It wasn’t until this year that I finally read Nick Cave’s first book, And the Ass Saw the Angel, which was great in a coked-out poet sort of way. For a lot of authors who publish few books, there tends to be a great expectation which accompanies a new work1, and I think The Death of Bunny Munro was very much a recipient of this. How might Cave have changed after 20 years? Would it be as edgy? As apocalyptic and wondering? As fiercely poetical?
It is, in brief, both interesting and disappointing.
A Plain Story with a Sad Ending
The Death of Bunny Munro is one of those books whose title gives away its plot. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I tell you that it’s not a metaphorical death, or a figure of speech. Bunny Munro, (arguably) the main character, dies by the book’s end, and you see it coming the entire way: there was a similar sense of impending doom in And the Ass Saw the Angel, but its wandering narrative somewhat distracted the reader from this inevitability. Bunny Munro, however, has no such wandering narrative: it is linear to a fault, and so far as I can tell offers little in the way of structured plot. It’s more akin to running down a bulleted list of terrible and disastrous personal faults, or watching dirty water swirling down a drain, tightening into smaller and darker circles before disappearing completely.
Bunny Munro is a door-to-door seller of cosmetic supplies—lotions, soaps, exfoliants, etc.—and a consummate womanizer. Such is the depth and breadth of Bunny’s sexually profligate tendencies that his wife—and the mother of his young son—commits suicide by the second chapter. The reason is never explicitly given, though readers may take from later clues that the suicide is precisely what it appears to be: a lonely and scorned woman, desperately taking her own life. Having read about Bunny with a prostitute in the first chapter, and Libby’s death in the second chapter, I assumed that the two would ultimately having nothing to do with each other, in the same way that the conspicuously suspicious character in a mystery is never the culprit2; grandly linear and one-dimensional, however, the second appears to have everything to do with the first.
I was immediately reminded of the works of Chuck Palahniuk; the easy reference here is Choke, since both books feature odd and dispassionate “protagonists” who attempt to copulate every woman they meet, and whose lives quickly unravel into a Dali-like fever dream of melting clocks and ghosts. This thin veil of madness functions as an effective insulator not only between the characters and the expected consequences of their actions, but also between the characters and the readers. It’s difficult to feel any sort of empathy with a character who merely harbors the niggling suspicion that he feels somehow responsible for his wife’s death…. while he’s essentially raping a coked-out addict in a dilapidated shack.
The other literary parallel, I think, is Ellis’ American Psycho; the interesting bits about narrator reliability don’t apply, but if you replace most of the violence with wanton and gratuitous sex, you begin to see the same patterns: a devolution, these narrative acts (sex) as mile markers, from a relatively functional character into a gibbering mess whose wild thoughts are confusing to him as to the reader. In Ellis’ case, even this somewhat linear plot served a larger dramatic purpose (for which see the review); Cave, conversely, wasn’t making a postmodern point, nor a particular adept character study, and therefore reading the story of Bunny Munro more closely resembles watching a YouTube video of a drunken college student falling off a roof3. The nature of the material disinclines us to literary or social criticism, therefore, and inspires pith or a stuporous sort of pity at the slow, deliberate and predictable mortification of Bunny.
I can’t help but feel disappointed by The Death of Bunny Munro; the infamous Irvine Welsh so obsequiously wrote “Put Cormac McCarthy, Franz Kafka and Benny Hill together in a Brighton seaside guesthouse and they might just come up with Bunny Munro,” but I think this gives far too much credit to the character (not to mention doing a disservice to great writers, Benny Hill excluded). Bunny is a caricature, and in so being he’s neither difficult to create nor difficult to dismiss and ultimately forget; his kind are illustrators of larger points or images in allegories, but Cave’s latest offering contains none of those. Oh, it’s got his same tortured poetical style, but even that glorious logorrhea feels dilute; the language has more impact from a mute raising Cain in the deep south than from an inebriated satyr in Brighton.
This section is more likely to contain plot spoilers.
The one point of interest is Bunny’s relationship to his son, who Bunny largely ignored before his wife’s death and, it must be said, continues to do so afterward. The difference is that in his funereal breakdown, Bunny decides to take Bunny Jr. out of school and bring him along as he goes door to door selling his beauty products (and invariably swiving most of his clientele—Jr. stays in the car). Later, when Cave inelegantly inserts Bunny Sr.’s dying father into the story, one gets the definite sense that paternal neglect is hereditary in this instance, but this idea is never really expanded or used, much to the story’s deficit. Bunny’s hallucinations and paranoia even seem to affect his son, who appears to share in the psychosis; the unstated question is, despite our desire to like Bunny Jr.—bright, affable child4—is he doomed to become some form of his father in the same way that Bunny Sr. became some form of his? Or do the events of the book therefore take a salvific tenor insofar as they deliver the boy from “evil”?
There is a recurring theme of a serial killer who dresses in a devil costume which remains unexplained (his progress reported on the news), but which closely tracks the decline and demise of Bunny. The killer attacks women and invariably parades around public places in order to taunt authorities.
Is Bunny, in this crude parallel, an incubus? The subject of an incubus was brought up earlier in the narrative, with regard to Merlin the Magician, which Bunny Jr. reads about in his encyclopedia. Broadly speaking, an incubus is a demon who copulates with women, sometimes fathering a child as a result; these children are called “cambions” and sometimes have the same wicked tendencies as their demon-father. Repeated copulation with an incubus may result in deterioration and death for the female. Given the odd subplot of the serial killer, and the explicit reference to Merlin, it would approach the bounds of credulity that Cave didn’t intend for us to read—or at least consider—the notion of Bunny qua incubus, but I find it a somewhat belabored allusion, in part because it still gives the reader nothing of any importance to take away from the story. If Bunny is a fallen angel whose uncontrollable lust causes him to violate and/or destroy women, or if he is merely a somewhat depraved cocksman with self-destructive behaviors, how does that inform or improve the story apart from being a bit of cleverness on Cave’s part? I’m not sure it does.
- For another topical example of this, see Hugh Laurie: his one book, The Gun Seller is critically acclaimed, and it’s driving his fans nuts that his long-promised sophomore effort, The Paper Soldier keeps getting delayed.[↩]
- Noticing this tendency managed to ruin most Hardy Boys novels for me.[↩]
- Play him off, Keyboard Cat.[↩]
- I retain a suspicion that Bunny Jr. suffers from some sort of development disorder that skews his perception and inspires a slavish devotion to an utterly negligent father.[↩]