The Death of Bunny Munro

The Death of Bunny Munro was written by Nick Cave, the singer/songwriter/musician who most people know via his band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I suppose that we shouldn't be surprised when certain songwriters turn out to be excellent novel writers -- after all, being a songwriter essentially means one is a type of poet. The type of writing that's being done in a novel, however, is quite different, and I found that my favorite moments of The Death of Bunny Munro weren't necessarily plot-driven, but rather, they were simple observations crafted in beautiful language that reminded me of Nick Cave's poetic talent. Of course, I was given the audiobook of Bunny Munro as a gift and I highly recommend that if you are going to read this book, you should purchase the audiobook version. Not only will you have the supreme delight of hearing Nick Cave read his own work, but he's also added some small sound effects and music that do a great deal in creating tensions and highlighting the particularly surreal parts.

Bunny Munro is a British salesman who peddles high quality beauty products and lotions door-to-door by appointment. He is also a middle-aged seducer of anything vaguely female. Bunny has a wife and a nine-year-old son named Bunny Jr. waiting at home, which is in Brighton, but he is frequently on the road. As the book opens, Bunny is on the phone with his wife, explaining that he'll be home tomorrow morning, which is as soon as he can possibly be there. This is a lie. He is in Brighton motel with a prostitute, across town from his family, and it is this choice to not go home that is the catalyst for all events that follow. Of course, even if he had gone home this time, one gets the feeling that things would have turned out this way sooner or later.

When Bunny does get home in the morning, he finds that his wife has committed suicide, an event she clearly planned for, as she had already purchased suits for her husband and son to wear to her funeral. The novel deals with the aftermath of her suicide as Bunny and Bunny Jr. try to carry on... which mostly consists of Bunny Munro losing his grip on life/his sanity in a steady downward spiral (after all, the book is called The Death of Bunny Munro) and poor Bunny Jr. trying to hold on. Once they've gotten through the funeral (and the funeral "after party" with Bunny's sleazy friends), Bunny brings his son along as he sells products, thinking nothing of keeping Bunny Jr. out of school and abandoning their home. In addition to this, there's a "side" storyline that plays heavily into Bunny's mindset: a rapist/killer is on the loose in Britain, dressing as a devil (bare chested with red face paint, wearing horns), who is repeatedly caught on mall security footage and seems to be making his way down through the country, towards Brighton.

I stick by my initial response to someone when I was asked if I enjoyed this book; that response was "Yyyeessss...?" It's not exactly a book that one enjoys, as the main character is officially a terrible human being and one's heart breaks every other page for poor Bunny Jr., but there's some beautiful language and overall, I found the book to be thought-provoking and interesting. There were even a few moments where I enjoyed the depiction of such a sleazy Lothario, but he really is a horrifying excuse for a man. It isn't even his penchant for screwing every willing (and occasionally unwilling) woman he comes across; it's more that his mindset is so twisted that he sees absolutely nothing wrong with his behavior. At his best, he drives along, honking at lesbians and leering at every woman. He even ogles a baby girl at one point, noting that he isn't someone who wants to have sex with kids, but in a couple of years, that girl would be quite a knock-out... Ugh. About 90% of his conscious thoughts seem to be directed towards sex and getting women to sleep with him (though shockingly, he does not seem to have much trouble in getting them to do just that in the early part of the novel) or simply fantasizing about a woman's vagina (he doesn't really imagine sexual scenarios with women so much as he just pictures a vagina... he even refers to himself as "a vagina man"). Side note: if I was Avril Lavigne, this book would make me insanely uncomfortable. Bunny Munro imagines Avril Lavigne's vagina quite a lot and seems to hold it up as a kind of ideal. Note that I say "it" and not really "her," as he seems rather unconcerned with any of the women themselves in this book, other than figuring out what they want him to say so he can get in their pants.

Poor Bunny Jr. is a smart and good-hearted little boy who has been dealt a crummy hand. He's polite and well-behaved, with an impressive memory. He spends a great deal of time reading his encyclopedia, which his mother gave to him. In addition, he has a small eye disorder that requires him to take drops to soothe his eyes, a fact that Bunny never remembers, and rather than press the issue and remind his father, Bunny Jr. seems content to risk going blind. He clearly adores his father, unaware that Bunny is hardly concerned with his son at all. He parrots out things that his father says, like swear words and "my dad could sell a bicycle to a barracuda." Bunny Jr.'s mother loved him, yes, but she was not strong enough to leave her husband or live with his behavior. Now Bunny Jr. is left alone with an unfit father. After his wife's funeral, Bunny tries to get his her parents to take the boy, but they will not accept him, for they only see Bunny in the child, the man who drove their daughter to suicide.

