In the early pages of The Rabbit Hutch, someone who calls himself The Abominable Glow Man flies to Indiana to terrorize someone he’s never met. He is traveling to annoy and assault a middle-aged woman named Joan Kowalski, who works screening comments for an online obituary service. He lists out his itinerary for the night, which reads like a self-care manifesto until its end:
-Afternoon: Walk around. Find nice park. Stroll. Museum? Food. Booze. Olives. Most important= feel good!!!!!!
-Evening: Update blog. Read. Martinis. Glow prep.
-2 a.m.: KAPOW!
Tess Gunty’s debut novel propels itself by setting up conflicts between people who are already on edge, exhausted, and afraid, and lets you see where the pieces will fall long before it topples them over. It centers on an apartment complex called La Lapiniere in Vacca Vale, Indiana, which is home to several floors of eclectic, lost people. The book is a complex of its own, subdivided into short chapters on each resident that have divergent styles, perspectives, and tenses, surveying each like a deconstructed Chris Ware comic. It often only becomes clear much later how one person is related to another. More important than their issues, however, are the strange ways each person silences them: through devotion to reality tv stars, animal sacrifice, medieval religious writing, and applying the residue of glow sticks to their own skin.
Others have compared Gunty’s debut to the work of Denis Johnson, but the author I think of is the French writer Georges Perec. Perec was a member of the Oulipo group of novelists, who wrote experimental works according to a series of predetermined constraints. Perec’s most famous novel isLife: A User’s Manual, an almost 700 page text about the inhabitants of an apartment building in Paris. Written according to the rules of the Knight’s Tour, the narrative moves around a 10×10 grid of squares (apartments), the order of which is given by the pattern of a knight’s moves on a grid; each chapter is one apartment’s story.
Gunty’s writing is in contrast unconstrained. Chapters alternate between ten pages and half of one, swapping between characters at random. Characterization happens through accumulation. Joan, the obituary writer, is described via the quirks of her behavior during her commute: she reads Charles Dickens, has mild misophonia, and is religious but insecurely so. Todd, one of four foster kids sharing Apartment C4, is a vegetarian, is intensely reserved, and once wandered into an Ikea on a school trip. Gunty has a talent for short descriptions—she once describes the quality of sunlight as “morally puny”—and this extends to her characters as well: often with one offhand trait, you get the sense of exactly who someone is.
At the center of The Rabbit Hutch is Blandine, a teenager who’s just left the foster system and a relationship with a teacher. Blandine deals with both events by reading the works of the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen and committing light acts of civic unrest, like dumping dirt and animal bones onto the heads of country club members. She deals with most of the issues in her life by thinking about theology, a practice she sees as strictly non-religious but morally crucial: “She did have visions. Didn’t everyone?”
From the novel’s beginning, you know that its denouement will be a random, violent attack on Blandine, perpetrated by someone close to her. The Rabbit Hutch doesn’t structure itself as a mystery, though: the circumstances of the attack are too random and bizarre to be guessed, and guessing them early wouldn’t give you much insight into the story as a whole. The violence serves mostly as a threat hanging over the novel, and as an extension of the difficulties Blandine and the other residents of La Lapiniere have faced on a daily basis. It is the emotional abjection that plagues everyone in this novel, externalized.
Unfortunately, however, this framing is one of the novel’s greatest weaknesses. Blandine in particular feels like the subject of other peoples’ attention: fascinating in their chapters, but adrift and preoccupied in her own. The violence that’s teased only exacerbates this problem. Blandine is sickly and odd, but desirable to everyone around her until she expresses a need or frustration. To her credit, she does have the range to actually feel and express that frustration, and she’s most convincing when she takes tangible actions to try and fix it. But for someone whose hobbies involve reading medieval mystics and pestering former auto industry execs, she is remarkably passive when it comes to her own life. Her thoughts are often processed through someone else’s, not like a young person figuring out what she really thinks about something, but like someone who has no agency to express in the first place.
Towards the middle of the novel, terrifically wealthy actress Elsie Blitz says from her hospital bed, “I used to think all relationships were imaginary.” The Rabbit Hutch is about people who live on top of one another and deal with the cast-offs of each others’ lives, but never interact. Everyone is trying to get out ahead of their own problems by connecting with someone somewhere else, whether that’s a reality tv star, a content moderator on the internet, a Benedictine abbess from a thousand years ago. But at its end, and at select few moments throughout, The Rabbit Hutch relaxes this isolation and lets its characters relax into each other. In those moments, the narrative shines like a bag of glow sticks: industrial, dazzling, the sum of its disconnected parts.
Emily Price is an intern at Paste Magazine and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine. She is also a PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.