An edited version of this article was printed in the Guardian Review, October 3
Nick Cave risked upsetting his friend Will Self, who loathes writers who read out anything other than the first chapter, by reading a section towards the end of his new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, at a packed Old Market Hall in Hove on Wednesday night.
For much of the evening it was the Cave and Self deadpan double act. Self asked him why he came back to write prose after 20 years since his debut, And the Ass Saw the Angel. “I got asked to do it,” was Cave’s straight-bat reply.
“So, Madame Bovary. C’est moi. Is Bunny Munro you?” asked Self.
“No,” replied Cave.
Not since JG Ballard’s Crash (1973) has a character been so obsessed by a celebrity’s pudenda – the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne’s rather than Elizabeth Taylor’s. “Those descriptions are dark and invasive,” Cave admitted. As part of his book tour, he went to Ottawa recently. “I was terrified,” he said. “I’m sure the publishers sent me there deliberately.”
Talking about his first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, published 20 years ago, the ever-besuited Cave said that there had been no distinction between himself and the character, and that it had been a very destructive and unhealthy process. “It took 20 years to realise that writing a novel needn’t be life-threatening,” he said.
There was a rather tortuous question relating to something Cave said earlier this year about Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, being better equipped than he is to be the “voice of the people”. “I was being ironic,” he said, as if it was all too obvious. “I don’t like being preached to by a millionaire.”
Cave started out writing The Death of Bunny Munro as a screenplay, when he was asked by the director John Hillcoat to write a story about a travelling salesman. Self, who also has experience of adapting a screenplay into a novel (Dorian: An Imitation), asked Cave facetiously, and rhetorically, “Did you just widen the margins and delete the references to ‘Exterior. Day.’?” Cave emphasised how’d he’d set it in Brighton because he wouldn’t have to go too far when they were filming it.
It hasn’t really been said that much in reviews of the book, but The Death of Bunny Munro is also a satire on British lad culture, on the worldview of Zoo magazine. Cave agreed with Self’s assessment of Bunny Munro as “a monstrous man” in the mode of Humbert Humbert or Patrick Bateman, but that nevertheless “there’s something of ourselves in them”.
Cave displays a fondness, and talent, for neologisms, especially using nouns as verbs – “tarzanning the curtain”, “goblinned” – and much is made of the name of a local concrete mix company, Dudman … At one point, Cave even repeats the phrase “baby blasted mothers” from the Bad Seeds album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!.
The Death of Bunny Munro is a novel, an audiobook and an app – Cave said that he was very proud of the audiobook (he’s a big fan of them, apparently) and spoke about the 3D work that Arup Acoustics did for the audio. “It’s spatialised to give it an hallucinatory feel,” he said, slightly awe-struck by what they’d done.
There was a rather detailed question from the audience noting the similarities with Self’s 1993 novel My Idea of Fun (which also features a sex killer in Brighton, Self realises – seemingly for the first time), but Cave admitted that he hadn’t read this particular novel of Self’s and said to him in mock exasperation, “You could have told me!”
“There are several ends to the book in a way,” said Cave, diplomatically trying to silence the groans when someone in the audience gave away something key to the plot. Self, typically, was more abrasive: “You should get out less often,” he told the questioner.