Thursday, September 24, 2009
Pico Iyer is lost. It’s a condition he uses to great effect in his increasingly internalised travel books as we find him on the road to somewhere he’s not sure of. Wandering through dark and foreign backstreets or along paths tinged with feral emptiness, sensitised to a world in which he almost always appears to be, even in the company of such luminary figures as Leonard Cohen and the Dalai Lama, somewhat alone in spirit.
“For me,” Iyer says, “being a traveller means setting yourself new challenges even when you are sitting at your desk.” In that sense it’s also about “the foreign places inside ourselves.”
His first book, the 1988 travel collection Video Night in Kathmandu, announced a major new talent. By 1995 the Utne Reader was placing him alongside Noam Chomsky and Vaclav Havel in a list of 100 visionaries worldwide who could change our lives. With his last collection, 2004’s Sun After Dark (subtitled Flights Into The Foreign), a kind of deeper, darker brother to 2000’s The Global Soul (subtitled Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search For Home), he confirmed his place — if that’s not too ironic a word to use — among the finest travel writers we know.
Iyer’s limpid literary style, blessed with an essayist’s logic and a mystic’s openness to the inexplicable and the poetic, seems custom built for the profession. He nonetheless observes “the mark of a travel-writer is that he never wishes to be called a travel-writer — Jan Morris is a historian, Bruce Chatwin was an anthropologist of sorts, Naipaul is a writer on the legacy of colonialism, Paul Theroux I see primarily as a novelist. A travel writer is someone who doesn’t feel comfortable within the straightjacket of any definition. So I’ve never considered myself really a travel-writer, so much as an observer of cultures converging, or a describer of what’s new to me, and strange.”
The two of us began our correspondence a year ago when Sun After Dark was released, at first by email, then over the phone for an interview, and by ongoing email since that time. Somewhere along the way we became friends. As a fellow writer I’ve been struck by Iyer’s desire for comradeship as well as his ongoing faith in the affinities between people — and how that can be woven into a new form of community internationally. Not for Iyer the terse one liner, the lower case rush. He writes letters. And he writes them to you.
Born in England in 1952 to Indian parents who later migrated to the USA, Iyer spent his childhood in California before returning to England to be educated at Eton and Oxford. It’s a background that causes him to say he is “a bit of a weird mongrel.” In the past he has also called himself “a global village on two legs.”
The author now lives with his female partner in Nara, a city identified with the rural traditions and artistry of old Japan, where he shuns both car and bike and prefers to “travel by foot”. In-between global travels that take in annual visits to his mother who still lives in California, he regularly stays at a Benedictine monastery outside of Los Angeles where he has spent “two weeks in spring and two weeks in late winter every year for the last fourteen years. I travel a lot but I also need stillness. I look out from the monastery and see a great expanse of sky and ocean and there’s nothing but tolling bells. It kind of complements all the movement in my life.”
Iyer tells me the impact of digital communications and the World Wide Web has deeply affected how one should approach the task of travel writing, a problem of pacing as much as content. On a personal level he says he is part of the “pre-computer generation,” meaning he has a preference for taking notes and writing initial drafts longhand, “then and there, while the place is still inside me and I can see, smell, taste and hear it. There’s something about the energy of moving your hand across the page, the rhythm, a human connection. The whole movement of writing on computer is different. There’s a staccato to the keys. I noticed it first when I started using email for stories and a different self emerged, more metallic and chill.”
The bigger picture is that when he first went to countries like Tibet seventeen years ago “people had very little access to the place. Now there have been movies about Tibet, people can access images on the net,” the amount of information is simply greater. With this comes the danger of what he calls “the illusion of knowing” this can create, a kind of false intimacy with the world. In the specific case of Tibet it made him want to return and “explore the inner Tibet, take a more inward way of looking at it.”
This notion of internal voyaging and his appreciation for the molten condition of modern travel writing, “the way fiction and non-fiction have become blurred”, the radical movements within the best writers’ work that somehow embraces history, memoir and journalistic insight, are all inciting him forward to try new things. Which is why Sun After Dark had terrifically haunting pieces on Yemen and Bali set beside encounters with the author Kazuo Ishiguro and a literary appreciation of the work of W. G. Sebald (whom he calls “the prince of intimations,” a phrase that could well haunt the aspirations he has for his own writing).