Nick Cave has a delightfully wicked sense of humor, which makes the story bearable. Even at the darkest moments, we have that. If we didn't, then I have no idea how I could have made it through this depiction of child negligence and family pain. Clearly, Bunny feels some amount of guilt for his wife's death, or he wouldn't be as haunted as he is, and his own deterioration shows how this plays upon him. Bunny Jr., too, has visions of his mother. But beyond this, we have even more surreal elements at play -- I'm sure reading this has a similar effect, but the haunting chords that accompanied Nick Cave's reading in the audiobook felt like they provided great assistance in transporting the reader to an otherworldly place. Of course, it was these surreal moments (particularly a very obvious scene where Bunny "makes peace" with people in his life) that I didn't quite enjoy. They seemed almost too much or not enough... just not right, I suppose. We are building to this ultimate moment of denial and self-absolution with Bunny, but by this point, I was ready for Bunny to receive his comeuppance. As much as I enjoyed the novel, I was pleased that it ended when it did, as I'm not sure how much more heartbreak I could have taken on behalf of poor Bunny Jr.

So if you do decide to read this one, please get the audiobook -- it's well worth it, if only to hear the words from the writer/poet himself.


The Book of Three

Whenever I'm at my parents' home, surrounded by the books of my childhood, I will inevitably pick one up and read. (Especially when I'm supposed to be doing things like reading serious book club books or writing business school application essays.) This time, I selected the first of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles: The Book of Three. If you haven't read Lloyd Alexander at all, then I feel terribly sorry for your sad and empty childhood.

The basic plot should seem quite familiar: a peaceful land threatened by evil and the people who must band together to save it. It's the telling of the story that really makes it unique, though.The Prydain Chronicles consist of five books with an epic fantasy storyline, heavily modeled upon Welsh lore. The first book in the series is The Book of Three, where we are introduced to our key players and get our first taste of the threat to Prydain. The dark lord Arawn is mustering forces in his kingdom of Annuvin, led by his champion the Horned King. For years the Sons of Don, who rule Prydain, have kept Arawn in check, but nevertheless, Arawn appears to be making movements to start a war.

Taran is a young man, hungry for adventure and excitement, though he spends his days working on the farm of Caer Dallben. Of course, it isn't quite a normal farm -- among the animals is Hen Wen (an oracular pig of great fame and importance, though Taran has seen no evidence of her powers) and the owner of the farm is Dallben (a scholar and wizard who is over three hundred years old). Still, Taran wishes to learn swordplay and fight like his hero, Prince Gwydion. When he longs for a title and destiny, Coll (a middle aged farmer that is clearly more than he appears to be) names Taran "Assistant Pig Keeper." So when a disturbance causes the animals to flee and Hen Wen to escape, Taran feels responsible and so he runs after her. Almost immediately, Taran discovers that the animals fled because the Horned King is near and Taran becomes injured. He wakes up to find his hero, Prince Gwydion, caring for his injury. Gwydion had been traveling to learn something from Hen Wen, and so he joins Taran in his search for the pig.

As they search, we meet several important characters along the way. Gurgi, a half-animal/half-human creature, tells them that he saw Hen Wen being pursued by the Horned King. After being captured by some of Arawn's fearsome Cauldron-Born (soulless warriors created from the dead), they meet the evil enchantress Queen Achren, who offers Gwydion the chance to join her and with her help, rule Prydain and overthrow Arawn. When he refuses, she throws him and Taran into separate dungeon cells. Taran then meets Princess Eilonwy, a young enchantress of the House of Llyr who is supposed to be learning from her Aunt Achren (though Eilonwy is not convinced that they're related). Eilonwy helps Taran escape and also manages to free "his companion in the other cell," though once they escape and the castle has somehow collapsed, killing everyone still inside (which we later learn is due to Eilonwy's removing a particular sword of power from the castle as they fled), it's discovered that the man Eilonwy rescued from the other cell is not Gwydion. He is Fflewddur Fflam, a king who has given up his kingdom to be an unofficial bard, though he owes his talent to his magic harp, whose strings snap when Fflewddeur bends the truth -- which is quite often. Believing that Gwydion must be dead, Taran takes it upon himself to travel to Caer Dathyl to warn the House of Don, but he is not alone, as Gurgi, Eilonwy and Fflewddur (not to mention Gwydion's very wise horse Melyngar) insist on accompanying him. After a chance meeting with Medwyn, a healer who protects animals, and an encounter with the Fair Folk adds a dwarf named Doli (who cannot turn invisible, unlike the rest of his family, to his intense irritation) to their party, they ultimately must fight and stand against the Horned King.

Not to worry -- we're just at the beginning of the story, so all ends well (Hen Wen is found! Gwydion isn't dead! The Horned King is defeated!), but it's clear that there is real danger afoot that will enter into future books. I challenge you to try and not fall in love with Taran, a very real young man with a good heart who gets the adventure he wants, yet still comes to understand the importance of home and peace. He learns and matures through lots of errors, but is also capable of making the right decision in the face of pressure. He ultimately prevails in this first challenge with the help of his traveling companions. As with all Lloyd Alexander novels, the best part is the sense of comedy and whimsy. Eilonwy talks a great deal and is quick to take Taran down a few notches whenever he's too uptight. As a princess with red-gold hair, it's not hard to understand why this redhead always loved her, but she is a charming and outspoken girl, an excellent role model for young ladies, as she never shies away from a fight and always speaks her mind. Fflewddeur is charming as he repeatedly exaggerates, causing harp strings to snap. And Gurgi, well... Gurgi is a bit annoying, but he means well, so the reader, like Taran, ultimately decides that Gurgi isn't so bad.

