It’s hard to think of an artist who’s been as prolific and versatile as Nick Cave has in his late 40s and early 50s, at a point when most in the rock ’n’ roll business are falling into self-parody.
In the last five years alone, the Australian-born songwriter has put his name to a pair of acclaimed albums as well as a screenplay for the bleak Aussie western The Proposition. He’s also composed music for theatrical stagings of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, along with movie soundtracks for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the new adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Now, as if to make us all look truly lazy, Cave has published his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro (HarperCollins, $29.99), a harrowing yet deliriously spirited slide into damnation. It’s as if he’s living out lines from “Jesus of the Moon”, one of the highlights on Dig Lazarus Dig!!!, his latest album with his legendary band the Bad Seeds. Halfway through that song, his grainy voice leans in like a late-night barroom confidante: “People often talk about being scared of change,” he croons, “but for me, I’m more afraid of things staying the same/Because the game is never won by standing in any one place for too long.”
As Cave explains to the Straight, it’s all part of a strategy of continual renewal.
“In order to keep what I do alive—which is write songs and make records—I’ve realized over the years that I have to do other things to reenergize myself,” he says when reached by phone during an Ottawa tour stop. “Once I’ve been involved with Hollywood, for example, doing a film score or writing a film script, there’s nothing I want to do more—I mean, I could run screaming back into the studio. So working on other things reenergizes my relationship with music. I don’t think I could only make records, one record after another. I think people try and do that, and that’s why they can only get through three or four records without the whole thing kind of falling apart. You know, I write novels or scripts or soundtracks instead of going on holiday.”
The Death of Bunny Munro hardly comes across as playful distraction, however. Combining a mordant wit reminiscent of Martin Amis with the compact, evocative phrasing that Cave has refined during his quarter-century as one of rock’s most literary songwriters, the story tracks the downward spiral of a sex-obsessed travelling salesman, that time-honoured archetype of dirty jokes. Bunny Munro is a man literally possessed by his libido, rutting his way to ruin. As he moves about his hometown of Brighton, England (where Cave himself now lives), we are constantly aware of his anatomically detailed daydreams—constantly with him beneath “the pornographic think-bubble that hangs over his head”, as the narrator puts it.
In conversation, Cave describes Bunny’s descent as “an epic flight away from love. He doesn’t have any real capacity to love. It terrifies him.” Thus, early in the novel, the slick-haired, hard-drinking lothario is pushed deeper into his fantasy world by his wife’s suicide—itself the result of Bunny’s endless philandering. Not even the unconditional worship offered him by his nine-year-old son, Bunny Jr., can pry him out of his desires. Bunny senses that he’s as doomed as Don Juan—stalked by a sinister figure in a devil costume and regularly caught up in close calls with careening trucks. Yet he soldiers on, steadily downhill.
“What I was trying to do,” Cave says, “is give him—very, very briefly—moments of clarity, where some other thing sticks its head over the parapet of his libido and then pulls back in again. But it’s not fate for Bunny Munro. He is the kind of person who will always make the wrong decision. There are decisions along the way that he could make that would have changed the trajectory of his life and the other people around it.”
As Cave suggests, Bunny’s compulsion, both self-aware and self-destructive, is modelled partly on the bouts of heavy substance abuse for which he was infamous years ago. “Without going into it in detail, I know this,” he states. “I’m familiar with this way of thinking from being a drug addict, in the same way that he is, I guess, to use a modern term, a sex addict. And occasionally there are moments of regret and clarity and guilt and so forth that rise up out of this but quickly die down—that are battered back down, because you can’t afford to be thinking that way. But I don’t believe in fate, in the way that it may appear in the book. I think we can make right decisions or wrong decisions.”
With all of this in play, there’s a ferocity to The Death of Bunny Munro. It simmers with as much dread as the many Nick Cave songs that delve into themes of violence, sex, God, and death. But as is often the case with his most fearsome lyrics, the book also has a sly levity, a kind of laughter in the dark that is strangely affirming. Cave’s work may be menacing, even terrifying at times, but it’s never miserable.
“Humour’s hugely important,” he explains. “It’s always been important in my songs. It was largely overlooked, but I think the humour’s become broader these days—more inclusive, shall we say. I’m actually a comic songwriter a lot of the time. I sit down in order to write a comic song. That’s not to say they aren’t serious, but often the way to get to the points I’m trying to get to is through humour.”
This element of the absurd is crucial to Bunny Munro’s balancing act, given that the story has roots not only in the darkest chapters of Cave’s life but also in weighty literary sources that have long inspired him. One of these is the Gospel of St. Mark, the oldest and briefest of the Bible’s four accounts of the life of Jesus. As Cave noted in a foreword he wrote for a 1998 edition of the gospel, he first encountered the text following years of obsession with the Old Testament and its “maniacal, punitive God”. The central figure in Mark, he explained in the essay, “had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist.” The essential humanness of Mark’s Christ provides us with a blueprint for our own lives so that we have something we can aspire to rather than revere, that can lift us free of the mundanity of our existences rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy.” And as Cave says in conversation, he’s been gripped ever since by Mark’s story—by what he calls “the energy of it”.
“If you compare it to the other gospels, there’s an urgency about it that I really like,” he says. “And I like that in other novels. I like that in crime literature and in certain poets. It’s a kind of rapid-fire delivery. You know, the gospel of Mark reads like James Ellroy, to me. Everything’s happening super-fast.
“It’s like he gets in and out of the scene as quickly as possible,” Cave continues with a laugh. “It reads like a movie pitch—when you walk into the studio and you have to say what your movie’s about and you’ve got, you know, five minutes to do it in. It reads like that.”
Still, the influence of scripture on The Death of Bunny Munro is less obvious than that of another work Cave has cited as an inspiration for the novel: radical feminist Valerie Solanas’s 1968 SCUM Manifesto, a tract characterizing the human male as “a half-dead, unresponsive lump” driven by pure appetite. The gruellingly egocentric character of Bunny seems carved out of Solanas’s phrases: “obsessed with screwing”, “incapable of empathizing”, “trapped inside himself”. But where, in all of that mayhem and subhumanity, is the biblical tale?
In the foundations of Bunny Munro, Cave says. Mark’s gospel “rockets through the story in order to get to its absolute preoccupation, which is with the death of the protagonist,” he points out. “And it’s episodic in a similar way to my novel. From the title of my book and the first line of my book, you are preparing for the death of the central character. So structurally it’s actually quite similar—although it’s not a redemption story in the same way as the gospel is.”
These wide-ranging references are a legacy of Cave’s small-town Australian childhood, in which his librarian mother and English-teacher father instilled in him a love of reading. But as someone who has moved easily across the boundaries between disciplines, and has witnessed firsthand the effects of the digital revolution on once-stable art forms, he feels that “the world becomes increasingly less suited” to the experience of sitting silently with black-and-white pages of text. So he’s pleased that The Death of Bunny Munro exists not only as a conventional novel but also as a full-fledged e-book, downloadable to iPhones and iPods. This multimedia app comes with a carefully mixed soundtrack that includes original music he composed with bandmate Warren Ellis, videos of him reading from the book, and features for networking with other readers.
“I’m not really going to read a book as an app, personally,” Cave admits. Yet he sees the format as a way of embracing an increasingly wired future. “I work in music,” he says, “and the music industry didn’t do that, and it’s been a kind of death blow to the music industry. And it’s largely because they resisted the Internet and didn’t try and work with it—work with something that is inevitable. You know, for me, I still like putting a vinyl record on, and I still like opening up a book. But I’m 52 years old. There’s a lot of people out there that are very comfortable holding on to an iPhone—more comfortable holding on to an iPhone than a book, that’s for sure. That may be tragic, but it’s inevitable.”
As inevitable as the downfall of Bunny Munro. But while the main character in this hard-edged yet humane novel is driven by fear from door to door, woman to woman, the author himself thrives on a restlessness that’s made him more creative than ever.