In truth Iyer says he’d like to do something akin to what Paul Theroux managed in My Other Life and My Secret History, “which are his most interesting books — and his most interesting travel books — where he creates a character very much like himself, as if it were a novel.”
Which is not to say Iyer abandons observational acuity for the inner search. Twenty years as a travel writer have conditioned him to a keenness of eye and ear the envy of many journalists. His more recent stories testify to that strength as much as any internal voyaging.
In ‘A Haunted House of Treasures’ he brilliantly evokes a visit to the war-ravaged monument of Angkor in Cambodia with broad historical and natural detail as well as sudden gestural shocks like “the little girl who put a water pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger.” In another recent story, ‘The Khareef’ he sweeps you up into the dark velocity of physically distant but absolutely entwined worlds as moves through Yemen then back to the USA just prior to September 11. The promises and dark ironies of global interconnectedness are throughout his work. Iyer talks to me about how “America’s destiny is caught up in the Middle East but no one ever goes there.” Which make “the role of the writer is to penetrate the other” that much more vital.
Lately, Iyer tells me he has been following U2 and the Dalai Lama (who likes to call him “Pinocchio”) around the world for a new book project, though it is still taking shape as he contacts me from London, L.A. and wherever else he can find an internet cafe. “I suppose my theme, and my interest, in recent times has been trying to see the global reality forming all around us,” he says, “to travel from Syria to California to Easter Island to Japan, and to find what there is redeeming in it, at some level much deeper than markets or machines. And two of the obvious forces for good who are doing this on a much greater scale are U2 and the Dalai Lama, with their very different attempts to balance hope and realism, to make ‘hope and history rhyme,’ to paraphrase the phrase Bono took from [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney. So this year I decided to spend what time and money I could save following these messengers of hope.”
“I just read Bono's book of recent interviews last week, and was constantly impressed that he speaks lyrically for the same battle with conscience and determination not to let the world get him down that the Dalai Lama does. He cites the Dalai Lama twice, speaking about how all life is a preparation for death, and [how] he wrote his great gnarled ballad ‘One’ for a Tibet Freedom Concert, noting, as the Dalai Lama might, that we're ‘one, but we’re not the same.’”
When I read letters like this from Iyer I’m immediately aware of the fan in him. But there’s more to it than that. There’s his belief in the heroic, the poetic, the possible. That as human beings we’re all still making it up as we go along, and the best and luckiest among us have a chance to make at least some of it up for all of us. In that larger frame, the lyrics to ‘One’ aren’t just part of Iyer’s literary and personal conundrum, they’re a grace note for the communicators among us.
“It sounds pretentious, perhaps, but having written at length about Easter Island and North Korea and Bhutan and many other places, I get more excited these days writing about jet lag, or dream-states, or travels to the night, the unconsidered corners of the clock,” Iyer says. “I want to make travel writing new again for myself, and exciting. I want to expand it to cover something more, and deeper than a physical world that is already covered far too intensely.
“One of my great heroes among travellers is Thoreau, who ‘travelled widely in Concord,’ as he put it. And I've always felt that travelling is really just a case of being moved, being transported; the physical movement is only an easy way to catalyze the inner movement, which is what really stays with one. And so the realms of spirit, if that is what you wish to call it, are as inexhaustible as anything in Tibet, and I do much of my travelling now while just sitting in one room for months on end, or walking around my neighbourhood, or returning (as I am now, writing this to you) to the town where I was born, and trying to measure the shadow it casts inside me, and the person who emerged from its strange climate. ‘It matters little how far you travel,’ as Thoreau wrote, ‘the farthest commonly the worst. What is important is how alive you are.’
“Whether I travel, how I live, where I go and what I choose to look at are all, ultimately, just ways of trying to keep myself alive, engaged, and not in the rut that travel tries to shake you out of. Travel, again, is another word for transport, and transport really just a way of talking about travelling into other selves, the counter-lives, and alternative selves we visit do rarely in the normal run of things.”
“I think that degree of intimacy and unsettledness, what we share with those closest to us, is how we can take travel writing deeper, and make it something more than just a collection of digital slides from our trip bicycling across Gambia. It's how we give it a landscape as rich and mysterious and unfathomable as those worlds that fiction and poetry have traditionally occupied. When you look at the great travellers of today, whether Kapuscinski or Naipaul or Sebald, all are bringing an intensity of questioning and engagement that lifts their writing to the level of the highest reportage or poetry. Putting themselves on the line — at risk — they are venturing everything in their attempts to wrestle their demons and the world’s to the ground.”