As a kid, I loved these books. They're notable in my past as being responsible for my first (and only) request for an extension on a paper. In sixth grade, I asked for a single day extension on a book report, which was granted, as I was writing about the whole series and not just one book. I rather wish I still had that paper, as I'd be curious to read my initial impressions. I'm sure it touched on my elementary understanding of Welsh mythology, but I seem to remember a lot of summarizing of the books... kind of similar to this. Hm.

So if you know a young reader aged 10-12 and they're not quite ready for Tolkien or other, similar fantasy novels, you might point them in Alexander's direction. A bit of a warning for the kiddies, though: there's frequent violence and people do get hurt. Also a word of warning to parents: if you buy the first book, you might as well just buy the whole series for your kid, as s/he will certainly want to keep reading about Taran, Eilonwy, and their friends. When they've finished those, you can then start buying the rest of Alexander's oeuvre. He wrote many gems (my favorite series being, of course, the Vesper Holly books) and frequently played with mythology. He's a funny and charming writer and whether the reader is young or old, I think everyone can find something compelling and delightful about this series.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Whenever books receive a certain amount of acclaim, I always worry that they will not live up to my expectations. It's sad, in a way, that when there's a great amount of buzz about a book, my first impulse is to doubt, but I've had my hopes crushed one too many times. So as much as I looked forward to reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I was a bit hesitant to actually pick it up. In the end, there was no reason to fear. This novel is utterly lovely and quite deserves all the praise it has received.

Muriel Barbery sets her novel in Paris at 7 rue de Grenelle, an upper-class residence of apartments, and the story is told from two perspectives. The first is that of Madame Renée Michel, who has been the concierge at 7 rue de Grenelle for twenty-seven years. Renée is 54, somewhat dumpy and nondescript. She exerts a great amount of effort in keeping up the appearance of the average concierge: gruff and ignorant, with a constantly-blaring television and a very fat cat. But despite this projection, Renée is an incredibly intelligent woman, an avid reader of fine literature and philosophy who is unwilling to be found out and recognized for her proclivities. She distrusts the wealthy and isolates herself into a very predictable existence, with a steady routine and one friend. She believes this is enough. Our other narrator is Paloma Josse, a precociously philosophical twelve-year-old resident of the building. Paloma is an introvert who has a tendency to hide from her family so she can be left alone with her thoughts, which she is recording in a journal, along with observations on the world and assessments of those around her. Since she has been disappointed in life and the people in it, she has come to the conclusion that it's better to die young rather than grow up into the kind of adult she sees around her, and so she is planning to commit suicide on her 13th birthday by setting the apartment on fire and taking a number of sleeping pills.

Both of these narrators are incredibly eloquent; Renée is a more touch formal and Paloma has a tendency to present tidy pieces of wit. The first half of the novel is taken up with their observations of various people in the building and musings on their own lives and reading, without any interaction between the two. About midway through the novel, though, both lives are changed when a new resident moves into the building: Kakuro Ozu is a wealthy and successful Japanese gentleman, which would normally slide him into the dismissible category for both of these narrators. But Kakuro is also an observant and thoughtful man, quickly aware of such unique characters as the intelligent concierge (who lets a Tolstoy reference slip in their first short conversation) and the quiet twelve-year-old (who reads manga and is taking Japanese at school). As Renée and Paloma form their separate friendships with Kakuro, they find a kindred spirit in each other, too. If anything, I wish that this coming together of our two narrators had happened a bit earlier, as I felt we didn't have enough interaction between them.

I must give great credit to the translator, Alison Anderson. Muriel Barbery writes in French, so Ms. Anderson plays a crucial role in this novel's appeal to an English-speaking market. I would recommend this book on the basis of its language alone. Yes, it's lofty and often philosophical, but I find that to be delightful. The ideas are refreshing and never dry (indeed, Renée at one time talks about the value of films such as The Hunt for Red October amidst her musings on Japanese films and philosophers). I frequently re-read passages to savor their charm, and certainly believe this is some of the most exquisite language that I've encountered this year. It's truly remarkable to be able to surrender to a well-formed character's voice taking you along on her thought process. Incredibly simple things become fascinating and you wonder if you could ever express things quite so beautifully as Renée and Paloma. These two ladies are utterly charming and while at times, they were somewhat unbelievable as real people, I found that reservation easy enough to cast off before I was delighting in both Renée and Paloma. Of course, I think that Renée was the one to truly steal my heart. Paloma is sweet, yes, but Renée really steals the show.

Ultimately, the book is wonderfully bittersweet, owed entirely to one's feelings about the characters, and I admit that it's been quite some time since I've cried at the end of a novel -- not just misty eyes, but actual tears. The language and the characters continue to drift into my thoughts. I've gone back to look at a few particularly memorable passages with a smile. So don't let the great reviews throw you -- they're all quite true. It's an elegant novel that quite deserves your attention. C'est magnifique.