The Null Device
The Overland's Anwyn Crawford gores one of the sacred cows of middlebrow Australia: the smouldering, wrathful god of post-punk turned national artist-laureate, Nick Cave:
Cave now occupies a curious position in Australian culture. Rather than the Black Crow King of his own imagination, he’s more the Monarch of Middlebrow. His likeness hangs in the National Portrait Gallery; his journals displayed at the National Library. His headline appearances bankroll summer music festivals and arts festivals alike while his early solo albums have been reissued in deluxe packages. You can buy his lyrics as a Penguin paperback. He is a cover star of weekend newspaper supplements and most recently of the Monthly, that over-earnest, reliably dull bush telegraph of all that is causing mild consternation among the nation’s opinion columnists.
And for Cave, as for his predecessors, women are both far better and far worse creatures than he – but whether they’re saints or sluts he has to kill them. Over and over in his songs, Cave performs this murder. On the one hand because murder puts female perfection eternally out of reach and therefore renders it perpetually desirable, on the other because women’s particular filth – their blood and milk and mucky cavities – represents all that is most base and abject about human existence.Crawford looks at the deep torrents of misogyny running through both Cave's work and his public statements (his attitude to women is an "idealised hatred", she says), examines the oft-cited belief that Cave saved Kylie Minogue from obscurity by allowing her to play his murder victim (when, in fact, it's more likely that the massively commercially successful Minogue propelled Cave, until then a semi-obscure rocker listened to mostly by Goths, into the view of mainstream Australia), and then turns her attention to the present day, to Cave's recent projects and his ubiquity as a national icon:
It’s his transformation into an antipodean Elvis Costello – growing old, mild and respectably bourgeois along with his audience – that really makes me mad. Not because I believe that Cave has sold out or betrayed his musical talent – he had precious little to begin with – but because the deference paid to him and to his work grows in inverse proportion to its increasing mediocrity, to its juvenile silliness and self-parody. Witness Grinderman, a mid-life crisis thinly disguised as a Bad Seeds side project, with ‘No Pussy Blues’ or, even more crudely, ‘Go Tell the Women’, which loudly complains: ‘All we wanted was a little consensual rape in the morning/ And maybe a bit more in the evening.’ Consensual rape, eh? Happy thought, indeed.
One might then turn to Cave’s new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, on which much of his ascendant reputation as Australia’s Renaissance man has been staked. It is, in a word, putrid (though Cave himself would doubtless prefer ‘graveolent’). The word ‘vagina’ makes its first appearance three sentences in and continues to reappear, with wearying regularity, for the duration of the book. I’m no prude – it’s not the word that offends me, but rather Cave’s joyless genital fixation: the same bored, reductive, anatomical attitude towards sex that distinguishes hardcore pornography. Here, women really are nothing more than a series of interchangeable holes and sex like a trip to the ATM: stick your card in the slit, then take it out and walk away. To the sleazy salesman Bunny Munro, the novel’s title character whose wife commits suicide early in the book due to his philandering (but then again, we are reminded many times over, she was crazy), women are either begging for it with their legs apart or, if not, they are bitches and possibly dykes. Cave has nothing remotely interesting to tell us about the complex pleasures of sex or desire: such insight is beyond him as a writer, both on a technical and – if this is not too strange a word – spiritual level.
Ah, but Cave’s defenders like to point out, you are forgetting about the man’s exquisite humour! His delicately honed irony! He is a moral satirist without peer! (The subtext to this defence often being, ‘Lighten up, bitch!’) The notion that Cave is being ‘ironic’ has been used to excuse many of his worst indulgences, up to and including his pimp’s moustache. It is simply not true. As anyone who bothers to look up Cave’s press history will discover, the man takes himself seriously, very seriously indeed, and will threaten to break the legs – or worse – of any writer who dares suggest that his work is not nearly as good as he himself is convinced that it is. His snobbery and towering ego both feed into our lingering cultural cringe: we think he’s smart because he’s popular in Europe, and we admire him because his bullish self-confidence is so different to the ritual self-deprecation that marks many Australian artists. He reads books! He lives in Brighton! The man’s a genius! In reality, Cave’s cartoon profanity is no more sophisticated or evolved than the bump’n'grind of gangsta rap which, I would hazard a guess, Europhiles like Peter Conrad love to hate because it supposedly lowers the tone.