Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro

A Rock Star’s Midlife Crisis or Valid Literature?

by Cole Waterman

9 February 2012


No Redemption

“It’s not a redemptive novel in a Christian kind of way,” Cave told The Guardian. “Bunny Munro dies unredeemed; he’s suddenly wiped off the face of the planet.” 

Without this redemption, the novel avoids becoming a clichéd morality tale wherein Bunny somehow arrives at a moment of clarity and compensates for the errors of his ways. In fact, rather than being the parable of a sinner’s redemption, the novel amounts to a play-by-play destruction of a man. While The Death of Bunny Munro is certainly not the only text to tackle such a plot—Death of a Salesman being the closest comparison—what makes it unique is that the central character is systematically designed to elicit virtually no feelings of sympathy or pathos from the audience. Bunny’s laundry list of deplorable acts include obsessively visualizing vaginas, pulling his car over to the side of the road to masturbate after hearing a Kylie Minogue song on the radio, hoping his newfound widow status will make him more appealing to women, attempting to ditch his son with his dead wife’s parents, and, perhaps most appalling, being too oblivious to recognize his son’s subtle pleas for medication for his granulated eyelids. And yet, despite Cave’s vilification of Bunny, his plight does appeal to readers’ sympathy, a result all but inexplicable.

As the road trip progresses, Bunny finds he is no longer the cavalier playboy he once was, seeing each successive attempt to finagle his way into a lady’s bed squandered. Bunny is essentially pure motorized, conscious lust, an id in a suit and tie carrying a suitcase full of beauty products, and yet as his desires get more and more pronounced, they are achieved with less and less frequency. Each episode presents Bunny in a more embarrassing situation than the one before as he goes from a commanding presence to a pathetic figure surrounded by forces beyond his control. Where women on his sales list would previously welcome him in, fall for his effortless smooth talk then bed him, they now laugh in his face or physically assault him.

And yet, in as much as the tale is about Bunny’s fatal demise, it is also about his son’s survival against all odds, living beyond the prophecy ordained by the proverbial sins of his father, so long as he chooses to do so. The one-two punch of Bunny invading a drug den and raping a skin-and-bones junky and the last meeting with his abusive, cancer-ridden father is the absolute nadir of Bunny’s plight and serves as a climax of such to the book. It is this final meeting with his father that finally defeats Bunny, sucking away whatever vitality remained in him. At the same time, the scene showcases how Bunny Junior, through the steel-fisted resolve of pure choice, has the potential to avoid following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

With such a concentration on Bunny’s demented sexual escapades, with sex being the means by which he is finally undone, could the novel be a satire on our world’s focus on sex itself? Bunny is the full realization, the epitome of rampant sexual desire virtually all magazine covers, TV shows, and music videos cater to. And yet, with all the sex he could possibly want laid out before him, he still craves more. There is no bottom to his well of desire. He’s constantly seeking the zenith, the top of the mountain, failing to realize there is no such thing. Thus, he loses himself and his family in his foolish pursuit. Sex itself then, Cave seems to imply, is not the be-all, end-all modern Western culture makes it out to be. Rather, it is a hollow endeavor, as are, arguably, all achievements, as they only lead one to wanting more. Thus, it is clear The Death of Bunny Munro is far from literary pornography; if anything, it attacks the same foundation on which pornography is built upon, subtly using the conventions of the form to deride it.

The comedic tones that at times pop up (if the reader has a dark enough sense of humor to recognize them) could support the notion that the piece is intended as a satire, or even as Camp, which Sontag in part defines as a cheerful alternative to satire. “The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness—irony, satire—seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled,” Sontag writes. “Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.” Such a definition clearly fits The Death of Bunny Munro.

However, if we choose not to see the text as comical, satirical, or campy and analyze it as a legitimate tragedy, it still has much to say in the way of social commentary, apart from the theoretical criticism of society’s obsession with sex. For, in truth, the novel is not solely about the destruction of one man, but it is of the total disintegration of one modern British family. As such, it is the veritable opposite of author Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, published in 2005, just a few years prior to Cave’s book. In weighing the extent of Cave’s novel’s statement on modern British life, Bunny can be juxtaposed with a Saturday’s Henry Perowne. Both are, in their distinct ways, microcosms of modern British (or Western) life. However, Perowne’s characterization is steeped in realism—he is a successful neurosurgeon with a loving wife and two adult children, but he is also dealing with the ennui all but inherent to middle aged men. In spite of this, he manages to tap into an inner strength in order to contain a series of random occurrences and learn something about himself in the process. Perowne is a flawed figure we can empathize with, capable of becoming the ideal we aspire to. His family members, similarly, pull in different directions but are united in their sense of duty and genuine affection for one another. Bunny, on the other hand, is the wicked underbelly of the Western middle class male. As such, he is the dark side that can result from a culture just as capable of producing a figure as Perowne. Whereas Perowne’s family is the ideal, Bunny’s is the nightmare manifest.

