Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life performance: The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

Nick Cave's new novel is an impressive performance. Two features stand out. The first is the pleasure it takes in words and vivid descriptions: Bunny Munro is a man of the world, a cosmetics salesman on the move and he's always swigging from a bottle of whiskey and emitting "furious tusks of smoke" from his Lambert & Butler cigarettes. It's a lifestyle that takes its toll: his eyes are always "granulated", yet he maintains his appearance: the curl of hair on his forehead is always "pomaded". In order to read his watch, Bunny "trombones" his wrist out of its sleeve. And Bunny never closes his mobile, he "clamshells it shut" or "castaneted the phone". Of course, this is very reminiscent not of Cave's darkly romantic songs but of Martin Amis in his moneyed pomp. Had Bunny Munro contemplated a haircut, he would no doubt instead have considered "a rug rethink". This is why The Death of Bunny Munro has a conspicuously anachronistic quality.

While the novel is set in the city in which I live and describes the fiery destruction of the West Pier in 2003 (which I also witnessed), it also evokes another Brighton, one trapped in the cartoon era of the early 1980s during which in another city John Self trampled triumphant for a time, flapping his flares into non-existence. Perhaps this is only a stylistic effect, except Bunny Munro is also himself a throwback. His seedy swagger and unrelenting, unobstructed appetites reawakens Lazarus-like an extinct species. When we meet Bunny tromboning and casteneting, he has just spent the night with a prostitute while his wife is suffering at home with an unspecified psychological condition requiring medication. Scenes like this pepper the novel and are rarely less than uncomfortable. A review could well fill itself by adumbrating the most hair-raising with discreet relish. However, the highly-worked prose is their true significance. It emphasises the strain under which Bunny places his everyday life; an intensity so great the threat of collapse becomes inevitable (though of course inevitability in a novel is itself inevitable). This is why the prose style is more than spice added to the high entertainment of Bunny Munro's dissolution. It is a necessary part of the story. This is the second feature: for Bunny, and for readers following Bunny, everything is outside; the trombone, the castanets, the tusks of smoke, granulation and pomade are all projections of Bunny Munro's self. As Bunny lives, his actions in effect sublate his paltry, transitory self into the world, just as a musician – perhaps one playing the trombone or even castanets – is sublated into music. For this reason, Bunny Munro has no inner life to report or, rather, his inner life animates the world. Soon it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

Bunny is therefore an aspirant solipsist; where "man of the world" seeks to be a tautology. His nine-year-old son, also called Bunny Munro, "thinks there is something about the way his father moves through the world that is truly impressive". Yes, he moves as if he is at home in the world; as if the world is a function of his ego. The novel we are reading is both a manifestation of this condition and its controverting action (perhaps all novels are). Shocking events occur throughout these 278 pages that demand Bunny's active remorse yet Bunny's projections are also attempted rejections of the self. His responsibility has no ground on which to settle.

Bunny's incipient solipsism is threatened by the stirring opening sentence: " 'I am damned,' thinks Bunny Munro in a sudden moment of self-awareness reserved for those who soon to die." This is Beckett's Malone Dies with Catholic supplements. Already, the world is revolting against his selfishness and will not cede. But the realisation passes and Bunny is immediately back to picturing a disembodied vagina – another repository for his self-projection – and glugging a bottle of vodka from the minibar. When he has to deal with the apparent suicide of his wife, he tries to contain his responsibility in his hurried escape. He takes his son on the road – the concert tour meaning is relevant here – and we see things from the boy's perspective. At first, the son's point of view works against his father's domination of the narrative, yet, as we know, he shares his father's name, so he too may be a projection of Bunny Munro. They travel across town to meet his dying and thoroughly unpleasant grandfather, who also just happens to be called Bunny Munro. The centrality and repetition of "un" in their name suggests the eventual negation of all selfhood, as well as the misery of its inheritance. And of course the triune of Bunnys also alludes to the Trinity. Perhaps the holy spirit is embodied by the youngest Bunny. His fascination with learning from the world – he studies an encyclopedia on the road trip – is not as blatant an indication of the possibility of redemption as the toy figure of Darth Vader he places on the dashboard is of the threat of genetic influence. But the symbolic content is a given from start, as this is a narrative borne on the struggle between Bunny's deranged imagination and the world. The death of Bunny Munro would then be the end of the struggle.

The end of the struggle would also mean the end of the novel. Death is preceded by a final night, a final performance on the road, in which Bunny walks on stage and makes a humble apology to an audience composed of those he has ill loved. Bunny is thrilled, suggesting that his life has really been only one long performance and this its apotheosis. Therefore any remorse he shows on stage also serves his self-regarding posture; it's still all about him. In this sense Nick Cave's stylised performance is necessary to its subject; the spotlight after all cannot illuminate anything beyond the stage. This is the fulfilment and insufficiency of The Death of Bunny Munro. If, as this novel demonstrates, life and art constitute a performance, then Nick Cave's is entertaining, memorable and stimulating. Only after the experience do we note that the performance of death is – in life and in writing – a striking absence.


  1. re: the name Bunny - I've read that Cave is an admirer of Updike, so I assume Bunny is some kind of hommage to the Rabbit books.

    Haven't read this novel, although I read a longish extract published in an anthology, and it didn't really grab me. One of the reasons being precisely the "vivid descriptions" you note. They struck me as being a bit try-hard, a self-consious attempt at being literary. But perhaps it works at novel length. It certainly works as performance:

  2. Anonymous11:41 am

    A big fan of Cave's music since way back (OK, since Henry's Dream), I'd already decided I wasn't interested in reading this book. He's a fine lyricist but it sounds as though he doesn't see much distinction between the arts. Still, 'furious tusks of smoke' is nice.

    In an interview last year, Cave responded to several questions which the interviewer could easily have researched by saying, "Google it, you fucker! Google it." This has entered my own conversation rather too often, and frequently to the discomfiture of people who don't know the connection (which is almost everyone). Still, it's too funny to resist.

    John Self (tried to sign in on my Googleityoufucker account but without success)

  3. I'd be surprised if Updike is an influence on his writing as the novel is more in the lineage of Amis and Bellow. I wondered in the past if the latter is known to Cave because Crime & the City Solution - an offshoot of The Birthday Party - have a great song called Dangling Man.

  4. Now we only need a real life Bunny Munro to post a comment.

  5. very bloody interesting. couldn't agree more about the performative, post-amis aspect of the prose - i actually found your blog because i was googling the very amisian "tusks of smoke" - cave's own coinage? appears to be... amis a paradoxical model in this case 'cause he's completely SECULAR, which is why (for me) his effects always seem to bump their heads against an invisible ceiling. and cave of course is not secular at all... anyway - much to ponder. i'm grateful. i reviewed the book here for the boston phoenix:

    all the best james parker (USA)



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