Saturday, February 20, 2016
The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
And when I flipped the paperback over and saw this:
UNCORRECTED PROOF/NOT FOR SALE
These proofs are not to be quoted for publication. Publication date is tentative. Please consult the finished book or the FSG Publicity Department before scheduling your review.
I was hooked. I had to have it.
Of course, later on, at home, 0.62 seconds on Google told me that The Death of Bunny Munro was published (in 2009), that it is the second novel Cave has written, and that his bibliography includes other books of poetry, plays and song lyrics.
No matter. Let’s dive in. So, what kind of novel is The Death of Bunny Munro? That is perhaps best answered by answering two other questions.
What kind of character is Bunny Munro?
Frankly, a repellent one. Here’s the opening paragraph.
‘I am damned,’ thinks Bunny Munro in a sudden moment of self-awareness reserved for those who are soon to die. He feels that somewhere down the line he had made a grave mistake, but this realisation passes in a dreadful heartbeat, and is gone--leaving him in a room at the Grenville Hotel, in his underwear, with nothing but himself and his appetites. He closes his eyes and pictures a random vagina, then sits on the edge of the hotel bed and, in slow motion, leans back against the quilted headboard. He clamps the mobile phone under his chin and with his teeth breaks the seal on a miniature bottle of brandy. He empties the bottle down his throat, lobs it across the room, then shudders and gags and says into the phone, ‘Don’t worry, love, everything’s going to be all right.’
Bunny is a salesman (the Willy Loman parallel is flirted with, but never fully exploited, in my opinion) and the woman he’s talking to on the phone is his clinically depressed wife, who Bunny will discover as having hanged herself when he gets home from the current trip he is on. Before then, he will encounter:
1. A prostitute. Her fluorescent pink knickers pulse against her chocolate-coloured skin. She scratches her cornrows and a slice of orange flesh peeps behind her drug-slack lower lip. Bunny thinks that her nipples look like the triggers on those mines they floated in the sea to blow up ships in the war or something, and almost tells her this, but forgets and draws on his cigarette again and says, ‘That was my wife. She suffers from depression.’ Yes, the prostitute was in the bathroom while Bunny was talking to his wife.
2. An odd couple in the hotel restaurant. A man with reptilian teeth, the bright spot of his scalp blinking through his thinning hair, strokes the jewelled hand of a woman in her mid-forties. He meets Bunny’s gaze with a leer of recognition--they’re both on the same game. The woman looks at Bunny and Bunny checks out her expression-free eyes, cold beneath her Botox-heavy brow. He takes in her bronzed skin, peroxided hair and gelatinous lips, the freckled cleavage of her vast modified bosom, and experiences a familiar tightening in his crotch. Bunny zones out for a while and then in a flash remembers the woman, a year ago, maybe two, in a hotel on Lancing seafront, pre-surgery. He recalls waking in a horror of confusion, his body smeared alarmingly in her orange fake tan. ‘What?’ he cried, slapping at his discoloured skin. ‘What?’ he cried, in panic.
3. A waitress. Bunny looks up and becomes aware of a waitress standing over him holding in front of her a full English breakfast. Cheeks, chin, breasts, stomach and buttocks--she looks like she has been designed solely with a compass--a series of soft, fleshy circles, in the middle of which hover two large, round, colourless eyes. She wears a purple gingham uniform, a size too small, with white collar and cuffs, her hair raked back in a ponytail and a nametag that says ‘RIVER’. As Bunny disimagines her clothes he thinks for a fraction of a second of a pile of custard-injected profiteroles, then a wet bag of overripe peaches, but settles on the mental image of her vagina, with its hair and its hole.
4. A “delirious burlesque of summertime unfolding before him.” Groups of scissor-legged school-things with their pierced midriffs, logoed jogging girls, happy, rumpy dog-walkers, couples actually copulating on the summer lawns, beached pussy prostrate beneath the erotically-shaped cumulus, loads of fucking girls who were up for it--big ones, little ones, black ones, white ones, young ones, old ones, give-me-a-minute-and-I’ll-find-your-beauty-spot ones, yummy single mothers, the bright joyful breasts of waxed bikini babes, the pebble-stippled backsides of women fresh from the beach--the whole thing fucking immense, man, thinks Bunny--blondes, brunettes and green-eyed redheads that you just got to love, and Bunny slows the Punto to a crawl and rolls down the window.
That’s all in the 18 pages between the opening scene in the hotel room and Bunny’s discovery of his wife’s dead body. And his first thought upon that discovery?
Her face is the purple colour of an aubergine or something and Bunny thinks, for an instant, as he squeezes shut his eyes to expunge the thought, that her tits look good.
Cave lays it on thick, and anyone who has any squeamishness about the use of female genitalia as a literary device--metaphor, meat cleaver, or McGuffin; you be the judge--should read no further. I usually don’t bother myself with this kind of thing, but this may be the first post I’ve written about a book that’s worthy of a trigger warning.
You've been warned.
