New Book We Love: Tess Gunty’s Debut Novel Sends Readers Down the Rabbit Hole

·5 min read
Photo credit:  Lauren Alexandra
Photo credit: Lauren Alexandra

There are approximately 68 mentions of rabbits throughout The Rabbit Hutch’s 352 pages, conjuring images of everything from pulling rabbits from hats, falling down rabbit holes, “Alice in Wonderland,” to the banal life of a pet rabbit. It speaks to Tess Gunty’s evocative way with words that she weaves these strands together in the span of one book and one sweltering summer week. The story begins with a killer (literally) first line: “On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body. She is only 18 years old, but she has spent most of her life wishing for this to happen.” And so we tumble down the rabbit hole, Alice holding our hand along the way.

Apartment C4 nestles within a run-down complex in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a fictional city (though perhaps a nod to California’s infamous Vacaville) long-ago abandoned by its primary industry, Zorn Automobiles. Vacca Vale is now wracked by environmental and economic woes. The complex — originally named “La Lapinière” in a stab at pseudo-European luxury — houses a multitude of characters whose mundanity borders on fascinating. There’s the grumpy widower in C12 who obsessively checks his negative dating app reviews; a bickering old couple in C6 struggling to remember why they’re together; the new mother in C8 who’s having trouble bonding with her baby; a single woman who spends her evenings eating maraschino cherries from a jar on her nightstand.

Gunty treats The Rabbit Hutch like a wall of glass cages at a pet store and we readers are voyeuristic shoppers peering in. Unlike in the real world, we see every person’s dark, soft, and vulnerable parts; the things they keep hidden from everyone—perhaps even themselves. This sense of eerie omnipresence permeates the entire book, often flinging us from scenes in the Rabbit Hutch to other parallel storylines.

For instance, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the self-written obituary of a glamorous, yet unhinged former child star, Elsie Blitz, whose blasé attitude towards being alive mirrored Blandine’s. In the obituary, she gives advice like “beaver fur is overrated” and “believe in ghosts, but not God, unless your conception of God is much like a ghost.” The only thing Elsie loved more than pygmy sloths was her son, Moses, although she never bothered to show it. Moses serves as the connection, eventually reaching Vacca Vale with a heart full of misguided revenge and a plan that involves a bag full of glow sticks.

But the story’s main focus lies on Blandine, a former foster kid who’s obsessed with ancient martyrs and mystics and — until recently — was a gifted high school student by another name. Blandine sometimes veers into that overdone manic pixie dream girl status — her three male roommates suddenly fall in love with her at the same time, for example — but most of the time she resembles a modern-day Alice, ejected from Wonderland and wondering why no one else has seen what she has seen. Gunty writes, “she was a fool for portals, willing to sign the thorniest contract—giants, isolation, tricksters, hunters, con-artist wolves, cannibalistic witches, anything—if it promised to transport her. There was no place like home because there was no home.”

Blandine is full of the angsty philosophical questions one would expect from a teenage loner. She asks one of her roommates, “I just…I want a life that’s a little more lifelike…don’t you?” The question The Rabbit Hutch attempts to answer is, what actually defines a life? As we come across medical marvels with phantom itches and mystics who miraculously survive death by lions, we also encounter the fragile break of a teenage heart and the furious grief of complicated mourning. There’s the dark side to the internet, as Blandine sees it, but also the refreshingly cordial comments on a post in a plant-lovers’ group. No matter how you spin it, life — the mundane and the fantastical — is a kaleidoscope of juxtapositions. In a dark confession cubicle, a priest reassures Moses, “it would be absurd to describe a whole person as good or bad. You’re just a series of messy, contradicting behaviors, like everyone else…as long as you’re alive, the jury’s out.”

Social media (and probably Blandine, if she were on Twitter) colloquially jokes that humans are merely bags of meat; the implication being that we’re just messy, squishy, vulnerable blobs. Similarly, the characters in The Rabbit Hutch are all half-baked — not in the sense that they’re not fully fleshed out characters, but that, like us, they’re humans rotating on this Earth for the first time, experiencing every emotion with violent force.They struggle, they make mistakes, they join communities, they feel unbearably lonely. This, Gunty muses, is the full spectrum of being human. The Rabbit Hutch is absurd, but if you scratch away the layers of surrealism and satire, you find Gunty’s practical insight into the meaning of life. It’s complicated, hard as hell, and yet beautiful. At its core, The Rabbit Hutch asks us to question what it means to be alive, especially in the age of the internet. Perhaps a deleted comment from its fictitious obituary website sums it up best: “There is nothing after this, ok? So don’t live like you have an Act III…I can’t reveal how I know, I had to sign an NDA…[but] these are your only minutes. What are you going to do with them?”

Kirby Beaton is a writer, strategist, and book reviewer at BuzzFeed. She also talks all things books in her newsletter, Booked It for You.

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