Death of a Ladies Man
By Darran Anderson.
Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Munro, Canongate, 2009
Brighton’s West Pier is burning down. A sex offender dressed as Satan is on the loose. Kylie Minogue’s gold hot-pants are insured for more than the Turin shroud. The end, my friends, is nigh.
It seems Nick Cave has known about this for some time and perhaps the imminence of catastrophe is something that has fuelled his renewed sense of fire and abandon. It’d be safe to say Cave is in the midst of a creative resurgence, were it not for the fact he’s never really lost the magic or endured a dry spell (when he’s strayed slightly, as on Nocturama, he’s still created works that would be masterpieces by anyone else’s standards). Making a mockery of the standard assumption that artists run out of passion and ideas with age, Cave’s most recent albums with the formidable Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, could easily be counted amongst their finest and the side-project Grinderman as one of his rawest. These days, their live act is one of Sturm und Drang, fronted by this cross between frontier-town undertaker and firebrand preacher. In addition, Cave has penned the underrated Outback-Gothic Western The Proposition and an unrealised follow-up to Gladiator as well as soundtracks (with Warren Ellis) for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the forthcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And now The Death of Bunny Munro, his second novel proper to rank alongside his earlier collections of writings. The talent and productivity of the man is enough to make you physically sick.
Whereas his first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel was William Faulkner meets Children of the Corn, set in a crazed hinterland where life was warped by incest, poverty and the Old Testament, The Death of Bunny Munro is a very different entity. It’s urban and modern, unmistakably and grimly so, given it illuminates the faultlines and neuroses of today’s world; a world driven mad by want. The desire to have, not just the junk of consumerism but the irresistible desire to attain the unattainable. An image of society not as some Hobbesian hell where everyone is at war with each other but as a monstrous overgrown baby, squealing to have it’s appetite filled. To defeat time and aging, there’s botox. To defeat the dread realities of poverty and work, there’s credit. To avoid the past and the future, there’s an eternal present of denial.
In such a world as this, as ours, Bunny Munro is king. For Bunny Munro is an ultra-lech. An alpha-lech. Bunny lives out those fantasies of irresistibility and unaccountability that are harboured even in the dimmest of minds. It doesn’t matter that in every one of his debauched episodes, there’s already traces of depression, pangs of decline, a stud turning… Stringfellow. Like all thing modern, this age of the banking of debts against debts, the time for payback will come but Bunny is too preoccupied with the chase to notice. It’s a sly satirical look at modernity that makes the book, initially at least, reminiscent of early Martin Amis. Bunny sits in that fallen triumvirate with John Self (from Money) and Keith Talent (from London Fields), the unholy trinity of the greed is good era. A silver-tongued, predatory door-to-door salesman of beauty products, Bunny is a master of fleecing people blind, using every trick in the book to charm money from the desperate and the weak.
Aside from his mercantile successes, Bunny is obsessed with sex. He’s obsessed to the point it goes beyond sex and becomes something approaching the demented, the hallucinatory. He sees women as Hans Bellmer dolls or as disembodied floating genitalia. He views potential conquests anywhere and everywhere and all of the time. In one memorably depraved scene, he looks out upon women in a park on an innocent summer’s day and instead sees a seething cornucopia of flesh like a fetishist cast into some circle of Dante’s Inferno. In another, “he thinks with a sudden terrible, bottomless dread, of Avril Lavigne’s vagina.” All through the book, Cave delivers abyssal moments and epiphanies that are disturbing, repellent and hilariously funny in equal portions. This is a man completely at the mercy of his compulsions, a man with a gift but a cursed one. Socrates might have been an old prude when he said that having a libido was “like being chained to a lunatic” but in Bunny’s case he may have had a point. Bunny lives this barely concealed double-life as a chronically-addicted spiv-incubus, disregarding his family until it all catches up with him, on a day when “the shit and the fan had their fateful assignation.”
Forced through a disturbing turn of events and an unexpected sudden proximity to death, Bunny begins to fall to pieces. He’s no choice but to face certain abandoned responsibilities; the son he’d previously ignored and, in turn, his dying decaying ruin of a father. He attempts to go on the road selling to recapture his mojo which ends diabolically in violence and sexual assault. All the while, haunted by his past (“he sat there, heavy-lidded with the phone pressed to his ear, listening to the phantoms and ghosts inside the phone long after the line had gone dead”) and portents of doom in the recurring form of a maroon concrete mixer with DUDMAN on the side. Fate is out there waiting for him to catch up with it. While the mix of the morbid and the amoral might give the novel an unappealing grubbiness, Cave’s descriptions are often at their funniest at their most wrong; a soiled tramp wearing t-shirt emblazoned “Shit happens when you party naked,” a comatose kappa kid who “had emptied the contents of his bowels into his shorts and these were pulled down around his skinny, little ankles” but who “had managed, rather heroically… to graffiti on the wall “I AM A SAD CUNT” or a truly twisted encounter with an acquaintance of a certain Mushroom Dave which prompts the reader to laugh out loud and then want to go and scrub their brain clean.
So far, so superficial. What saves the book from being a relatively minor shock for shocks sake tale (and for about two thirds of the way, this is a troubling prospect) is the appearance of Bunny Junior, his shy, impressionable but wide-eyed young son. Cave’s depiction of the child’s view of the world is stunning, capturing the naivety/ingenuity of their vision, where things like planets or seagulls have a curiously large presence. He portrays Bunny Junior, watching his father, thinking he’s untouchable and has a force-field around him, with heartbreaking tenderness and in doing so redeems the tale and (almost) its main protagonist. Somehow, Cave’s written a novel based on someone seemingly without any positive qualities and yet has made the reader care intensely (though it may take a while). For although, you may feel Bunny Senior is irredeemable and doomed (the title is a hint), you inevitably feel for his son, not just that he will survive the maelstrom he’s been sucked into but that he is not ruined as his father was by his father in turn. “They fuck you up your mum and dad… man hands on misery to man” went Larkin’s verse and it’s this vicious inheritance that you long to be broken. As the book accelerates and intensifies towards the end, the paramount question is whether Bunny’s son will survive and survive untainted. It’s a spectacular turnaround and a sign, not just that Cave’s vision is one with real poignancy and humanity but that he is a supremely gifted writer. For ultimately, the book (like its author and its anti-anti-hero) has a heart. It may be black but it’s a heart nonetheless.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer and 3:AM’s poetry editor. He has just completed a novel entitled The Ship is Sinking and his poetry chapbook Tesla’s Ghost is forthcoming this year from Blackheath Books.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 27th, 2009.