There are approximately 68 mentions of rabbits throughout The rabbit hutchIt’s 352 pages, conjuring up images of everything from pulling rabbits out of hats, falling down rabbit holes, Alice in Wonderland, to the mundane life of a pet rabbit. It speaks to Tess Guntys evocatively with words that she weaves these strands together in the span of a book and a sweltering summer week. The story begins with a first line that kills (literally): On a hot night in the C4 apartment, Blandine Watkins comes out of her body. She’s only 18, but she’s spent most of her life wishing this would happen. And so we tumble down the rabbit hole, Alice holding our hands along the way.
Apartment C4 is tucked away in a ramshackle complex in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a fictional town (although perhaps a nod to California’s infamous Vacaville) long abandoned by its main industry, Zorn Automobiles. Vacca Vale is now plagued by environmental and economic problems. The complex originally named La Lapinire in a nod to pseudo-European luxury is home to a multitude of characters whose banality borders on fascination. There’s C12’s grumpy widower who obsessively checks his negative reviews on dating apps; an old bickering couple in C6, struggling to remember why they are together; C8’s new mother struggling to bond with her baby; a single woman who spends her evenings eating maraschino cherries from a jar on her bedside table.
Gunty treats The rabbit hutch like a wall of glass cages in a pet store and we readers are voyeuristic shoppers looking inside. Unlike the real world, we see the dark, soft and vulnerable parts of each person; the things they hide from everyone maybe even from themselves. This sense of eerie omnipresence pervades the entire book, often taking us from scenes in Rabbit Hutch to other parallel storylines.
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For example, there’s an entire chapter devoted to the self-written obituary of a glamorous but unhinged former child star, Elsie Blitz, whose jaded attitude toward being alive mirrored Blandines. In the obituary, she advises as if beaver fur is overrated and believes in ghosts, but not in God, unless your conception of God is a lot like a ghost. The only thing Elsie loved more than pygmy sloths was her son, Moses, though she never bothered to show him. Moses serves as the link, eventually reaching Vacca Vale with a heart full of misguided vengeance and a plan that involves a bag full of glow sticks.
But the main focus of the story is on Blandine, a former foster child who is obsessed with ancient martyrs and mystics and who, until recently, was a gifted high school student by any other name. Blandine sometimes veers into that over-the-top maniacal 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 looks like a modern-day Alice, kicked out of the country. wonders and wondering why no one else saw what she saw. Gunty writes that she was a fool for portals, ready to sign the toughest contracts, isolation, crooks, hunters, rogue wolves, cannibalistic witches, anything if he promised to carry her . There was no place like home because there was no home.
Blandine is full of harrowing philosophical questions one would expect from a lonely teenager. She asks one of her roommates, I just want a little more realistic life, don’t you? The question The rabbit hutch tries to answer is, what really defines a life? As we come across phantom itchy medical marvels and mystics who miraculously survive the death of lions, we also encounter the fragile tearing of a teenage heart and the furious pain of complicated grief. There is the dark side of the Internet, as Blandine sees it, but also the cordial and refreshing comments of a post in a group of plant lovers. No matter how you turn it, the mundane and fantastical life is a kaleidoscope of juxtapositions. In a dark confessional booth, a priest reassures Moses that it would be absurd to call an entire person good or bad. You’re just a series of messy, contradictory behaviors, like everyone else as long as you’re alive, the jury is out.
Social media (and probably Blandine, if she was on Twitter) jokes familiarly that humans are just sacks of meat; the implication being that there were only messy, spongy, vulnerable patches. Likewise, the characters of 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 turning this Earth for the first time, experiencing every emotion with violent force. They struggle, they make mistakes, they join communities, they feel unbearably alone. This, Gunty thinks, is the full spectrum of being human. The rabbit hutch is absurd, but if you scratch through 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. In his heart, The rabbit hutch asks us to question what it means to be alive, especially in the age of the Internet. Perhaps a comment deleted from his fictional obituary website sums it up best: There’s nothing after that, okay? So don’t live like you got an act IIII, 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?
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