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