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The Death of Bunny Munro: Nick Cave

What on earth can be done with a man who sneaks off from his wife’s funeral in order to have a quick wank in the bathroom? …

In Nick Cave’s novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, the perpetually libidinous travelling salesman Bunny doesn’t stop to mourn his wife when she tops herself in their small Brighton flat. Libby may be dead, and that may leave Bunny Munro in sole charge of his nine-year-old son, Bunny Junior, but it’s not going to cramp this Casanova’s lifestyle. He hits the road with his kid in tow “learning the ropes.”  You can’t help but feel sorry for Bunny Junior, a bright little boy who suffers from untreated blepharitis and who carries around an encyclopedia, a gift from the mother who “loved him to bits.”

the death of bunny monro

Bunny Monro is a ladies’ man–cocky, infused with “irrepressible optimism,” and happy in the knowledge that women “with no coercion step into the slipstream of his considerable sexual magnetism.” But is that strictly true? When we meet Bunny on page 1, he’s hired a prostitute and later he recalls a scene in which his wife Libby caught him with an unconscious girl. As Bunny, driving a battered Punto, hits the road with his son, he has encounter after encounter in which reality crashes into fantasy. With his life coming apart at the seams, Bunny, who fantasizes about various celebrity vaginas, continues to see women as “walking fuck-fest[s]” or available vaginas walking into his life. Somewhere deep inside there’s a recognition of what he’s become and what he’s done, but with a lifetime of avoidance, it’s easier for Bunny to carry on with business as usual. Rather than take any responsibility for his wife’s death, Bunny decides he’s “victimized ” by  circumstance.

He is afforded no insights, no illuminations, no great wisdoms but he can see immediately why the ladies dig him. He is not a toned, square-jawed lover boy or cumberbunded ladies’ man but there’s a pull, even in his booze-blasted face, a magnetic drag that has something to do with the pockets of compassion that form at the corners of his eyes when he smiles, a mischievous arch to his eyebrows and the little hymen-popping dimples in his cheeks when he laughs. Look! There they are now! 

Banned from a number of McDonalds for life, Bunny hits the road with his “pomaded forelock” along with “new-found pulling power” and continues his job as a salesman while poor Bunny Junior is neglected in the process. Bunny claims he needs the work in order to deal with his grief, but the trip is really just an excuse to meet women and have as much sex as possible. As a mad horned killer stalks England, the killer’s continuing movement south seems to coincide with Bunny Monro’s misfortunes on his road trip which is peppered with a few ghostly visitations. Armed with a list of potential clients, Bunny tries to sell beauty products and his own questionable charms.

The first was a Mrs Elaine Bartlett, who lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats in Moulsecombe. Lying on the floor of its only working elevator was a bombed-out kid with a can of air freshener in one hand and a Tesco bag in the other and a Burberry cap on his head. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, except the boy had emptied the contents of his bowels into his shorts and these were pulled down around his skinny, little ankles. The boy had managed, rather heroically, thought Bunny, to graffiti in green spray on the elevator wall, ‘I AM A SAD CUNT’. Bunny had stepped into the elevator, then stepped out and allowed its doors to judder shut. He contemplated momentarily climbing the four flights of stairs to Mrs Elaine Bartlett’s flat and realized, to his credit, that there was no way he was going to make it up them in his present condition, so he staggered back to the Punto.

The Death of Bunny Munro is a wickedly funny book with large dollops of the humour (often at Bunny’s expense) taking potshots at various societal taboos. One of the best scenes in the book (and it was hard to pick one) takes place as Bunny describes a girl in “gold hipster hotpants.” While reading through the oversexed sponge of Bunny’s brain is definitely raunchy, author Nick Cave never sinks to the puerile. Instead Bunny is a very real character, a retro male who deludes himself into thinking that his leering, drooling, drunken attentions are welcomed by every female on the planet.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Irvine Wells: “Put Cormac McCarthy, Franz Kafka and Benny Hill together in a Brighton Seaside guesthouse and they might just come up with Bunny Monro.” I don’t agree, but the quote does make a point. Bunny is a morally reprehensible human being, and while he thinks he’s charming to all the ladies, the truth is that his limited appeal ensnares a certain type (comatose, mentally incompetent and/or indiscriminate are attributes that Bunny likes in his women). With this sort of character at the fore of the plot, it’s fun to just sit back and read about Bunny as he careens from disaster to disaster. But again, when a character lacks an iota of self-awareness, the plot usually aims in certain limited directions. I didn’t care for the book’s ending, but I’m not sure that the plot could have gone in any other direction.