- Mark Mordue
* Above story first published in The Weekend Australian Travel 'Flight Deck' section, Febuary 12th 2005; Planet Magazine in San Francisco, Spring 2006; and Kyoto Journal, Japan, Issue No, 67, 2007.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Chongqing is exploding. Dubbed “the invisible city” by The Guardian (UK) newspaper because so few people outside of China have heard of the place, it sees some 1,300 people a day flooding into its precincts, around half a million new residents a year. That makes Chongqing the fastest growing urban conglomeration on the planet, a vital wheel in the Chinese government’s ‘Go West’ campaign to regenerate a feudally impoverished and underdeveloped interior – and an increasingly potent equal to the great eastern cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.
Located on the merging veins of the Jialing and Yangtze, it is also upriver from the Three Gorges Project, the world’s largest dam, the building of which has helped drive the immigrant rush into the city as well as power its almost insane expansion. Once a part of the Sichuan province, Chongqing has simply become too big for that state to handle. It's now an independent ‘municipality’ with some 31 million people living in both the city and the surrounding hills and farming regions into which it is spreading like a fire.
Inevitably the young artists of Chongqing manifest this energy: a clamor, optimism and virulence the likes of which the West has not seen the nineteenth century days of the Industrial Revolution. These artists are all products of the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy where the acclaimed likes of Zhang Xiaogang were previously trained during the 1980s. Against the grain of other all-pervasive Chinese teaching institutions, the Academy has now produced a new wave of graduates distinguished by the radical variety of their individual styles rather than a group or generational signature. It’s a development attributed to the liberating influence of their two Masters, Yang Shu and Chen Weimin.
Yang Shu’s own paintings have the organic mysticism of a Kandinsky to them if Ralph Steadman had been holding the brush, lotus-like abstractions with a violent, off-kilter undercurrents coming at you across the canvases. Chen Weimin’s work is saturated in colours – bright blues, sponge pinks, luminous yellows – that appear to reconstitute the buildings and advertising iconography of Chongqing into a psychedelic vision circa San Francisco 1969. Summaries are always glib, but Yang seems to chart the hilly vertigo of the city’s frantic road life, its endless noise and rural-shattering expansion as something phantasmic, deeply internalized; while Chen depicts a scenic actuality of eye-popping beauty and radio-active consumer absolutes, a city soaked in its own urges.
With Yang and Chen’s guidance a showcase exhibition of a generation under their tutelage has been put together called ‘Sichuan Hot: New Painting from Chongqing City, China’. The title makes an obvious reference to the famously spicy and eye-wateringly intense hot-pot dishes for which all of Sichuan is justly famous. It has been assembled by the curators Ray and Evan Hughes of the Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney in partnership with Simon Wright, the Director of the Queensland College of Art Gallery at Griffith University. Already ‘Sichuan Hot’ is shaping up as one of the most cutting edge displays of contemporary Chinese art in the world today, though all three curators are quick to state that while Yang and Chen provide “an impressive entry point” as Wright puts it, “the exhibition is really an emerging artists’ show – it’s also less about contemporary ‘Chinese’ art than contemporary art internationally.”
Li Li is the best known of the group on those terms, with successful showings already in Hong Kong and New York. She regularly depicts herself as a pony-tailed girl in flat-planed cartoon situations, gleefully taking to rainbows with a flame thrower and devouring trees in a stoned reverie like some giant panda, or dismembering herself in eerily detached pastel settings. Zen Hong is perhaps the most restrained of all the artists by comparison, producing austere, highly detailed architectural facades in monochromatic grids with nothing more than a pen and a ruler – work that curator Simon Wright finds overwhelmingly “painstaking and on a level of obsession I still can’t work out”.
Li Hua’s rough and blaring abstractions meanwhile suggest comparisons to Hundertwasser, works so ropey and dense they appear ready to slide off the canvas to the floor. Her studio partner Li Bin Bin creates a more floating mix of vine-like DNA and Mandelbrot fractals that blend organic and digital terrains. Both artists give off the impression of looking inside an aquarium, one wretchedly, colour-fully polluted, the other odd and futuristic. Liu Wei Wei’s work is from somewhere else again: voodoo figurines that suggest Jean Michael Baquiat and the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ on a glam-rock bender.
