And the Ass Saw the Angel – Andy recommences normal transmissionMay 28, 2010
Sorry about that. End of May and only now do we get around to blogging about April’s book. Oops. I’ve been in Turkey for a month, that’s my excuse and a damn fine one it is too I think. Netty probably has an excuse too but it’s not nearly as exotic as mine I’ll bet. On the upside, we’re both ready to blog about April’s book in the next day or two, I’ll blog about my Revisited book a day or two after that and within a week you should also be hearing what we think about May’s book. Wow. I’m excited. Are you excited? How exciting.
Turkey’s awesome, by the way. You should go there. No, you don’t have to buy a carpet. We didn’t.
I like Nick Cave. I’ve got a handful of his albums, every so often I think about buying a few more. Might do that tonight, actually, on iTunes. The albums I own all post-date his first novel. Whether that’s significant I’m not too sure. Apparently when he wrote Ass (as I shall refer to it in shorthand from now on) he was smacked off his fucking nut, and apparently one of the reasons he released a revised version of the novel last year was to ameliorate the influence his gargantuan drug habit had on his writing in the late ’80s. He was living in what was then West Berlin when he wrote the book. I wish he’d write a book about Berlin. I like books about Berlin. Well. I like Isherwood’s books about Berlin.
Ass isn’t about Berlin, or Germany. It’s not about Australia, or at least if it is it’s about Australia in some weird deep and meaningful way that has passed me by. Ass, a novel written by a Berlin-based Australian musician with a serious smack problem, is about the United States of America. Set in an isolated valley dominated by sectarian Protestant extremism and peppered with incestuous, illiterate hicks, Ass can be described as both gothic and baroque. It is grotesque and it is over the top. And while the writing is sometimes spectacularly good, you don’t have to read too much of it before you realise Cave is a far more successful lyricist than he is a novelist. Ass is an enjoyable and interesting read but great literature it ain’t. Some people, of course, will say that’s no bad thing, but Cave is a serious artist and I suspect that with Ass he was aiming for something greater than what he actually achieved.
For Cave’s fans criticism is akin to sacrilege. I suspect many of Cave’s fans don’t actually get a lot of what he has to say. His demeanour and the quality of his lyrics, together with the subject matter, mask the fact that much of what he writes is actually fucking hilarious. Dark it may be but Cave clearly has a sharp sense of humour. This is abundantly evident in Ass, although I do wonder if some of what I found funny was unintentionally humourous. Cave slathers the gothic grotesquery on so heavily it is impossible to take it seriously. The twisted religious mania, the demented violence, the sexual perversion, the sadism, the occasionally, dizzyingly incomprehensible language – it’s hard to swathe through nearly 300 pages of this and think you’re supposed to keep a straight face. But I suspect many of his fans, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s, his black-clad privately educated late-teens-to-early-20s “disaffected” (oh please just FUCK OFF) fans, took it all terribly, terribly seriously. They probably even made the effort to get the dictionary out for all the words they didn’t know. I didn’t make that effort. I’m pretty sure some of those words don’t actually exist.
As I’ve said, there’s some pretty extraordinary writing in Ass. But Cave is at his best, beyond a shadow of a doubt, when his prose most closely parallels his lyrics. “To write prose I am freed of a lot of constraints I battle against to write a song,” Cave said in an interview last year. Constraints on writing aren’t always a bad thing. I think those constraints, over the past 30-something years, have probably forced Cave to produce some of his finest work. Ass is a good book, a much, much better book than most of the garbage that’s published these days. But it’s not what Cave will be remembered for. You have to look to his albums for that. Ass is funny, weird, disturbing, horrifying, fucked-up and fascinating. Much of its revolting imagery, presumably percolated while Cave’s mind was at its most drug fucked, is the kind of anti-heroin propaganda the Australian Drug Foundation would shoot up for. It’s a good book and it’s well worth a read. But I don’t know that I’ll be reading it again any time in the next 50 years.