Nick Cave – The Death Of Bunny Munro (Canongate book, 2009)

There are lots of questions that I ask myself while reading Nick Cave’s second novel.

The first is that I wonder what Cave’s wife must think of it. It is to her that this book is dedicated, and yet its lead character – the Bunny Munro of the title – is an adulterous, volatile and decidedly nasty piece of work; lewd, crude and morally corrupt, whose first marital indiscretion is to grope his sister-in-law on the very day that he brings his son home from the hospital. This sets in motion Munro’s wanton and unquenchable infidelity, all of which is only exacerbated by his wife’s early suicide. I think, if I wrote something like this, and even if I claimed it as art, I’d find myself taking up new residence at a family solicitor’s office, but maybe my wife is less tolerant than Cave’s.

The second is that I wonder what Nick Cave’s friend Kylie Minogue would think of this. Her ‘Spinning Around’, and the attendant gold hot pants from the song’s video, are recurrent objects of Munro’s attention throughout this book. Alongside friends and collaborators John Hillcoat and Warren Ellis, Cave offers thanks and apologies to Minogue – and Avril Lavigne, who is the subject of yet worse and morally reprehensible narrative – but it still feels a bit, well, icky. They clearly still get on, but even if the defence is that this is fiction, the voice of a character etc, it’s still written by one of her friends.

Finally, I wonder whether you could even write a book like this today. The world seems today spins on a different axis, one focussed ever more acutely on equality and where sexual abuse is no longer trivialised. Munro is not precisely misogynistic; I think he would argue that he simply loves women (a lot, frequently), and sex with women even more so, albeit even he recognises that it is like an addiction.

Nevertheless, he’s patently abusive toward his long-suffering and doomed, tolerant wife, Libby, and as the book progresses you begin to view Munro as less of a wild 2000s laddish and opportunistic Casanova and more of a dangerous sexual predator, underscoring your initial impression that Munro is a unlikeable, horrible character; the worst type of man, and the type of man that today’s society would not tolerate. Even the act of reading it left me feeling strangely complicit with anyone turning a blind eye to the whole #metoo thing, as if I was listening to a 1970s comedian ripping through a repertoire of racist and sexist ‘jokes’. And I’m not sure that passing this off as ‘art’ really washes its face on that basis.

Given the title, it’s no giveaway that Munro doesn’t make it through to the end of the book; he meets a particularly messy demise on the front end of a cement mixer, and then his lot worsens when up jumps the devil himself and decides to do unto Bunny what he has done to many women. Strangely, for all his terrible ways, you feel briefly sorry for the man; there is moment where he realises how bad he has been, how he tortured his wife, how he has been less than solid as a father to his son, and not a remotely good son to his equally despicable father. But that feeling is brief, fleeting, and in the end you’re just glad he met his maker, momentary pause for forgiveness and redemption aside.

Like Cave’s first novel And The Ass Saw The Angel – written during his drug-ravaged Berlin years – The Death Of Bunny Munro is a difficult read; And The Ass… required patience and undivided attention because of its deployment of a complicated Southern dialect, and I recall spending what felt like my entire early twenties wading through the book when I read it at university twenty odd years ago (I still haven’t re-read it). The Death Of Bunny Munro is different; shorter, but no less easy to read. In the place of tricky dialogue is the almost constant focus on sex, every page seeming to contain some sort of overt reference to coitus that never once feels sexy.

Perhaps Cave conceived this book as a statement of sorts. I don’t know. I haven’t bothered to look up any interviews he might have done around its publication, and I don’t particularly want to be forced to re-evaluate my repulsion for the sake of art. Nevertheless, for all its intensely nauseating detail, Cave remains a master of vivid prose, and the book is imbued with the same richness of language that his songs are. Amid the maelstrom of ugly detail, Cave somehow finds the space to draw out the powerful unconditional love Munro’s young, troubled and gifted son has for his father, even as he leaves him sat alone in a car in an unpleasant Sussex neighbourhood while his father tends to his despicable business.