This is from China? Really?
Evan Hughes elaborates on this eclecticism by explaining how all three curators found themselves “reacting against this idea there was a Chinese style of painting”, not to mention the market-driven mania that has reinforced it. Just when Beijing and Shanghai seemed to be playing themselves out in the long aftermath of the Cynical Realist and Gaudy Artist movements of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Chongqing opened their eyes again to other possibilities. “I’ve never seen my father be so committed or work so hard on a show,” he says of the ‘Sichuan Hot’ show. “Never.”
For Ray Hughes the exhibition is the pay-off to “an energy that has been feeding me for fourteen years” ever since his first thrilling visits to the Mainland, which would go on to establish his Sydney gallery as the bridge-head for modern Chinese art in Australia. Hughes has shown works by major painters like Liu Wei, Liu Xiaodong and Qi Zhilong, and continues to maintain relationships with some of the most important Chinese artists of the era as well as idiosyncratic choices like the Luo Brothers and Chang Xugong that have proved equally astute and enduring.
He nonetheless likens arriving in Chongqing to how he felt visiting New York in the 1970s. The camaraderie of the young artists, “the labyrinth of studios,” “this scene happening”; all in an extremely hilly city of aggressive vibrancy he repeatedly describes as “like something out of the street-scenes in Bladerunner”.
Historical resonances add another undercurrent to this atmosphere. Chongqing is said to have been the site for the war-like 11th century BC kingdom of Ba, famed for its short, and ferociously effective, curved swords. Nearby is Fishing Town, one of the three great battlefields of China, “the Place That Broke God’s Whip”, where the Mongol hordes were turned back during the Song Dynasty. The same warrior spirit would make it the heart of resistance to the Japanese invasion in World War Two, and the provisional capital of China under Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang forces. Whenever the country has been in trouble, it seems, it is Chongqing that has closed its fist and turned the invaders away.
Along with automobile and motorbike manufacturing, the military still plays a big part in the city’s industrial life, and there is extensive coal mining across the region. Given its hilly setting and the mountains that surround it, Chongqing climbs upwards as much as outwards, and remains unusual for a Chinese city in that there are virtually no bicycles to be seen on the streets. Car ownership doubles every five years – and with the World Bank ranking 16 of China’s cities among the 20 most polluted in the world, Chongqing consistently languishes among the worst offenders despite ‘clear-sky days’ and a recent shift towards cleaner hi-tech and I.T.-related industries.
Many of the artist’s studios bear witness to the city’s military history, massive work spaces that have been developed out of former tank lofts and now serve the more creative warrior spirit. “Most art schools lay down train tracks like Tootles. Here there was a green light to go and chase something and I liked that,” says Ray Hughes of visiting the Academy. “There wasn’t a focused look. It was lashings of freedom. People were going in their own various directions. These guys (Wang and Chen) gave them the license to explore. This bunch of kids is China’s next wave,” he adds without a shadow of doubt; then he begins to laugh. “[My son] Evan likes to say their Cultural Revolution wasn’t Mao it was Microsoft.”
Evan Hughes laughs with him. He is, of course, himself a representative of a generational shift in the curatorial energy of Sydney. Evan Hughes talks in a long spieling rush about what he saw in these artists’ paintings, and does so in a way that is highly attuned to their youth: “There are no references to Mao in their work. No references to the Cultural Revolution. Unless it made some impact in their lives there is no reason for them to clasp on to such things. Instead it’s the city itself and things like the internet, cable TV, the mass reproduction of cartoons from Japan, the affects of design in everything from new magazines to architecture.”
“You have to remember this generation in their early teens only knew oppressive State buildings, design and mass media before. With the internet especially they began seeing all these images that people in the West take for granted. It all comes out of mass communication. Artists of importance in China previously told the stories of repression and opening. These kids have seen the explosion of pop culture, urban clutter, the destruction of open environments.” It’s these streams that give the show its international flavour – along with what he calls “the story of the explosion of China in terms of its urban landscapes.”
