him exploring much more personal matters in a contemporary setting familiar to him. So much is different between the pair—surely in part resulting from the 20-year gap between the two works—that if one were to objectively read them back-to-back, one would not likely surmise they were works by the same author. What the two novels do share, however, are Cave’s Gothic-grotesque inclinations, expertly explored character motivations, and poetic language.

The poeticism and wordplay inherent to all of Cave’s work is not shaken in this novel, almost in spite of Cave’s efforts to streamline or “mainstream” his prose. Nouns are often used as verbs—characters’ actions are described as Tarzaning, tromboning, and clamshelling—and extended descriptions are given to otherwise mundane scenes or actions, allowing the words on the page to evoke all five senses. At times, Cave seems aware of his prose becoming more grandiose, as evidenced by his attempts at wrangling in such endeavors. For example, there are frequent moments of self-reference in the otherwise third person text and often a particularly flowery passage will literally end with a noncommittal stammer, like a train unexpectedly veering off its tracks—“…she could continue to walk away and the day would roll on in all its dismal eventuality or she could turn around and her sweet, young life would open up like, um, a vagina or something,” Cave writes. Such instances either serve as levity in an otherwise bleak narrative, or bolster the idea that the piece is to be read as a black comedy entirely. Whichever the stance, such breaks from poetic form are clearly no accident or sign of laziness on Cave’s part; rather, they are clear evidence of the author having fun with his project.

An English resident for many years, the world of Bunny Munro is literally Cave’s world. The reality of the novel is not that of the Deep South of And the Ass Saw the Angel, a land Cave had no first-hand knowledge of. Furthermore, the characters of both Bunny Senior and Junior are informed by experiences of Cave’s own life, as he stated in an interview with The Guardian. The lives of a traveling salesman and a constantly touring musician are marked by several similarities, and Cave’s youthful indiscretions in the latter field no doubt influenced his depiction of the former, though Cave maintains the degree of his protagonist’s sexual and self-destructive appetites are grossly exaggerated beyond his own former proclivities. With Bunny Junior, Cave injects his own desire to have connected with a departed father, idolizing a man who is oblivious to the needs of his child. In this sense, Cave’s past and present are reflected in both central characters, themselves the two sides of the same coin. Late in the novel, with Bunny Senior’s meeting with his abusive, wasted shell of a father, we get a glimpse of how Bunny started out much as his son, and how his son could follow his father down a hedonistic path.

To have said the religious allusions of the novel are not as overt as those in And the Ass Saw the Angel is not to mean they are less prevalent. In comparing the religious themes in the two novels, one could apply a similar analogy to that of Mick Harvey’s dividing Cave’s musical oeuvre into Old and New Testament eras, although such a statement is not meant to mislead one into thinking the latter novel a more optimistic or hopeful text. Whereas And the Ass Saw the Angel can be seen as Cave’s book in the style of Exodus and Leviticus, The Death of Bunny Munro bears the stark influence of the Book of Revelation. A palpable sense of dread runs through the work, building in intensity until it is has assumed an apocalyptic quality. This is accomplished via the rising pace of Bunny’s decline into hellish depths, and symptomatic of that, his increasingly bizarre, surreal encounters, his more frequent visions of his spectral wife, and the subplot of the devil-clad spree killer seeming to move in conjunction with Bunny’s own road trip. As Cave has said, “the novel has a very hallucinatory, sometimes kind of psychedelic feel and… it’s like a dream,” traits shared by Revelation, though whether such a parallel was intended or coincidental on the author’s part can only be guessed.

And yet, despite such reinterpreted biblical motifs, the dubious hope meant to be inspired by Revelation is nearly entirely absent. The world of The Death of Bunny Munro is wholly nihilistic, void of a benevolent guiding force. Rather, if a force is guiding at all, the implication is that it is decidedly malevolent. Bunny’s pursuit of his lusts become something of a religious experience, or a substitute for one; he is a disciple of the very concept of Vice. There is no light at the end of the tunnel; the only seed of promise in the book is Bunny Junior and the choice he has to live beyond what has been set in motion for him by the environment he has been raised in, but if that choice is not seized, if Junior allows it to wilt away, he could just as well continue on in his father’s legacy, not renounce it.

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