For another take on the novel, see Lisa’s blog.

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Red Haze by Christian Gailly

Last year I read The Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. It’s the story of a Paris bookshop whose owners decide to take the high road and sell only ‘good books.’ A secret committee of writers create a list of ‘the best books ever.’ These books are not best sellers, and are instead those wonderful little gems we readers dream of finding. Anyway, after reading A Novel Bookstore, I wanted that list. Unfortunately the list was fictional but that didn’t stop the author from dropping some names throughout the pages, and I was right there taking notes. One of the titles was Madame Solario, which I read and enjoyed. But there were other names too–some I’d never heard of. One of these names was French novelist, Christian Gailly.

There are a few of Gailly’s novels translated into English, so I actually had a choice. I selected Red Haze for its plot (and look at that great cover), but I really wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this novel as Gailly is known as a minimalist. At 108 pages (and that includes several double-sided black or near black pages), they weren’t joking about minimalism. My copy is translated by Brian Evenson and David Beus.

The novel is narrated by unemployed biologist-would-be-novelist, Sylvère Fonda–a man who gets mixed up in an incident involving a man he knows called Lucien.  I was intrigued by the plot, and here’s the opening paragraph:

A rake, that’s what he was, a lovelace. We get this odd word from a character living in a novel entitled Clarissa Harlowe, the work of English novelist Samuel Richardson, the son of a cabinet-maker who became a printer before turning to writing. But above all the name marries love to lace, net, snare.

It didn’t bother me that he slept around, he never pursued my wife, but still, I would often tell myself: one day unlike the others he’ll run into a husband worse than the others, he’ll run into trouble. I often thought this. Well, I was wrong, it was a woman worse than the others, here’s what happened.

After that opening, I was hooked into the tale.

Lucien is a womaniser who attacks a woman named Rebecca Lodge; she fights back and then runs away. Sylvère, who’s a stutterer, becomes involved and simultaneously loses his speech impediment when he finds the wounded Lucien. Lucien gives Sylvère the task of tracking down Rebecca and apologising for his act. The impact of the incident leaves a deep impression on Sylvère, but Sylvère’s wife, Suzanne doesn’t understand his fixation. And she certainly doesn’t approve of her husband’s trip to Copenhagen to track down Rebecca Lodge.

There are no pleasant aspects to this lean and mean tale of obsession and revenge.  All of the relationships are abnormal and twisted, and I can’t say more without giving away too many aspects of the plot. Is Lucien’s desire to apologise sincere? Isn’t what he did a little beyond apology? And given how Rebecca retaliated, isn’t an apology rather beside the point. What about Sylvère’s motives? Why on earth would any sane person want to get mixed up in what happened? Sylvère doesn’t even like Lucien and admits that he is “not my friend, just an experiment in hatred.” Let’s just say that Sylvère is playing with fire when he tracks down Rebecca. I should make it clear that while I write these questions, it’s not because I had a problem with the credibility of what happens, but rather I am chewing over the destructive and self-destructive nature of the characters. This is in many ways a haters’ triangle–an inversion of the familiar lovers’ triangle.

The details of the story of what happened between Lucien and Rebecca are not immediately apparent; they are teased out over time, and I found myself re-reading past passages in light of newly discovered information. The author has a deliberately recursive style–with old information repeated while tagging on other sometimes startling information. We are told just a fragment of an incident, for example, and then the incident will be repeated with additional details. This style frustrated me at first until I got used to it and could see just what the author was up to. And while Gailly’s style may be minimalism, it’s minimalism inside a maze, so the text becomes a puzzle to be solved and understood. Gailly is compared by critics to Nabokov. I’ll leave that for others to decide.

The narrator, Sylvère also consciously adopts that recursive style. At one point, he’s tells a dark, disturbing tale about something he witnessed, but towards the end of the book he adds just one line that monumentally changes the story he’s told before. This is brilliant, but I won’t write the quotes as this would ruin the impact for any future reader. It’s through this approach that we, as readers, grasp the power of control when it comes to just how much story is told or withheld, and of course, Sylvère has been torturing us with this since page one:

This repetition is deliberate. I entreat my future editor, if one is found to publish me, not to omit it. In music in the past, they repeated what the listener liked to hear. Me, I repeat what the reader hates to read. My goal is to torment his mind. I want him to tremble. I’m dreaming. To keep him from sleeping at night. The famous struggle against the dark. And then also because I think this scene, in its complete, family version, is infinitely more important than the little story I’m telling you, but since I’ve come this far, I’m going to finish it, before a new slaughter starts, so let’s hurry.

This is an infinitely nihilistic tale, and all the characters are either unpleasant or unsympathetic, so the relationships they share aren’t exactly healthy. The story’s dark twists combined with its sense of impending doom probably explain why I enjoyed it. I am, however, used to meatier fare, and to be honest, I finished this feeling a bit cheated and wishing it had been about 200 pages longer. As fate would have it, after finishing Red Haze, I picked up another novel that was so horribly bloated, I unexpectedly found myself preferring Gailly’s style, and I have a feeling that I could grow to appreciate Gailly more with subsequent novels. I’ll be ready for him next time….

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A Funny Old Year by Alan Brownjohn

I really should pay more attention to how I come across the names of books. That way, when I find a really good one, I could go back to the source and ideally find another. Well that’s the theory anyway.

Recently, I came across the book A Funny Old Year from Alan Brownjohn. This was a new name for me, and a little bit of internet trawling revealed that Brownjohn, who’s published a modest number of novels is also a poet. Well, this had my attention since one of my pet theories is that poets generally seem to have richer vocabularies. A Funny Old Year, which by the way is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing (publisher’s of  Brownjohn’s poetry), sounded like the sort of thing I might enjoy, and so I bought a copy.

A Funny Old Year, set in Britain in the 1990s,  is narrated by 58-year-old Mike Barron a former “Lecturer in Politics” at a Polytechnic, who’s forced into early retirement.  Under pressure to marry Rosie, a mistress who’s recently been widowed, Barron moves to a small coastal town for a trial period of a year so that he and Rosie can decide whether or not they want to take the next step of marriage. There are some rules and regulations about the year, and somehow there’s the idea that these are all Rosie’s design. According to the rules, contact between Barron and Rosie will be restricted, and communication over the course of the “year of trial” must be limited to brief, perfunctory notes giving essential information only. This is a very common sense approach to a relationship that in middle age may not tolerate or survive dramatic shifts. And it’s an arrangement that suits Barron rather well. He’s not sure he wants to marry Rosie, and when the year begins, marriage and Rosie are both far from Barron’s mind. Rosie represents little more than a few pleasant memories,  a snapshot and a nagging doubt about ‘doing the right thing.’

Severed rather painfully from his career and the Polytechnic which served as a handy resource for romantic & sexual liaisons, Barron, an incorrigible womaniser, makes the move to a shabby rental property in a small coastal town. Part of the reason for this relocation is so that he can be closer to his oldest female friend, Jane Bramston, and it’s also partly to get a fresh start. But while the move represents a fresh start, underneath it all is the idea that apart from chasing women, Barron didn’t have much of a life before the so-called fresh start. There are very few friends, no relatives, but a lot of memories. At 58, Barron isn’t a man who ever seemed to worry about permanance.

When Barron meets two young, attractive, local girls–Rachel, a girl he meets on the beach, and a tall willowy girl he names Flamingo who works at the local Consumerama, he tries to devise ways to befriend and seduce either or both of these girls. Seduction now presents a challenge for Barron, a man who’s capitalised on his position as a lecturer and isn’t above being persuaded to raise grades for certain female students. Here’s Barron rather unscrupulously rueing the loss of certain advantages of being a lecturer:

“It was so different from my Polytechnic study, where an arm round the shoulder of someone distressed  about losing a boyfriend, or doubting a husband, or getting a poor grade from a colleague, seemed friendly and natural often producing a grateful response.”