Aside from these considerations, and with the criticism that The Death of Bunny Munro is masked pornography having been dispelled, the novel’s series of depraved acts and cast of vile characters still beg the question of whether the work has any artistic worth, or if it exists as a curiosity meant to titillate and appeal to our baser senses. When comparing the work to two other novels that faced similar accusations upon publication—authored by two of Cave’s most prominent influences, no less—one can see such allegations do not suffice as means of undercutting the work’s artistic merits. In Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931), a college girl is savagely raped and kidnapped by a bootlegger and murderer, yet when her chance comes to testify against him in trial, she inexplicably claims a different man violated her. This falsely accused man is subsequently lynched, based solely on the girl’s testimony.

In Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God (1973), the author fashions a protagonist even more detestable than Bunny Munro—Lester Ballard, a serial killer who dabbles in pedophilia and necrophilia. Ballard’s depravity is so grandiose, it is almost as though he is McCarthy’s exercise in deviancy. And yet, despite the initial criticisms faced by both these novels—that they violated social mores or taboos, that they were nothing more than irredeemable, prurient pulp or literary smut—they have since come to be regarded as legitimate pieces of literature. While neither is hailed as their respective author’s greatest work, they are respected components of their collective output and are generally not treated by critics as blights to be ignored. Using the changing attitudes these two novels garnered over the years as a measuring pole, it is likely The Death of Bunny Munro will continue gaining momentum, growing in recognition beyond the kneejerk reaction that it is merely shock value tripe.

On the other hand, one could argue comparisons to the works of Faulkner and McCarthy are entirely superficial, in that the Southern Gothic themes common to them might lend them more suitable to discussions regarding Cave’s first novel. For, while The Death of Bunny Munro no doubt has some Gothic elements, it is certainly not at home in the Southern realm. One could probe further and say it is not a Gothic novel at all, that it is influenced by that genre, but not bound to it, and thereby call into question what genre the novel can be classified as at all. To say the novel belongs to the picaresque tradition—an unwholesome protagonist’s series of often comical misadventures—might be altogether more fitting, following the pattern set by such works as Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), and the novels of Charles Bukowski. These works, like Cave’s, fall decidedly on the nihilistic end of the genre’s spectrum. Yet, distinguishing The Death of Bunny Munro from these texts is the fact that Cave’s novel could in no way be considered a veiled memoir or fictionalized autobiography.

With The Death of Bunny Munro bearing such hallmarks of at least two distinct literary genres, in which does it best fit?  Is it contemporary Gothic with a touch of the picaresque, or a modern picaresque bearing an obvious influence of the Gothic? Or, is it an amalgamation of the two, filtered through the lens of a tragedy?  Pigeonholing the work into a convenient, catch-all category is to render it a disservice. If a genre must be applied to the piece, perhaps the best would be to say it is born from a pool of disparate sources, compiled and interpreted as only Nick Cave could.

Comparisons to other novels aside, in the end The Death of Bunny Munro must stand on its own when gauging its literary merit. Perhaps at this juncture, little more than a year since its publication, it is too soon to objectively assess its place in legitimate literature. What can be said, though, is that under close inspection, the most frequent criticisms leveled against the work are shown to be essentially baseless. What cannot be argued is that whether the novel succeeds or fails to be recognized for its artistic virtues, it will be remembered, at least marginally, due to one of its main criticisms—that The Death of Bunny Munro is nothing more than the product of an aging musician’s ego-stroking, that it is the result of its author not being content in the artistic niche he had already mastered. Such a quick dismissal may carry more weight if Cave’s book were a one-off project, as it is not altogether uncommon for singer-songwriters to foster ambitions as aspiring authors, with notables as Ryan Adams, Patti Smith, Steve Earle, and Billy Bragg having been published novels in recent years, to varying critical reception. But as The Death of Bunny Munro is Cave’s second novel, it indicates Cave is not a fluke rock star-cum-author.

Interestingly, the publication of The Death of Bunny Munro has somewhat marked Cave as charting a mirror image of the career trajectory of one of his most prominent idols—Leonard Cohen, who published two novels and several books of poetry before deciding to moonlight as singer-songwriter. Though Cohen’s endeavor was roundly dismissed as a novelist’s midlife crisis at the time he undertook the transformation in the mid 1960s, he is now regarded and recognized foremost as a songwriter. Certainly, it would be interesting if Cave continues with the reverse paradigm of Cohen’s career, becoming more esteemed as an author in the decades to come than as a musician.

In short, The Death of Bunny Munro will be remembered because of its author’s name, the very thing certain critics said detracted from its integrity. Yet, Cave’s reputation will not decide whether Bunny is remembered as a footnote or a watershed achievement, whether it is remembered in spite of its author’s established credentials or because of them. Such consideration will inevitably rest on the novel’s own inherent worth, or lack thereof. Regardless how history comes to look upon the work, in the context of Cave’s career, it stands alone as the purest distillation of his artistry—a poetic novel with Cave’s inimitable brand of the grotesque, absurd and often comic nature of humanity—at least until Cave publishes his third novel.

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