Nick Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel (London: Penguin Books, 2009), revised edition, 280pp
When I read Nick Cave's second book, The Death of Bunny Munro, about a year ago I had a mixed reaction, recognising sparks of quality but also a lot of missteps or muddled ideas. At the time, I said that Cave was an excellent songwriter and musician, but that I would reserve my judgement on whether he is a good writer of fiction until I had read And the Ass Saw the Angel.
Now, after finally getting around to reading it, I can indeed say that he is a good writer. And the Ass Saw the Angel is exceptional in parts, merely very good in others, especially when you consider that it is a debut novel. In a number of ways it is similar to The Death of Bunny Munro: broadly speaking, both chart the descent into madness of their protagonists, relying on stream-of-consciousness techniques and explicit and obscene acts to chart the characters' mental deterioration (in Bunny, these depravities were sexual acts, in Ass they are mostly violent ones). But where Bunny was muddled, Ass is focused. This is peculiar, considering that Bunny was written about twenty years later, when you would assume an author would become more assured in his writing. Perhaps this is because Ass is told (mostly) from the first-person perspective of Euchrid, and consequently we are more intimate with his decline into madness.
Though I have said that And the Ass Saw the Angel is more focused, it is not necessarily an easy read. However, before reading I assumed that this would be because of the dense, lyrical prose but, surprisingly, this was not as problematic as I feared. I never felt bogged down in a chapter (perhaps helped by the fact that, for the first part of the book at least, the chapters are very short) and got through the book in just a couple of days. Cave seems to have an intuitive understanding of the rhythm of good prose (which is perhaps not surprising when you consider he sets words to music for a living), so for a book so dark and oppressive it flows remarkably well. Rather, it is a difficult read because of the violent acts which pepper the book. Some other reviewers have said that these acts seemed unnecessary, which was why they felt they could not get into the book, but Ass is an insight into the mind of its demented protagonist Euchrid Eucrow, and the violence serves to oppress the reader's mind to mirror how Euchrid's is oppressed by his own darker thoughts. To borrow a phrase from page 180, Cave pollutes our skulls with sickly poetry.
And to be sure, some of the things described do haunt the reader. The whole thing with Cosey Mo, from the arrival of the townsfolk on Hooper's Hill through the fingers and the wheelchair to her late encounter with Euchrid's father, is hard to read. The Hooper's Hill incident in particular was a chilling depiction of the violent fervour of evangelical religiosity and the ease with which religion can ally itself with a lynch-mob mentality. But even the whole Cosey arc is nothing compared to that of Beth. The paedophilic undertones are incredibly creepy, and there are hints throughout the text about how far the obsession with this innocent child goes (see the Epilogue, for example), both from Euchrid and the townsfolk. Indeed, the townsfolk's obsession with Beth and its effect on her illustrates the intrinsically paedophilic nature of indoctrinating children into a faith. Her letters to 'God' are heartbreaking, even before we consider who they are really addressed to. Brought up from birth to believe she is a saviour, when God does not come to her this little girl asks confusedly if she has "done a wrong thing? Please tell me so I can stop." (pg. 211). Beth declares her love for God and gives herself 'without question' to Him (pg. 244), though she believes God to be the shadow outside her window whose heavy breathing she can hear.
This is an incredibly disturbing, yet rewarding book. Like the Biblical scripture from which it draws its inspiration, it can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I must refrain from offering my own rambling and semi-coherent interpretation. Therefore, I will only say that it is hard to determine whether you will like this book until you actually read it. As most people will no doubt be coming to And the Ass Saw the Angel as a fan of Nick Cave's music, I will make a poor attempt to summarise that, thematically, it is in line with the early Bad Seeds albums, but it reads like an extended Murder Ballad.