There’s no argument that Barron really is, when it comes to women, quite disgraceful, and some of the more disgraceful aspects of his behaviour appear suddenly in the text, almost as asides, in the form of observations from those who knew him:

“There’s only one thing more pathetic than an old womaniser,” the boyfriend of one of my women students once said to me (I had no influence on his exam grades, so he felt at liberty to say it), “and that’s a failed old womaniser.”

Barron, isn’t a bad person; he’s a womaniser, and that makes him a somewhat unreliable narrator when it comes to how he sees himself, how he thinks others see him, and how he interprets remarks made to him. Most of the women in the novel seem to have his number down, and Barron may think he’s suave, but he’s seen more as a pervert or a dirty old man. Barron seems to be the last person to realise that he’s aging. At one point, a man Barron considers elderly admits that he’s 58, and Barron finds the idea preposterous. Is the other man lying about his age or are Barron’s perceptions skewed?

There’s a one great scene when Barron decided that if he spruces himself up with new clothing, he might have a crack at seducing young girls:

“In that bleak pocket of days between Christmas and the New Year I began to feel my shabby, lonely conspicuousness very acutely. Smiles from shop assistants seemed to have a quality of mockery, patronising, pitying smiles. I could see that my clothes (that raincoat!) looked old and uncared for. Unless an older man can be spry and smart he will look a paltry thing, grubby and disreputable. And it’s much worse if you are given, or driven, to walking round by yourself. You can be picked out and shunned as an eccentric, a tramp no one cares to know, a dodgy non-dog owner. You can be mentioned to social services or become familiar to the police. I resolved to brighten up my image.”

Some of the novel’s delicate humour comes in Barron’s simply not getting it. His idea to “spruce himself up,” for example, includes a paisley handkerchief for his pocket–hardly an item designed to make a 20-year-old collapse into bed.

As the year continues, Barron becomes embroiled in a number of rather delicate situations, and in each case he plays a series of rather strange roles that gradually erode at his perceptions of himself.  Barron has largely been protected from the often unpleasant view of himself thanks to his privileged position as a lecturer, but now with no job that offers a conveyor belt of women through his office, and facing old age, Barron finally confronts himself.

I can’t conclude without mentioning one of the novel’s main characters, Geoff Stedman, a Professor of Literature at the Polytechnic–a man who’s everything that Barron isn’t. Stedman is ethical, devoted to his job and his students. A victim of department politics, Stedman finally goes off the deep end and fights against what he sees as the erosion of education. Stedman–truly a marvellous character appears only in Barron’s memories, but is larger-than-life and completely unforgettable, and Stedman’s creation is a good example of absent characters who are as vital as those whose actions dominant the narrative.

 If you enjoyed Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the delightful  A Funny Old Year. The books share some common characteristics as both Rachel (from Wish Her Safe at Home) and Barron are marooned in society thanks to their characters.

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Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

His mates used to say: ‘He’s crafty and artful, he’ll be smart enough to keep out of trouble.’ And he vowed that he would indeed be crafty and artful and smart. His native Norman wit, sharpened by garrison life and broadened by looting in Africa, illicit perks and dubious dealing, as well as picking up ideas of honour in the army, together with military bravado, patriotic sentiment, deeds of derring-do retailed in the sergeants’ mess and the kudos of his profession, had turned him into a sort of box with several false bottoms, in which you could find bits of practically everything.”

When Guy de Maupassant died of syphilis in 1893, he was only 43 years old, but in his lifetime he produced over 250 short stories and six novels. One of the greatest of these novels is Bel Ami–the story of the ambitious Georges Duroy. When the novel begins, Georges is a penniless, ex-hussar, living in Paris and working as a railway clerk. On 1500 francs a year, he’s staving off starvation as best he can while craving the life on a bon vivant. The very first paragraph sketches Georges’ character–a man who attracts women on all levels of society:

Making the change for his five-franc piece from the woman behind the till, Duroy left the restaurant. A  well set-up man, with all the swagger of an ex-cavalry N.C.O., he drew himself up, twirled his moustache with a familiar soldierly gesture and swiftly cast his eye around the room over the belated diners like a handsome young man looking for fish to catch.