Bunny takes another bite of his Big Mac and knows what everybody knows who is into this sort of thing--that with its flaccid bun, its spongy meat, the cheese, the slimy little pickle and, of course, the briny special sauce, biting into a Big Mac was as close to eating pussy as, well, eating pussy. Bunny put this to Poodle down the Wick one lunchtime, and Poodle, self-proclaimed sexpert and barracuda, argued that eating a tuna carpaccio was actually a lot more like eating pussy than a Big Mac, and this argument raged all through the afternoon, becoming increasingly hostile as the pints went down. Finally Geoffrey, in his near-Godlike wisdom, decided that eating a Big Mac was like eating a fat chick’s pussy and eating a tuna carpaccio was like eating a skinny chick’s pussy, and they left it that. Whatever. Bunny wipes at a blob of special sauce that runs down his chin with the back of his hand. He licks his lips as Emily the cashier throws Bunny another look and scratches at her acne. Bunny can see her nipples actually harden under her uniform, and the effect this has on him is so monumental that Bunny hardly registers that his son is asking him a question.
That’s on page 147, and it was right about there that I started wondering if the pulp would ever end. Bunny Munro, as alluded to in Cave’s opening paragraph, is clearly a slave to his own appetites, sexual and otherwise, and there are only two things, I decide suddenly, that are giving me the strength to slog through the hyberbolic gratuitousness of it all.
One, will Bunny change? Will he actually have a story arc? Will he take control of the aimlessness of his life before it comes to the end foretold in the book’s title?
And two, is Cave a skilled enough writer to pull that off without being maudlin or grotesque? Is he, in fact, digging a hole of depravity (dare I say, much the way Nabokov did in Lolita) with the intent and expectation that he will, in the end, be able to rise above it, to dazzle us, to make us happy to have been dragged through his muck so we could experience the transcendent sublimity he has waiting for us at the end?
So, onto the second question.
What kind of writer is Nick Cave?
Frankly, a disappointing one. There are times when his prose sings. If you look past the subject matter, you may have already realized that by reading some of the selected passages above.
The zipper gapes open in his trousers and faded blue tattoos peek from the sleeves of his jumper and the open neck of his shirt. The skin on his face is as grey as pulped newspaper and the gums of his dentures are stained florid purple, the teeth bulky and brown. A sullage of colourless hair spills down the back of his egg-shaped skull, like chicken gravy.
Descriptions and turns of phrase like these abound, but they are too often ruined by a crutch that I can only assume was eliminated by a conscientious editor before the final novel went to press.
He finds the Adult Channel and a televised phone-in-sex-line and he allows an East European girl named Evana, who has a tight, hot, wet pussy and the bedside manner of a mallet or something, to coax Bunny through the most forlorn wank, he thinks, in the history of the world.
Or something. What are those two words doing there? Read it again and take those two words out.
He finds the Adult Channel and a televised phone-in-sex-line and he allows an East European girl named Evana, who has a tight, hot, wet pussy and the bedside manner of a mallet, to coax Bunny through the most forlorn wank, he thinks, in the history of the world.
Then why does it keep showing up again and again? Or something. Maybe someday I’ll go back and count them all, but you can be sure that I wouldn’t be mentioning it here if it didn’t feel like they showed up every other page or so.
Okay. Here’s a little bit of Fiction Writing 101. Or something works in a character’s speech...
‘The thing is--if a Zulu warrior wants to spear an antelope or a zebra or something, he doesn’t go stomping through the bush with his boots on and hope the antelope is gonna stay put.’
And sometimes it can work when the narrator is representing a character’s thoughts…
The boy notices that the people look like the undead or aliens or something as he weaves his way through the crowd.
But when the narrator himself uses or something, the author is signaling to the reader either that the narrator is flighty and unreliable, or that the author behind the narrator has run out of creative ideas.
His father keeps walking in a peculiar way and beating at his clothes with his hand and looking over his shoulder, and the sea mist continues to roll towards them, like a great white wall, blurring the line between the real world and its fogbound dream or something.
Don’t do it. In the pure narrative voice, the sentence is always stronger without the or something tacked onto the end of it.
...blurring the line between the real world and its fogbound dream.
Now, that’s a forgiveable sin, especially in an uncorrected proof, but after a lot of thought, I have to say that the device Cave uses at the very climax of his novel isn’t.
The death of Bunny Munro comes in the form of a traffic accident with a Dudman cement mixer, the car in which Bunny and his son (Bunny Junior) are riding mangled, Bunny ejected, and then struck by lightning. No, really. Thrown from his car and then struck by lightning. Talk about a bad day.
But upon first read it is difficult to tell if Bunny has actually died, because his first person perspective continues for another 24 pages. First, he is raped by what I can only assume is the devil.
Then he sees the smeared, scarlet face with its black hole of a mouth, its raw, red tongue, its yellow eyes, its goatish horns, all come down upon him like a lover, and he experiences a searing penetration between his splayed buttocks.
Then it’s a new chapter and Bunny is staying at a hotel in some English resort community, where he has apparently invited all the women he has ever abused or lusted over in his long career as a womanizing pig. They’re gathered and evidently waiting for him in the hotel ballroom.
