Book review: Faith, Hope and Carnage

The cover of FAITH, HOPE & CARNAGE by Nick Cave and Seán O'Hagan

Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan
My rating: five stars

I’ve been a fan of Nick Cave’s work for a couple of decades, but I admit to having held a certain amount of cynicism about the guy (and parts of his output) over the years. Partially this was a bit of a pose, part of it was (perhaps justified) criticism at the increased deification and man-of-letters mantle he’d been gifted by certain parts of his fanbase, and by his home country of late, which of course disregards the fact that he had to fuck off to England and Germany before earning any sort of praise here.

The news of the death of Arthur, Cave’s son, put paid to that. Selfishly, it allowed me to focus more on the work than the man – it seemed like a particularly cunty act to want to run down a man (remember that Nick Cave & the Bad Everything photo?) in the wake of such terrible events. How would someone bear such a thing? How would they survive? How do you keep getting up in the morning?

Faith, Hope and Carnage is a book of conversations that attempts to discuss that. While it wasn’t the initial plan, that’s where a lot of the themed chapters end up: with writer and longtime Cave mate Seán O’Hagan probing the artist on a range of topics, and getting some surprising commentary.

Hope is optimism with a broken heart.

At the end of last year (and before I read this book), I saw Nick and Warren Ellis play a gig in Sydney. And I was amazed at how self-deprecating, how different the guy in the spotlight seemed to be: so much more human and graceful than I had expected. The video below isn’t of that show, but it’s from an earlier part of the tour and gives an idea of what the evening was like.

Supremely good.

What Faith, Hope and Carnage does is provide a bit of backstory about how the man on the stage came to be where he is: how he emerged from seemingly crushing blows. It’s a tribute to his wife, Susie, and their decision to stay united in the face of overwhelming grief, and the way that union powered their survival, and underpins every aspect of his life today. It’s a portrait of a workaholic, and a record of one man’s attempt to engage with something ineffable, and to forge links with people – whether through performance, correspondence, or simple exchange – to better experience the wonder of the world.

It’s pretty heady stuff. But it’s not all like that. There’s plenty of gossip on the Bad Seeds front, and what sounds like a lot of growth, of rumination born out of lockdowns and COVID separation. Cave’s turn of phrase is, naturally, wonderful, but I must admit to being tickled at his wry recollections of failed rehab, or – especially – his description of Blixa Bargeld as “the least nuanced person I’ve ever met in my life”.

There’s a lot of fun to be found within, but I found myself writing down quotes pretty regularly. I’m sure Cave doesn’t see himself as a self-help guru, but there’s some hard-won wisdom within that resonated with me very much. I was particularly taken with this passage:

I think of late I’ve grown increasingly impatient with my own scepticism; it feels obtuse and counter-productive, something that’s simply standing in the way of a better-lived life. I feel it would be good for me to get beyond it. I think I would be happier if I stopped window-shopping and just stepped through the door.

Like a hammer-blow.

There’s a lot of sadness in the book, and some passages are almost unbearable in their heaviness: the recollections of the night Arthur died are just terrible. Similarly, the feelings of regret over Cave’s inability to be at home with his dying mother, or with his now-gone friends are almost overwhelming. And yet he recognises that this is something universal: something so common, that everyone will experience at some point. The difference here is that he is someone who saves himself with work: it just so happens that his work is exposing his psyche in public, whether it’s the dude who does the murder ballads, or the man ruminating on the way his perception of God moves through the world.

Potentially, I think I’m predisposed towards liking this book precisely because Cave engages at such length with faith. I was brought up a Catholic, and while – like many my age – I am a lapsed Catholic, I am perhaps duty-bound to have a bit of a sense of curiosity about all that stuff. That’s not to say I’m a fan of (or necessarily even interested in) organised religion. But I still wonder, and I suppose that’s why I’d consider myself an agnostic rather than an atheist: I like the idea of allowing for there to be something out there, even if it’s purely scientific (the conservation of energy at work) or something else.

Cave’s struggles with religion, both in the context of his attempts to get off smack and following the death of his son Arthur, are interesting to me as they illustrate the sort of thing I might undertake given the weight of certain pressures. I can imagine myself trying to figure out what the fuck is going on, or to figure whether belief might provide a strong enough mast to lash myself to in order to survive. I’ve been reading the Bible, sure, because I never got around to it when I was in school, and because I felt I should – but I suspect it’ll take something life-changing before my perspective is solidified.

In Cave’s case, it seems that such pressure has created someone who is open to experience, and to forging links with people, however brief. He speaks of trying to give the best of himself to things now, knowing that time is short and things change in an instant, in a way that reminded me of the Smog tune ‘To Be of Use’. It’s very much something informed by faith and belief, and it appears – at least to my observer’s eye – to have completely transformed the man.

Look, I loved this book. It is intensely personal yet supremely generous. Previously, I wouldn’t have thought that such a thing – it feels like an offering, frankly – could have come from such a guy. I’m glad that I was very wrong about that.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph.

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