Despite receiving this as a Christmas present from my parents in 2009 – I only hope they didn’t decide to read further than the frontispiece when they were writing their note to me in the front – I only just got around to reading this as part of an effort to get through many books, like this, that have sat unread on my shelves. Just like with And The Ass Saw The Angel, I won’t be rushing back to read it.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Nick Cave Introduces The Gospel According To Mark (Canongate book, 1998)

'The Gospel According To Mark' book artwork

canongate | book | 1998

Nick Cave supplied an illuminating introduction to this small book, which formed part of a series of £1 editions of Biblical chapters. Other works in the series saw Will Self scribing an introduction to Revelation, and Fay Weldon introducing Corinthians.

I consider this illuminating, principally because it seems to offer up something of an explanation for the transition that Nick Cave’s music underwent as The Bad Seeds extrapolated the visionary fire and brimstone works that fell easily out of The Birthday Party‘s howling reverie, stretched that until it snapped, leaving a more mellow, almost meditative sound. ‘Up Jumped The Devil’, so the song goes, but despite running amok through Murder Ballads, it was pretty clear he was running away from Nick Cave.

Cave’s initial disdain for everything New Testament stems, according to his introduction, from his time in the Wangarafta Cathedral Choir in his pre-teens, and he uncharitably describes the book as ‘wishy-washy’ at best and ‘the decaf of worship’ at worst. The interest in the vengeful God of the Old Testament, meting out punishment and retribution to the nascent residents of his planet came from Cave’s interest in violent literature in his early twenties, fully explaining the nihilism which dominated both The Birthday Party and Nick’s own self-abuse.

So, what prompted the shift in focus from the Old to the New, the angry to the reflective? ‘You grow up,’ Cave explains. ‘You do. You mellow out. You no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity as you learn to forgive yourself and the world.’

Cave attributes his turn toward the New Testament to a vicar who suggested he start with this very gospel, ostensibly because it was the shortest. He enthuses over Mark’s grasp of enthralling narrative gestures and mysterious simplicity, his portrait of Christ as a solitary figure and one focussed on the fate that he knew was ahead of him. Cave also cites Mark as continuing to influence his spirituality and religiousness: ‘The essential humanness of Mark‘s Christ provides us with a blueprint for our own lives, so that we have something that we can aspire to, rather than revere, that can lift us free of the mundanity of our existences, rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy.’

It’s a long, long way from ‘Nick The Stripper’ but delivered with such a compelling grasp of theology that it may well have prompted a religious conversion among a few fans with its enthusiastic words, much like Mark did for Cave himself.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Email Exchange With Penguin Books

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From: Mat Smith (Documentary Evidence)
Sent: 15 March 2014 11.56
To: Editor (Penguin UK)
Subject: Research Help – Rhythm King And The Dance Explosion book

Dear Penguin,

I am trying to find details of a book that may have been published by Penguin ‎/ Fantail in 1990. The book is entitled Beat This! Rhythm King And The Dance Explosion. I have undertaken a number of Google searches but this book either never existed, never got published or has simply been forgotten in the passage of time.

The book is referenced on the sleeve‎ of an LP released by the Rhythm King record label in 1990 and describes the book as being imminently published. See the attached picture by way of evidence.

I am trying to confirm the existence of this book at this stage, and also any details of the ISBN, cover, author etc. I don’t want to particularly think about how hard it will be to track down a copy. I will cross that bridge in due course.

This is all research for a series of articles I am writing for my website in order to present the most comprehensive history of the Rhythm King label, which had a major impact on the development of electronic dance music in the UK.

Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

By way of background, I am a freelance music journalist writing for Clash, This Is Not Retro, Electronic Sound, Feeder and my own blog Documentary Evidence.

I look forward to any help you can supply.

Best regards,

Mat

————

From: Editor (Penguin UK)
Sent: 21 March 2014 10.45
To: Mat Smith (Documentary Evidence)
Subject: Re: Research Help – Rhythm King And The Dance Explosion book

Dear Mat,

Thank you for your email.  Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find the book you’re looking for in our title database and I admit I am unfamiliar with Fantail publishing, as it no longer exists as an imprint.

Really sorry I can’t help you any further with your search.

Kind regards,

——————————-
The Editor
Penguin Random House

Penguin

80 Strand, London, WC2R 0RL
http://www.penguin.co.uk