Junkyard Poet: Nick Cave’s The Sick Bag Song Reviewed

Nick Cave is a punk-rocker from Victoria, Australia. Now living in Brighton, he got his start in music in the early eighties in a filthy punk band named The Birthday Party. After a few years he mellowed out and gained infinite sophistication as frontman for his band The Bad Seeds – producing albums packed with love songs, Greek tragedies and homicide (featuring Kylie Minogue.) The wordy musician has also written the screenplays for western movies Lawless and The Proposition and his first two novels And The Ass Saw The Angel and The Death Of Bunny Munro were lurid affairs dealing with murder and mortality. The Sick Bag Song is his third novel but, as the title might suggest, also acts as an elongated poem: a confusing mix of fact and fiction which tones down the murder but ratchets up the mortality to a deafening degree. Cave describes it as “the SCUM Manifesto meets The Shropshire Lad meets Apocalypto meets Kanye West meets PornHub…” and so on. I’d describe it as a freshly trawled shell. Difficult to grasp and hard to break: but if you can crack it, there are pearls to be revealed within.

The Sick Bag Song was written on twenty-two different sick bags on flights between stops on Nick Cave’s 2014 tour; and indeed every chapter consists of what was written on one of these bags, with a photocopy of the corresponding original replicated before the adapted text of the final piece – which is a fascinating insight into the writing process and a pretty unique conceit. Thankfully the book transcends the novelty though (and with a hefty £30 price tag; it should.) The narrative is scattered and jumps between poetry and prose (and prose analysis of the preceding poetry on occasion) but essentially follows a fictitious version of Cave as he traverses North America, building on his own mythology, recounting tales of fellow musicians and having what seems comes across as some sort of late-set mid-life crisis.

Because of the fluid nature of the novel’s writing – each stop on the journey being anything from a few lines long to long, lucid, more novelistic stretches of prose – means that it’s all a little hit and miss. Most of the novel is engaging but the ‘Edmonton, Alberta’ passage where the fictitious Cave finds a small dragon in the river is a step too far into the surreal. This section is also one of many to boast an annoying recurring feature of The Song where Cave lists things in a sequence of nine: the nine qualities of said river, his “nine muses”, “the nine secondary bedevilments of creativity” – it would be hard to make any list that interesting, and when in the case of ‘San Francisco, California’ it’s a whole chapter of them; interest drops off fast.

Cave writes shamelessly rough and ready prose but, like Bukowski for instance, when he has something to say; really has something to say – you can almost feel his writing shift a gear and out come these evocative, gorgeously crafted passages which make the whole thing worth it. The first entry for example is a stunning opener: painting in broad strokes the image of a young boy, perched on the edge of a bridge over a dirty river, with the train coming, who is not a boy at all but “the memory of a boy, running through the mind of a man in a suite at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.” Or when he writes “I cast a giant shadow against the sky/like a miniature deity, I gaze into the brown water/I slide my little songs out from under you.” There’s also a through line across The Song where fictitious Cave will call his wife from various hotel rooms and receive only the dialling tone – it comes and goes and is soon forgotten, but as he gets more frantic and the motif comes to a head on the novel’s last page, it’s easy to admire the intricacy of Cave’s structural innovation too.

Cave knows his strengths are in sporadic machinations rather than extended prose and this book is essentially a conduit for that. Scrapbooked and fleeting – The Sick Bag Song puts the emphasis on moments rather than lifetimes, and it suits Cave’s writing style down to the ground. A result of this, intentional or otherwise, is that the book provides an appreciation for the selection of its scant words in a way much denser novels would be able to. The same way renowned Modena chef Massimo Bottura offers small parcels of traditional Italian cuisine so that food normally wolfed down en masse can be savoured in its component parts again; The Sick Bag Song, with its display box, design scheme of precise airline minimalism, crystal white printing and accompanying audiobook where Cave reads every word with attentiveness and gravitas: teaches you how to read it. Turning its pages is like browsing the leaves of a holy book, such is the sacred treatment leant to its words – and so just like Massimo’s Tortilini’s dishes, you savour every bite.

That is the appeal of the novel, and it’s a unique one. Inconsistent in concept and muddled it conceit, it’s joy comes instead from the sparse moments of deep resonance clearly relayed within its pages; and those instances of wisdom or poetry hold a more lasting reserve than if they’d have been surrounded by 500 pages of text or if every single word hadn’t been treated as precious. The Sick Bag Song is by no means a perfect release, but I challenge you to commit your time to it and not find some of its passages clinging to you like glue.

Theodore J. Inscoe

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