[9 February 2012]
With the publication of The Death of Bunny Munro in the spring of 2009, Australian songwriter, author, and modern-day renaissance man Nick Cave unleashed on his public perhaps one of the most deviant, despicable protagonists in the entirety of modern literature. Bunny Munro—drug abusing, chain-smoking, sex-obsessed lothario whose spree of extramarital escapades pushes his unstable wife into the cold arms of suicide and who is so inept as a father that he drags his nine-year-old son on a one-way road trip marred by a succession of sordid pit stops. So repugnant is the titular character, so devoid of even the most commonly held morals, he lends the novel itself an air beyond the Gothic or the picaresque (the two literary genres most often applied to the work), making the piece an extreme form of the grotesque. In doing so, Cave addresses the issue of whether something so perverse and offensive to general mores can rightly be considered art at all.
Is Cave’s novel but an experiment in grandiose luridness, outrageously revolting for the sake of being so? Is it pornography attempting to pass as something more, masquerading as a novel between two hard covers? Or, rather, is it a legitimate piece of literature, its beauty hidden behind the façade of the vulgar? Perhaps the character of Bunny Munro is meant do to more than titillate or repel those reading the chronicle of his debauched life, in that he amounts to a vessel communicating a statement on Cave’s part. With the novel so imbued with contemporary British society, Bunny could stand as a warped representation of the average middle-class British male—a self-absorbed door-to-door salesman who is also a (barely) functioning sex addict—thereby spinning the novel into the territory of social satire. As reviewer Jason Diamond puts it, “Bunny Munro is the sad decay of the British way of life.”
Perhaps all of these views are taking the matter too seriously. Maybe the piece is nothing more than a dark comedy, albeit one pushed to the genre’s very limits, and possibly bordering on camp. If one holds to this belief, it could be argued that the absurd caricature of Bunny Munro is a vehicle for Cave’s mockery of literary theory as a whole. Knowing his adoring and despising public will be going back and forth analyzing his writing, the novel could be little more than Cave’s personal in-joke, in the same vein as John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus”, written solely to confound those fans dissecting, rather than enjoying, his work.
But then, both the maudlin atmosphere saturating the work and the presence of Munro’s son, Bunny Junior, steadfastly by his father’s side on his descent to hell, seem to at once negate the novel as purely comical and lend it a tragic element as well. The child’s relevance cannot be ignored and he is as central a character as Bunny himself, a veritable stand-in for his father’s otherwise absent conscience. On a deeper level one could argue that Bunny Junior is the representation of free will and personal choice counterbalancing the theme of predestined doom to which his father seems bound. To go one step further, perhaps Munro himself is something of a tragic figure, a doomed shell of a man lost to his vices, seeking redemption, wanting to live up to the idealized image his son holds of him and make up for the errors of his compulsive philandering, but is (or believes he is) too far gone to achieve such feats.
Conceivably, each of these perspectives could be correct, or at least plausible. Perhaps the work is at once an unholy comedy, a eulogy to lost innocence, an exercise in depravity, a social satire, and a genuine piece of literature—a modern Gothic-picaresque tragicomedy. (Though, the work’s tragic elements would negate it being considered Camp, if one goes by Susan Sontag’s all-encompassing definition of the “Camp” form.)
Before one can address these considerations and measure the novel’s worth on purely aesthetic merits, one cannot help but acknowledge the elephant in the room that is its author’s established celebrity status. In this sense, one must ask what bearing, if any, Nick Cave’s iconic standing in another realm of art, namely, that of music, had on the novel’s publication. Is The Death of Bunny Munro but a novelty, an example of a greedy musician in the throes of a midlife crisis, indulging his ego because he has the means to do so? To put it more succinctly, would the work have been published if it were penned by a first-time novelist, one without the clout of Cave’s reputation?
Regardless, both the novel’s popularity with readers and its esteem with critics are undeniable. Its status as an international bestseller with a television miniseries contracted less than a year after publication essentially proves it has more than the cult audience typically garnered by a kitsch novel. That the work also demanded an audio book version read by Cave himself over a score he composed—making the novel a truly unique multi-media entity—similarly indicates it is not to be written off so casually. Likewise, overwhelmingly positive reviews by critics indicate the literary world is not ready to chalk up Cave’s novel to the ramblings of a bored and aging rocker no longer content with the career of a musician. But these endorsements aside, the most basic question remains—why read The Death of Bunny Munro?
Bunny Munro is by no means a likable character. And yet, because his depravity is so over-the-top to border on being unbelievable, he is all the more compelling. Munro is not a person you would want to know, but he is one you get a guilty pleasure out of reading about, in the same way villains often excite imaginations more than the noble heroes they struggle against. Also, he is a distinctly Western character, the extreme manifestation of a world gone wrong, an omen of societal Armageddon almost. Furthermore, the novel—Cave’s second—is a peek inside the mind of a singular artist at once dedicated to his craft and branching out, pushing his creativity into realms beyond his comfort zone, daring to try something new. Approaching the dilemma this way, whether the novel fails or succeeds in its stab at literary authenticity, it should be examined because of its creator’s laurels, and not dismissed in light of them.
So, again, why is this novel worth reading? Because it is a snapshot of Western culture at the dawn of the 21st Century, a character study of a highly sensationalized representative of the culture whose dark side is often shied away from, an immorality tale that appeals more to our pathos than to our sense of guilty pleasure curiosity in the vulgar. Also, because it is not merely an exercise in obscenity, any more than is William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) or James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and to flippantly dismiss it as such is to judge the work on purely superficial means, neglecting its inherent depth and artistry. Perhaps it also has a flourish of the philosophical, wrestling with the conundrum of whether there is such a thing as fate or if freedom of choice trumps such a notion, the two positions represented by the novel’s two main characters. Above all else, The Death of Bunny Munro should be read for the simple fact that it is a remarkably accomplished and engrossing novel written by a masterful storyteller and natural poet at the very height of his creative powers.
When it comes to modern songwriters, there exists an elite echelon standing apart from the flock, a pantheon of uncompromising artists who do not follow the paradigm of the music business, but nonetheless acquire and maintain devoted fan bases outshining those of the so-called “flavors of the week” that come and go with the seasonal fads. A common thread runs through this clique, an element binding them and informing their otherwise diverse styles that, some would argue, is the key ingredient ensuring their longevity decade after decade—the appreciation of literature and a way of incorporating the spirit of the form into the medium of music. Nick Cave is undoubtedly a member of this upper stratum, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits—the latter two in particular being Cave’s closest contemporaries, so much so the three are often regarded as the “unholy trinity” of innovative, cult songwriters.
Reduced to the simplest of summaries, the whole of Nick Cave’s oeuvre can be said to grapple with the balance between the sacred and the profane or, to quote Napoleon in a phrase Cave himself lifted for one of his songs, to tread between “the ridiculous and the sublime.” Professor of religious studies at the University of British Columbia J.R.C. Cousland, Ph.D., described Cave’s collective output as a sort of “antiaesthetic”—“ an aesthetic of the grotesque, where the unrighteous and the unlovely are dwelt upon to evoke their alternatives.”
In the lexicon of contemporary artists, few, if any, have their hands in as many fields as Cave. Singer-songwriter, poet, band leader (of two existent bands—the Bad Seeds and Grinderman), screenwriter, film score composer, essayist, novelist—these are the hats donned by the 53-year-old Australian native-cum-expatriate Briton. Few would attempt to spin as many plates as Cave; even fewer could accomplish all so deftly, with true focus on the respective art itself rather than the money and recognition to be made from it. And despite being predominantly known for his work with his backing band the Bad Seeds, Cave “has always harbored the aesthetic and thematic preoccupations of a novelist,” at least according to Adrian Van Young in his review of Bunny.
Born in Wangaratta, Australia, in 1957, Cave was surrounded by literary influences from an early age. His father Colin was an English teacher who planted the seed of his young son’s literary aspirations by reading him excerpts from Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Nabokov, icons who would go down as three of Cave’s personal heroes. At the same time, the elder Cave drew issue with his son’s affinity for rock music of the 1960s and ‘70s, telling him the music “was hardly an art form, that it was the bottom of the fucking heap”. Going the standard teenage route, the younger Cave rebelled against his father’s distaste for rock in the most extreme fashion—by joining a punk rock band.
Rather than abandoning his literary rearing at the door, Cave instead set out to marry his love for literature with the melody-lacking, avant-garde group he fronted, The Boys Next Door. This inclination was made clear from the outset when Cave changed the band’s name to the Birthday Party, claiming the new moniker was an homage to a scene in Crime & Punishment (1866). Though no such scene exists in the Dostoevsky classic—and one can infer Cave’s assertion to the contrary was but an intentionally esoteric joke—“the conscious literary reference in their name signaled their ambition and determination to provide something that was non-mainstream in a different way from most punk music.”
Cave followed up on the promise of his band’s new name in several of their songs, most notably with “Nick the Stripper” from the Birthday Party’s full-length debut album, 1981’s Prayers on Fire. Though virtually all of Cave’s lyrics from this period amount to baby steps when compared to the heights achieved later in his career, “Nick the Stripper” stands out as it showcases Cave essentially aping Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), remaking it as a Dadaesque pastiche yelped and barked more than sung atop his bandmates’ atonal cacophony.
By 1983, Cave’s training ground of the Birthday Party finally collapsed under the weight of their manufactured madness and came apart at the seams. Unwilling to go quietly into the good night of obscurity, Cave rebounded by assembling a rotating door of musicians to serve as his backing band, the Bad Seeds. With Cave as the ringleader, this new troupe served as the vessel by which his creative experiments could run wild. Continuing with the precedent set by “Nick the Stripper”, Cave once again showed off his literary leanings on the Bad Seeds’ 1984 debut LP, From Her to Eternity, reimagining the exploits of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in a far more disturbing narrative in “Saint Huck”.
In the following years, Cave expanded his creative palate and let his muse run rampant across the musical canvass conjured by the Bad Seeds. In a string of albums starting with 1985’s The Firstborn Is Dead, Cave wore his influences on his sleeve—the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament, the Southern Gothic writings of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, a nearly obsessive fascination with American Deep South culture in general, the records of Mississippi Delta blues singers such as John Lee Hooker and Blind Willie Johnson, and a rampant heroin addiction serving as his paramount inspirations throughout the mid-‘80s and through the mid-‘90s. Integrating these influences, Cave continued the legacy set by his favorite authors, in turn encouraging his fans to investigate the source material for their favorite songs.
“What Nick has done is re-braille Southern Gothic symbols for a new generation,” commented critic Jillian Burt in a 2010 article examining Cave’s artistry. Not content to merely blend and recite the legacy of Southern Gothic/biblical imagery, Cave cast himself as an actual embodiment of said mythology, becoming the characters he wrote about and channeled, both onstage and in the recording studio. To better sell the authenticity of the narrative voice in songs of this era, Cave took on the persona of a crazed, circuit-riding preacher coming across the scorched earth from the other side of Judgment Day—a guru that knew the truth and was driven mad by it—a character straight from the pages of an early Cormac McCarthy novel.
Several songs from this point in Cave’s career exemplify the synergy between these diverse sources, chief among them “Tupelo” and “The Mercy Seat”. In the former, amid a backdrop of thunderclaps and torrential rains, Cave relates the birth of Elvis Presley and his stillborn twin brother, likening the incident to the tale of Cain and Abel with all the requisite Biblical imagery. With the latter song, Cave employs the Faulknerian standby of shifting points-of-view, alternating between condemned a death row inmate and a fervid priest. Again, biblical references abound, with Cave comparing the electric chair to both the Ark of the Covenant and God’s holy throne. In this context, the electric chair is not a means of punishment at all, but a form of clemency, shuffling the resigned criminal out of a cruel world. The lyrics’ closing lines also contain a kernel of New Testament inklings, the condemned man stating he will only be hiding in death for a while, exemplifying Cave’s recurring notion that death does not amount to a period on the phenomenon of existence, but a comma.
Beyond even “Tupelo” and “The Mercy Seat”, “The Carny” stands apart as Cave’s most daringly literary song of the era, possibly of his entire career. More a spoken word piece than an actual song, the work is a fairly straight-forward narrative in which Cave describes a wandering circus troupe as they attempt to carry on in the face of their titular colleague’s disappearance. Cave’s evocative prose is carried forward by a lush yet macabre and inherently unnerving soundtrack of strings, glockenspiel, xylophone and other instruments seldom found in popular music, the aural collage more indicative of Germanic opera than rock and roll. It is likely the accomplishment of “The Carny” bolstered Cave’s confidence in his writing prowess, serving as a stepping stone of sorts for his next major undertaking—his first novel.
Published in 1989, And the Ass Saw the Angel, took Cave an estimated five years to write. Set in the American Deep South (a place Cave had not so much as visited in person, but had read about incessantly), the novel is the culmination of its author’s obsession with Old Testament themes and imagery, Southern Gothic tropes, and blues music. As author Jason K. Friedman put it, the book “cobbles together its Southern setting out of the lives and music of Cave’s Southern musical heroes—Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Elvis—while the novel’s Southern voice reflects the influence of Southern gothic [sic] writers Poe and Faulkner.” Motifs, characters, phrases, and scenes that first appeared in Cave’s songs abound throughout the text, supporting the notion that the work is a sort of distillation of all the artistic ideas running through Cave’s mind at the time. The act of pouring his influences and own impulses into the novel format could be interpreted as a means of exorcising such obsessions from Cave’s system.
The novel’s protagonist is one Euchrid Eucrow, a mute imbecile who lives on the fringes of an anonymous town in the fictional Ukulore Valley, composed primarily of a Christian religious sect known as Ukulites. Spawned by generations of inbreeding and his psyche stained by abuse suffered at the hands of his vicious parents, Eucrow’s attempts to become part of the town go unfulfilled. He manages to sleep with the local prostitute, in the process fathering a little girl whose birth is heralded by the townsfolk as a blessing from God as years of torrential rain end on her birthday. As the novel progresses, Eucrow becomes increasingly obsessed with his progeny, observing her from afar, his twisted mind spiraling downward into a miasma of psychotic impulses and religious fanaticism. Believing himself a vehicle for God, Eucrow attempts to kill his child and is thereafter targeted for revenge by the townsfolk, interpreting his attack as a blasphemy on their faith. The novel ends with the antihero sinking in a pit of quicksand, the entire novel having been narrated by him from this vantage point.
The novel is far from an easy read and cannot be dismissed as Cave’s attempt to get on the bestseller list. Written from the perspective of a mentally challenged and disturbed narrator, its language is oftentimes as difficult to comprehend as any page from Finnegans Wake (1939) or The Sound and the Fury (1929). The author himself described the prose as “a kind of hyper-poetic thought-speak, not meant to be spoken—a mongrel language that was part-biblical, part-Deep South dialect, part-gutter slang, at times obscenely reverent and at others reverently obscene.” All the hallmarks of the Gothic model are also present—incest, murder, grotesque characters, religious allusions (the constant rain saturating Ukulore Valley harkening to the Great Flood, Eucrow possibly representing a demonic counterpoint to, or Gnostic version of, Christ, etc.), the blackest of black humor. In parts, the work is so exaggerated in its debauchery that it becomes a self-conscious parody of many Southern Gothic concepts.
And yet, the novel is not merely an exercise on Cave’s part, an attempt to emulate his heroes’ work and continue in their model without adding anything nothing new to the mix. The work is rife with Cave’s unique brand of symbolism and moral/religious ambiguity. For example, the nature of humanity’s interaction with the Divine is depicted in multiple forms, each of which is deplorable. The primary conflict of the tale—Eucrow’s relations with the Ukulites—is defined by the two antagonists’ perceptions of God’s will. Both interpretations are carried out in violence, rendering absurd the very concept of a human attempting to speak on behalf of a silent, and presumably benevolent, God. With this central theme, the novel amounts to a thesis of sorts, Cave’s outlining of his views on 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.
“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.