Music

Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro: A Rock Star’s Midlife Crisis or Valid Literature?

Cole Waterman

Regardless how history comes to look Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro, 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.

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.

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