Bunny walks on stage to blind and uproarious applause. He enters an apron of red light that spills across the stage like splashed ink. He registers the foot stomps and cheers and whistles, and for a brief moment Bunny feels the air of compacted dread loosen around his heart and thinks that, all things considered, his plan may not be so foolhardy as he had previously thought and sending out the invitations to these women was perhaps not such a dumb idea after all.
Now, I like to think I’m a careful reader. I’m already suspecting that this isn’t real, that Bunny is having some kind of Bullet in the Brain experience, that all of this, the anal rape and this ballroom scene, is just something passing through Bunny’s mind with the electric current of the lightning that struck him, and that at some point Cave is going to put Bunny and the reader back on the wet pavement beside the smashed cement mixer.
Which, in fact, he does.
But before that happens, Cave has Bunny come clean and throw himself on the mercy of all the women he has wronged.
‘I was a salesman, all right,’ says Bunny, ‘peddling misery, door to door,’ and he closes his eyes and surrenders to his own swooning testimony and his body is picked up and sent floating about on little prayers of refracted light. He places his hands inside his shirt and traces his fingers along the embossed scar that the electric charge has written into his body and talks about the nature of love and how frightened it made him feel, how the very existence of it terrified him and had him running scared and, with beads of red perspiration blossoming in the palms of his hands, he talks about the suicide of his wife and his own accountability in that dreadful act. He talks about the terrible absence of her in his life and in the life of his boy.
And now, admittedly, Cave has me wondering. Bunny sent out invitations? He touches the scar the lightning bolt left behind? Maybe this is really happening. Did Bunny somehow survive his tragicomic accident and now really is confessing himself in front of the women he has wronged?
But no. Listen to what Bunny is saying. This sentimentality, this pathos, this human feeling--it is all out of place. Bunny has exhibited no sign of it in the previous 270 pages of boozing, smoking and whoring. No matter how many times he has been struck by lightning, Cave doesn’t expect me to believe that he has honestly changed his ways. Does he?
Of course not. He’s just setting me up for the coup de grace. For how do the women react when Bunny asks forlornly for their forgiveness?
River the waitress approaches Bunny and throws her arms around his neck and cries strawberry tears upon his chest and forgives, and Mushroom Dave embraces Bunny and forgives, and the little junkie chick smiles up at him through her ironed hair and kohled eyes and forgives and all the girls from McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and KFC hold onto Bunny and kiss him and forgive and Mrs Pennington moves forward with her wheelchaired husband and lifts her arms up and Bunny embraces her and together they weep and together they forgive and Bunny moves through the crowd and feels a chill in the air and notices a ghost of frost curl from his lips as Charlotte Parnovar dressed as Frida Kahlo hugs him with her muscular arms and forgives and the blind Mrs Brooks reaches out to him with her ancient hands and forgives and people kiss him and hug him and pat him on the back and forgive--because we so much want to forgive and to be forgiven ourselves--and Bunny sees Libby, his wife, through the crowd, dressed in her orange nightdress and as he moves towards her the crowd parts and he smiles into a prism of light and green oily oversized tears fall down his face and he says, ‘Forgive me, Libby. Oh, Libby, forgive me.’
They embrace him. The kiss and hug him. They forgive him. Because we so much want to forgive and to be forgiven ourselves. And his wife Libby is a dead giveaway that this isn’t real, that this is all happening in Bunny’s lightning-addled mind in the seconds before he himself passes on. Which means, of course, that no one is forgiving him. He is really just forgiving himself, isn’t he? Forgiving himself for being such an unbridled ass and narcissistic screw-up his whole life.
And I’m left wondering whether that is okay. Whether it is enough in a novel such as this for a character such as Bunny Munro to forgive himself in the last few moments before his death. Bunny forgives himself. So what? Should that count as a character arc?
It’s a tough call. I can read authorial intent into it if I choose, but honestly, the experience of reading the rest of the novel doesn’t prime me for it. Indeed, looking back on the experience of reading The Death of Bunny Munro, I feel myself thinking about its author as young Bunny Junior comes to think about his father in a scene 60 pages before his ultimate demise.
The boy looks at his father and a stone-cold realisation hits him--he sees in the appalling orbits of his father’s eyes a resident terror that makes the child recoil. Bunny Junior sees, at that moment, that his father has no idea what he is doing or where he is going. The boy realises, suddenly, that for some time he has been the passenger on an aeroplane and that he has walked into the cockpit only to find that the pilot is dead drunk at the controls and absolutely no one is flying the plane. Bunny looks into his father’s panic-stricken eyes and sees a thousand incomprehensible dials and switches and meters all spinning wildly and little red bulbs flashing on and off and going beep, beep, beep and he feels, with a nauseating swoon, the aeroplane’s nose tip resolutely earthward and the big blue fiendish world come rushing up to annihilate him--and it scares him.
I’ll admit I never felt scared reading The Death of Bunny Munro, but the experience was a lot like the wild “aeroplane” ride that Bunny Junior describes.
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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.