And the Ass Saw the Angel

One of the more egregiously out of print books, in America at least, is Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel. Elise introduced me to this book ages ago, lending me a copy of her precious (Imported! British! Naked lady on the cover!) paperback. It’s written in an approximation of how Cave, a Australian gothic heroin chic musician, thinks an illiterate retarded Southern anti-Elvis educated at Eton might write:

A single naked bulb hung from the ceiling directly over mah crib. The bulb throbbed hotly, brazen and hypnotic, as ah lay upon mah back and observed, with increasing annoyance, a growing number of night-insects serried around the humming cynosure. Ah watched helplessly as every minute or so an over- zealous moth or gnat or fly would collide with the deadly bulb, frying to ash its little wings and hair-like appendages in the doing. Thus its futile business would end in a screaming descent, invariably coming to ground within the fruit-crate in which ah lay. Spinning insectile amputees littered mah crib – died ghastly deaths, their last agonies performed in all their screaming luridess right before mah eyes, to bring them at last to the end of their days, bereft of life – stone cold dead.

That’s the style, and if you can’t handle the jarring inconsistency of “ah” and “mah” sandwiched next to “cynosure,” you won’t get very far in this book, and I can’t blame you. But, look, if We can Cut Thomas Pynchon Slack for Writing a Novel wherein he Capitalized every Noun and Seemingly Other Random Words for Over One-Thousand Pages, surely we can give Cave a “get out of pretentious prison free” card for this, his first novel.

And the Ass Saw the Angel takes the point of view of the bestial, filthy mongrel Euchrid Eucrow, despised by all and cared about by none, and chronicles his obsession with the beatific, beloved, and disturbingly-named girl Cosey Mo. Cave’s obsessions with the American South’s poverty culture, Elvis, biblical retribution, religious fanaticism, and redemption are all on display here. I can quibble about Cave’s inability to remember that we call them “trucks” in the American South, not “lorries,” but that’s really beside the point: the intensity of his obsession with these Southern hypergothic archetypes is on display here, and the uniqueness of his voice can’t be denied.

Of course, if obsession was all it took to make a good novel, there would be a lot more good novels. Pity the poor Southerner: Faulkner tried to capture their voice accurately, showing them in all their flawed, human glory. Fifty years later we have books like the execrable Vernon God Little winning the Booker prize with the incisive observations that most Americans in Texas are fat, eat lots of junk food, and can’t spell the word “fucking” (Dear Rest of the World: look, if there’s one word pretty much every American can spell, that’s the one, OK? Apparently the London literati must still be bitter about Renee Zellweger’s British accent in Bridget Jones' Diary, and giving Vernon God Little the Booker was their revenge.) With this in mind, the problem with And the Ass Saw the Angel is that one can’t escape the fact that it was written by an outsider, and while its voice is unique, it is not authentic. In trying to express his obsession with his fictional, Biblically significant Gomorrah-of-the-psyche, Cave does some violence to it. Violence other than that which he intended, I mean.

So it’s a conundrum. It doesn’t ruin the book, but it does suggest a lost opportunity to me. It’s easy to lose yourself in the Otherness of a foreign culture, but familiarity or love for the Other doesn’t necessarily help us write in their voice. In trying to do so, you can not only create a voice which rings false (as in Vernon God Little) but also weaken your own ability to connect the reader to the impulse that you’re trying to express. Cave’s obsession with and search for redemption would exist even if he had never heard of America. How much power, how much truth, how much reflection was lost or obscured because of the voice he chose for the novel? Somewhere in Victoria, Australia, many years ago, a young man grew up feeling outcast and despised. As he grew, he began to turn those feelings into art. I know it’s a mistake to conflate an author with his characters – particularly when the tale is in the form of a fable, as it is here – but these themes run so solidly through everything Cave has ever done that I think I’m on safe ground doing it. I would like to hear that boy’s story in Cave’s own native accent, in his own idiom, rather than in a fake Southern patois.

Much to my surprise, I discovered there is now a spoken word album with some “experimental” music (“experimental” is Australian for “bad”) and readings from the book by Cave. There are samples at Amazon, but if you’re looking for a soundtrack to this book you’re probably better off listening to his album The Firstborn Is Dead.

Additional Resources

Ah do declare that mah pillocks grow all ossified like the stinking, feculent ravens that shit and mewl in the junkyard, pecking at the scabs that cover mah bruised and broken body, when ah think you maht click on these links: