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Tracks through the wasteland

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

The Death of Bunny Munro Nick Cave

Canongate, pp.304, 16.99

Sex, and plenty of it. That’s certainly what Bunny Munro — the titular protagonist of Nick Cave’s second novel — wants. And, in a roundabout way, he gets it. In the very first chapter, he’s cheating on his wife with a prostitute; in the second, it’s a hotel waitress; in the third, he’s given to fantasies about Kylie Minogue; in the fourth … well, you get the picture. Throw in the fact that Bunny is a travelling cosmetics salesman in Brighton, and it starts to sound like one of those dreadful Robin Askwith comedies from the 1970s — you know, Confessions of a Window Cleaner.

But The Death of Bunny Munro isn’t actually a mindless, priapic romp. Far from it. There’s a sickliness and a pallor to the world Bunny inhabits which makes the book a fairly unnerving read. This is a drama composed of tower blocks, cocaine, Teletubbies, rohypnol, cheap perfume, Butlins, cancer and blood. It’s at once familiar, grotesque and otherworldly. Think of it as what EastEnders would be like if it were directed by David Lynch. Or like a typical issue of Viz.

One thing’s for sure: this novel’s grimy contours suit the era in which we live. At times, it reads like a study — or, in its more acerbic moments, a bestiary — of the credit crunch generation. There’s a hopelessness, a resignation, about Cave’s eccentric cast of drunks, nymphos, freaks and chancers. And who can blame them? Every page you turn to seems to contain some example of social or economic degradation. From family breakdown to ASBO teenagers, from anger to despair, this is a snapshot of Dysfunctional Modern Britain — taken, as it happens, by an Australian who now lives over here. When Bunny waxes eagerly about exploiting the poor, it comes across as a parable about the bursting debt bubble:

Because every fucking bastard and his dog has got hold of this little tree and is shaking it for all that it’s worth — the government, the bloody landlord, the lottery they don’t have a chance in hell of winning . . .

In effect, Cave plays the part of a railroad titan here; laying down a series of tracks to deliver us through this wasteland. There’s Bunny’s one-track mind, of course. But I’m thinking more of the road-trip he takes with his sensitive, nine- year-old son. Or Bunny’s general descent into madness. Or the enigmatic presence of a murderer who is killing his way to Brighton. We do know where these tracks eventually lead (the clue is in the title), but the joy comes in seeing how they intersect; how the trains pile up. In that respect, it’s a slightly perverse work.

Much of the driving force comes from Cave’s brash style. His influences seem pretty clear: from Nabokov to Amis, by way of J. G. Ballard. And while there are times it doesn’t quite work — when it veers towards the nihilistic platitudes of, say, the American author Chuck Palahniuk — there’s still a confidence about it which just pulls you along. These aren’t so much written words, as ones hewn out of concrete.

Besides, it’s the overall effect that matters. And the overall effect of The Death of Bunny Munro is tidal in its power. While, by rights, you shouldn’t really like Bunny at the end of the book, there’s still something very moving about his eventual passing. It’s difficult to put your finger on why that is. Maybe it’s because we feel for his orphaned son. Or maybe it’s because it’s the first time when Bunny seems truly sorry for his actions. But my bet is that it’s down to the vividness of Cave’s language and imagery.

What with this book, his previous novel, his screenplays, his film scores and his various musical projects, Cave is fast becoming a jack of all trades who is, happily, a master of some. And while you’d be pushing it to say that The Death of Bunny Munro is the work of a master novelist, it’s definitely no slouch.

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