Ultimately, Evan Hughes suggests these artists are in fact “painting about their world in a foreboding way.” Ray Hughes smiles at that idea. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the darker intimations this work may carry about Chongqing, about China, or about what it is like to be young in a world poisoning itself on all kinds of levels. “I’m forty years older,” Ray Hughes says. “Part of what you learn through the process of getting where I am is to sometimes just drop the suspicions and inhibitions and run with the optimism that’s there… I do think I’ve unearthed some pretty interesting characters as part of the visual language of the place [Chongqing].” And with a Mandarin chop of the hand he adds, “That’s my job.”
Evan Hughes uses the same Bladerunner comparisons with wry amazement, reinforcing it with a final story about a collector in London who was skeptical of Chen Weimin’s work, describing it as recycled Pop Art gestures with fresh Chinese flavours: “I thought back to the city, to its buildings adorned in pink tiles, its bright orange afternoon smog-assisted sunset, the deep British Racing green of the Yangtze River, the bright yellows of the taxis and the bright blues of the buses,” he says. “I turned from the painting to him [the collector] and replied, ‘No, it’s really like that.’… Welcome to Chongqing.”
- Mark Mordue
* An edited version of this story first appeared in Australian Art Collector, April - June, 2009
+ Sichuan Hot will be exhibited at the Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney from September 25- October 21, 2009.
= Above artworks in descending order from the top are:
- Untitled, 2006 oil on canvas by Yang Shu
- Untitled (Pink Flower/Fireworks) 2008 oil on canvas by Chen Weimin
- Untitled, 2008 mixed media on canvas by Li Hua
- The Black Flower I, 2009 acrylic on canvas by Li Binbin
Images are copyright and republished courtesy of Ray Hughes Gallery.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Is Bunny Munro Nick Cave’s version of Willy Loman with a hard on? In The Death of Bunny Munro the Australian rock ‘n’ roll singer and sophomore author tells the story of a sex-obsessed travelling salesman whose life is apparently spiraling towards its end. Inevitably, comparisons will be made with Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman which premiered precisely sixty years ago in New York City.
Those comparisons are not just a matter of similarly fatalistic titles and the protagonists’ shared occupation. They relate to the unsettling use of memory and self-delusion that both Miller and Cave embroider into their dramatic depictions, taking their seemingly naturalistic works into far more other-worldly and troubling places.
Cave also shares with the great American playwright a moral and political purpose in trying to give an ordinary, even unappealing man his tragic dimension: in Miller’s case this was the salesman as victim of the American Dream, sacrificed to a capitalist machine he can’t stop believing in and lying about; in Cave’s world the morality is ultimately more spiritual, the politics more personal, even if his English anti-hero is so grossly opportunistic and misshapen with desire it pushes the limits of any possibility for empathy.
There’s something else worth noting here. Miller’s work was a play of great outward seriousness and weight, a clear attempt to write a modern classic. Cave’s book is an incendiary piece of semi-pornographic, high-brow trash on the borderlines between disposability and art. The cover photo of a woman’s splayed legs calls to mind a provocative update on the artwork of 1950s pulp novels and tells no lies about the contents inside.
This begs numerous questions. What happens then when a talented rock star produces an excellent novel that is an orgy of male sexual fantasies and exultant misogyny? Will there be more to the public connection than a cross-promotional marketing campaign based on Cave’s celebrity? Is the book, in fact, an important reflection on our sex-obsessed, consumer society, as well as a satiric and tragic grotesque of the male psyche? If so, how will women respond to it? Will it ‘sell’ and to whom?
For some time now there has been a conversation evolving on the feminization of modern publishing – and with it a nascent suggestion the male reader is all but dead. Far more women buy books than men; and when men do read it is mostly non-fiction, while the novel has been left to the determining interests of the female buyer.
The literary machismo of an Ernest Hemingway or a Raymond Carver is less likely to find a mainstream blessing in this chick-lit inferno – let alone a Charles Bukowski (who Cave has attacked as “a jerk” in his recent song ‘We Call Upon the Author’) or a Louis-Ferdinand Celine (whose black humour, vernacular aggression and ecstatic misanthropy in Journey to the End of Night is a very relevant comparison for The Death of Bunny Munro).