The women had looked up and were watching him; three little working-class girls; a slovenly, unkempt middle-aged music mistress with a permanently dusty hat and a dress which never fitted properly; and a couple of middle-class housewives with their husbands, regular customers of this cheap little restaurant.”

A few paragraphs later, Georges walks the streets of Paris, and again, Maupassant draws his character with bold strokes. Georges is vain, shallow, and self-centered. Although Georges is wondering how he’s going to manage to eat for the next few days, he  saunters along with his hat set at an angle which reflects his underlying arrogance:

“He strutted along as if he were still in uniform, with his chest stuck out and legs slightly straddled as if he had just got off his horse, and shouldering his way through the crowd, he strode down the street with complete disregard  for everyone else. His top hat, which had seen better days, was cocked at an angle over one ear and his heels made a smart click as they struck the pavement. He seemed to be offering a permanent challenge to someone, the passer-bys, the houses, the whole of the town, with all the cockiness of a good-looking soldier now reduced to civilian life.”

Georges’ inability to agonize about his future is a clue to his shallow nature. As he saunters along, he resentfully watches diners  and wishes he could throttle them. These thoughts lead to memories of his days in the army–glorious days of colonialism that set him against natives who were easy to abuse and rob. Regretfully he notes:

“But Paris was different. You couldn’t just set out on a nice little looting expedition with a pistol in your hand and a sword at your side, just as you pleased with no danger from the law.”

bel amiGeorges’ shallowness dictates that he’s not the sort of person who agonizes or turns his failures into episodes of self-loathing. He tends to view himself as a remarkable person–one of those people who will drift through life and always meet good fortune, and true to form that very evening, Georges stumbles onto an old acquaintance from the army, Forestier. Forestier, now the political editor of the newspaper, La Vie Francaise,  is obviously affluent. In spite of the fact that Georges has failed to get his degree, and that he’s never written anything in his life, Forestier offers him a position on the paper, and Georges accepts.

So begins Georges’ rapid rise in Paris and in the publishing world. Talentless, and not particularly intelligent, Georges rises by using women, and the delightful thing about this is that Georges’ shallowness doesn’t allow for a great deal of calculation; it’s the women that he uses who pimp for George with each relationship ensuring Georges’ upward career climb: his faithful mistress, a talented wife, and the hysterical wife of his employer. Particularly amusing is Georges’ ridiculous affair with Madame Laroche-Mathieu– a woman who valiantly tries to escape Georges’ charm but succumbs in the most pathetic manner, and then rapidly degenerates to the behaviour of a giddy schoolgirl. And through it all, Georges, a mediocre man, remains untouched as he indulges in affairs based on exploitation. After all, Georges’ greatest affair is with himself, and relationships with women are just a means to an end–nothing more and nothing less.

Where most people have some sort of moral core, Georges’ morality is non existent–except for his obligations to himself, and so others are used and tossed aside as Georges mutters arguments of justification–turning his actions into justified moral decisions while everything he does–from the meals he eats to the company he keeps is geared towards his self-love and the life he thinks he deserves.

The novel charts Georges, who becomes known as Bel-Ami, amongst his female acquaintance, as he rises in Parisian society. At first ill-fed and badly dressed, he quickly mimics the habits of society, and simply because he is so hollow, he finds it no challenge to don the life of a successful writer. Along the way, he fights a duel with a rival newspaper reporter, becomes embroiled in political scandal, and in essence takes Paris by storm.

Bel-Ami is unusual in its depiction of a male who uses powerful women to get what he wants. As he steps from bed to bed and from encounter to encounter, Wharton’s The Custom of the Country comes to mind. Wharton’s heroine, Undine Spragg rises through the ranks of  New York society by her marriages to a succession of men, with each match more favourable than the last. While both Bel-Ami and Undine are ambitious characters, in Bel-Ami’s case, Georges isn’t a particularly driven character. He wants the accouterments of good fortune, but he maintains a certain lassitude about his ambitions, allowing the various women in his life to go out and hunt for him. And throughout it all, Georges remains emotionally untouched and emerges a glossier, sleeker version of himself .

A note on the translation: I read the Penguin edition translated by Douglas Parmee, and it was excellent–very lively and smooth to read.

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