“In three hours he will move through the empty city, crossing vast rivers, driving along tremendous, multi-laned highways, under darkening skies, like a small God, to be with you, tonight.” Page 6
TITLE: THE SICK BAG SONG
AUTHOR: NICK CAVE
PUBLISHER: CANONGATE BOOKS
PUBLISHED: JUNE 2015
Nick Cave is a punk-rocker from Australia whose wordy output with The Bad Seeds has so far been expanded to two novels and screenplays. The Sick Bag Song is his third novel, but as the title might suggest, it also acts as an elongated poem; a confusing mix of fact and fiction which tones down the murder but raises the mortality to a deafening degree. Cave describes it as “the SCUM Manifesto meets The Shropshire Lad meets Apocalypto meets Kanye West meets PornHub…”. I would 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. 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, revealing a fascinating insight into the writing process and a pretty unique idea. It essentially follows a fictitious version of Cave as he travels across North America, building his own mythology and enduring what seems to be some sort of late-set mid-life crisis.
When he 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.
Because of the fluid nature of the novel’s writing – each stop on the journey being anything from snappy sentences to long, lucid stretches of prose – 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, and some chapters which consist entirely of lists of nines also lose interest fast – although I suspect different passages will resonate more depending on the reader.
Cave writes shamelessly rough and ready prose but, like Bukowski for instance, when he 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 which gives the image of a young boy perched on the edge of a bridge over a dirty river with the train coming. However, he 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.” There’s also a through line where fictitious Cave keeps calling his wife only to hear the dialling tone; a motif which becomes increasingly frantic and intriguing.
The Sick Bag Song puts the emphasis on moments rather than lifetimes.
Scrap-booked 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. As a result, readers are able to appreciate the novel’s selection of fewer words in a way that is lost in much denser novels. 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, precise design scheme, 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 of its words – and so, just like Massimo’s Tortilini’s dishes, you savour every bite.
That’s the appeal of this novel, and it is a unique one. Inconsistent in its concept, the joy comes instead from the sparse moments of deep resonance clearly relayed within its pages; and those instances of wisdom or poetry hold more power than if they had been surrounded by 500 pages of text. 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 memorable.
Liam Inscoe – Jones