As an internationally renowned singer and songwriter Nick Cave has been working this confrontational seam of male identity and ‘sexual politics’ for almost four decades. Not that he has ever tried to dress up his obsessions as political. They’ve been ever-present from early Birthday Party songs like ‘She’s Hit’ and ‘Zoo Music Girl’ (“let me die beneath her fists”) through to a solo career with his backing group the Bad Seeds and a litany of tracks such as ‘Hard On for Love’, ‘Deanna’ (“I am a knocking with my toolbox and my stocking”) and ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, his best-selling duet with Kylie Minogue in which Cave beat Australia’s former sweetheart to death with a rock then drowned her body all the while he proposed his undying romantic love.
Cave has become so established as a cultural icon – the Lord Byron of rock ‘n’ roll – it’s easy to forget the intensity of this dirtier stream in his work, but at age 51 he is exploring it with renewed vengeance. In a rash of recent interviews in the UK he has admitted to obsessing over sex more than ever as a theme.
That was made obvious on Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (2008) his last album with the Bad Seeds, as well as a night-out–with-the-boys, side-band project called Grinderman. The cover art for the self-titled Grinderman (2007) album featured a hunched green baboon masturbating fiercely. Cave happily earnt himself a full house of ‘EXPLICIT’ tags for the songs captured inside. The recording is a cavalcade of mid-life male chauvinist anthems like ‘No Pussy Blues’ and ‘Go Tell the Women (That We’re Leaving)’: “All we wanted was a little consensual rape in the morning and maybe a bit more in the evening.”
The Death of Bunny Munro should carry an EXPLICIT warning too, but the provocative cover art for the Australian edition may similarly protect readers from being too surprised. Ironically, it’s the depth – not the in-your-face shallowness – of the book that is the real jack in the box.
Fans will run to it with open arms whatever, but I’d hardly be the first to have raised an eyebrow in the build-up to it when Cave’s debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989) recently appeared on Penguin’s list of re-issued popular classics. Despite its startling riffs and ladled, hillbilly humour, And the Ass Saw the Angel was swamped beneath the turgid intensity of the mock-Faulkenerian language Cave played with. It was the work of a sprinter (a lyricist) trying to run a marathon (the novel). Thick with alliteration and imagery, a storyteller’s aural presence, it’s still better heard in patches than read in full.
Let’s be frank – for all the hype around Cave’s new novel as the most sought after work at last year’s London Book Fair, the same critical expectations were in place second time around: that The Death of Bunny Munro would feature vivid but un-sustained writing; that it would be a songwriter’s novel which never went the distance.
Instead Cave has produced a pulp masterpiece – a comment that may well damn him with faint and back-handed praise. That’s not my intention. The Death of Bunny Munro is a coherent and tightly structured page-turner, full of highly controlled writing and extravagantly rich character sketches, an often surprising as well as funny and spooky novel that is equal parts Flannery O’Connor grotesque and Stephen King horror story. By the time I had finished my only reservation was to ask why I could not bring myself to say the book was flat-out great. In the end I suspect it was because I was impressed and amused more than I was moved, though there is no doubting the emotion is there.
When Cave’s novel opens the stage is immediately set: “‘I am damned,’ thinks Bunny Munro in a sudden moment of self awareness reserved for those who are about to die.”
Holed up in a Brighton hotel room with a black prostitute whose fingernails have “the detailed representation of a tropical sunset” painted on them (as an author Cave feasts on these little details), Munro is taking a mobile phone call from his depressive and unstable wife Libby. As he tries to calm her he lays on the hotel bed sucking back tiny bottles of vodka from the bar fridge, focusing “on a water stain on the ceiling shaped like a small bell or a woman’s breast.”
It soon emerges he is in the same town as Libby, but pretending to be out on the road and unable to make it home. An undercurrent of hysteria in his wife’s conversation is, by turns, comic and cosmically unsettling – “something has changed in his wife’s voice, the soft cellos have gone and a high rasping violin has been added, played by an escaped ape or something”. Bunny secretly shares the disturbed visions she fixates on: observing CCTV footage of a serial killer with a red-painted face and plastic horns being played on the same local television news; then glancing out the window to witness a fire in Brighton, “a dark cloud of starlings twittering madly over the flaming, smoking hulk of the West Pier”.
‘The starling have gone mad. It’s such a horrible thing. Their little babies burnin their nests. I can’t bear it, Bun,’ says Libby.
By the end of the chapter his wife has hung up and Bunny is getting a blowjob from the prostitute. He realizes that a bath must be overflowing in the room upstairs as the stain on the ceiling above him keeps expanding, till he “feels the soft explosion of water on his chest, like a sob.” This seems both a brilliant image and a self-consciously writerly moment on Cave’s part, typical of his lyrical talent and tendency to excess, but we soon begin to understand it relates as much to an hallucinogenic current beginning to rush through Bunny Munro’s world view.
Like some on-the-make monster out of a nightmare version of Eastenders we soon get to see the wild highs of that first – and witness Bunny in all his over-sexed glory.
Bunny manoeuvres the Punto through the weekend traffic and emerges on the seafront, and with a near swoon Bunny sees it – the 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 erotically shaped cumulus, loads of fucking girls who were up for it…
The description goes on for a few unbelievably escalating pages before Kylie Minogue’s ‘Spinning Around’ comes on the car radio to soundtrack the sexual panoply…
Then he sees a group of pudgy mall-trawlers with their smirking midriffs and frosted lipstick, a potentially hot Arab chick (oh man, labia from Arabia), and then a billboard advertising fucking Wonderbras or something and he says, ‘Yes!’, and takes a viscous, horn-blaring swerve, re-routing down Fourth Avenue, already screwing the top off a sample of hand cream. He parks and beats off, a big happy smile on his face, and dispenses a gout of goo into a cum-encrusted sock he keeps under the car seat.
On one level it might be possible to view the entire novel as one long, poisonously troubling wet dream. By the time Bunny gets home his wife is dead and he is left to care for his nine year old son, Bunny Junior. Things really begin to tilt from here on in as Bunny takes his son out on the road, leaving him in the car while he tries to flog beauty products and engages in a series of ‘grief fucks’ and ever more desperate fantasies that increasingly suggest he is losing control of himself and his grip on the world – if this unreliable narrator ever really had a grip at all.
It’s here some of Cave’s best writing emerges as we begin to see the adult Bunny Munro from his son’s perspective, as well as detect a vulnerability in the son’s situation that’s truly nerve wracking and borderline abusive. Cave himself is the father to two teenage sons from previous relationships – he also has twin sons to his current wife, the former Vivienne Westwood model Susie Bick, who are almost the same age as the son in The Death of Bunny Munro. The flickers of sacrifice and hope in the late stages of the novel surprisingly echo Cormac McCarthy’s concluding tone in The Road (Cave was employed to write a soundtrack for the film) and the same latent sense that this is a book written as a bleak, if hopeful letter from a father to his sons.
Cave has Bunny Munro mouth the repeated the statement “I think we are having our childhoods stolen from us” and in a penultimate encounter with his own father – Bunny Senior – we get a glimpse into what may have been the violence that forged his cocksure consciousness. These scenes play like a malevolent Steptoe and Son: a part of the farcical edge Cave indulges in which sometimes undercuts deeper connections even as it adds an unsettling, almost psychotic energy. As the old man shouts Bunny down he states what may well be the theme of the entire book:
‘You are beyond recall. You are a lost cause. But we might be able to save the kid’…
Cave structures the novel in three sections: ‘Cocksman’, ‘Salesman’, ‘Deadman’. It’s hard not to miss the trinity formation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit behind that as both father and son are haunted by the ghost of their wife and mother as they pursue a trail of events that hurtle towards a death of some kind. Hovering in the background on news bulletins is the footage of that devilish, red-horned serial killer making his way, incident by incident, closer to Brighton and Bunny himself.
By the end you begin to perceive that Bunny Munro is actually being set-up as something of a modern-day Jesus, or at least a man marching along the path to his own twisted Calvary. It’s something of a shock to realize then that this piece of pulp fiction is not just about sex or playing for misanthropic laughs or reveling in shock value. That’s it’s really about fatherhood and love and a quest for male redemption in a desire-wracked world. That the true intent of the novel is actually another repeated line in the book, this one from the poet W.H. Auden: ‘We must love one another or die.’ As Arthur Miller once said, “attention must be paid.”
- Mark Mordue
* This article was first published in The Australian Literary Review,
Vol. 4, Issue 7, August, 2009 under the title ‘A rake’s progress’.
- Portrait of Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue by Gerald Jenkins www.geraldjenkins.com