Lily Meyer | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes (2,725 words)
Jordan Peele’s second horror movie, Us, is full of rabbits. They twitch and hop through his underground world, their innocence a strange affront. Both Us and its predecessor, Get Out, are interested in innocence; Peele is expert at skewering the American habit, particularly present and noxious among liberal white Americans, of pretending to be blameless. The rabbits in Us serve as reminders of what true blamelessness looks like: animal, unknowing, and helpless, which is to say extremely vulnerable.
John Updike may have had a similar idea when he named his most famous protagonist Rabbit Angstrom. Rabbit — real name Harry — clings hard to the idea of innocence. Rabbit is an adult man, and not an especially kind or wise one, but in his head, he’s a high school basketball star, praised and beloved no matter how he behaves. Throughout his four-book life, Rabbit remains averse to adulthood. He wants to be a good boy.
Given his habit of sexualizing women, it’s easy to imagine Rabbit as an early reader of Playboy, that icon of male misbehavior. Where Peele’s rabbits signify goodness, the Playboy Bunny represents a certain kind of bad — though Hugh Hefner claimed not to think so. In a 1967 interview, he told Oriana Fallaci that “the rabbit, the bunny, in America has a sexual meaning, and I chose it because it’s a fresh animal, shy, vivacious, jumping — sexy… Consider the kind of girl that we made popular: the Playmate of the Month. She is never sophisticated, a girl you cannot really have. She is a young, healthy, simple girl.” Innocence was key to Playboy’s version of sexiness, and yet everyone knew — you only had to look at the centerfold — that innocence was feigned.
American pop culture is full of rabbits, all occupying this strange territory between innocent and not. On screen, we get the hallucinatory rabbit in the 1950 film Harvey, the much scarier hallucinatory rabbit in Donnie Darko, and, of course, Bugs Bunny, the wascally wabbit with his unending supply of Acme dynamite. “It’s time to kill the rabbit,” sing-songs one of the weasel-henchmen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a delicate echo of how Elmer Fudd bellowed the same thing at generations of American schoolchildren to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The irony is that we know they’re wrong; the rabbit never dies.
In Mona Awad’s new novel Bunny, false innocence proves sinister to the point of horror. Like Peele, Awad uses rabbits’ real vulnerability as a counterpoint to human violence. Also like Peele, she locates that violence in a privileged, supposedly idyllic setting. Us takes place in a California beach town, Bunny in a fiction MFA program at Warren University, which is a thinly veiled version of Brown. (Awad earned her MFA at Brown, and I should note that I went to college there.) In real life, Providence is a warm, welcoming city with excellent civic life and a violent crime rate that’s high, but declining. In Bunny, Providence is a hellscape that offers Warren students “the very real possibility of being beheaded on their way home one night from a student bar. Or else beaten with crowbars by the roving gangs that stalk the campus and its surrounding area.”
Awad fills Providence with brutal, class-based violence in part because Bunny is a horror novel, and in part because Warren’s extreme privilege infuriates Samantha. In fact, Samantha might be angry enough to invent the beheadings and crowbar gangs. The reader never gets evidence that they exist, and Samantha, it turns out, is prone to making things up — and has a very dark imagination. During her financially turbulent childhood in upstate New York, Samantha wrote stories that frightened her teachers. Now, her stories frighten her classmates at Warren, all of whom are comically beautiful, twee, over-privileged women who call each other Bunny.
Hefner would love Awad’s Bunnies. They go to great lengths to seem shy, vivacious, and sexy. Their hair and makeup are always perfect, and all their dresses are patterned with cartoon animals. They spend their time hosting “Smut Salons” and eating tiny cupcakes at a restaurant called Mini. Samantha hates the Bunnies for excluding her from their Salons. More importantly, she hates their unthinking privilege, which reminds her of her adolescent self. Samantha’s father struck it rich when she was a teenager, and remained wealthy long enough for her to get used to ease and luxury. When he lost his money, that ease disappeared from Samantha’s life. So did her father.
There are a lot of rabbit-men, known as Drafts, and as all writers know, most drafts get axed.
Samantha’s backstory might be the reason she accepts when the Bunnies invite her to join their clique. Though she’s spent the novel’s first section mocking the Bunnies, she jumps at the chance to belong. She takes their drugs, wears their clothes, sleeps in their beds. Becoming a Bunny lets Samantha act out the privileged, carefree adulthood that she once expected. It gives her access to the sheltering innocence that defines both the Bunnies and Warren itself. But the Bunnies don’t need shelter. They need a place to hide. Their wealth and apparent sweetness conceal the fact that they spend their free time trapping campus rabbits and transforming them into men.
This is the point at which Bunny goes, well, down the rabbit hole. Without giving too much away, there are a lot of rabbit-men, known as Drafts, and as all writers know, most drafts get axed. Samantha remains on the border between participant and bystander throughout, even in a terrifying section narrated entirely in the first-person plural. The Bunnies are all about fusion, mind-melding, and long group hugs in which “[we] press our faces into our faces, our cheeks against our cheeks, our eyelashes tickling our skins like little hummingbird wings, like Bunny nose twitches.”
The infantilization here is sinister. So is the speed with which Samantha buys in. Still, Awad keeps her protagonist’s personality flickering through the Bunnies’ baby-talk. She never loses track of Samantha within the group, and she never stops steering the reader toward empathizing with Samantha’s desire to belong, rather than blaming or judging her for it. After all, the Bunnies are doing magic. On a creative level, it’s far more impressive than writing short stories. Plus, as Samantha asks, “Can you make a Viking masseuse? A pre-TB Keats? A talky Tim Riggins? Can you make a bunny explode with the combined force of your eight eyes?” The Bunnies can.
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Besides, Samantha was a false innocent long before she met the Bunnies. Early in the novel, Samantha warns the reader that she’s not as harmless as she seems. In workshop, she imagines a Bunny “[like] she knows I think I’m better than everyone else. Like my stammering shyness, my headphones, my dark, unassuming clothes, my politeness are all well and good but she can see through it, yes, Samantha, and what she sees, what it’s masking, is a very deep hate, a very deep rage, a very deep social bruise, what happened there, Samantha?”
The reader knows what happened: Samantha lost her mother, then her money, then her father. Unlike the Bunnies, she has spent a long time without shelter. Her life has not taught her to value loyalty or compassion, which might be why she has no problem blowing up bunnies in order to make talky Tim Rigginses — or why she can watch those Tim Rigginses die. But is the reader right to empathize with her? Samantha is an insider, whether she wants to be or not. She belongs to Warren, not to Providence. When a Bunny hands her a pill or an ax, she takes it. At first, Samantha’s anger covers the hypocrisy of her belief that she’s better than everyone else. By the novel’s end, the reader understands that Samantha can only distance herself from the Bunnies by setting herself free from that belief — which means accepting that she’s not blameless, and never will be.
The Bunny in Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food would love a creative outlet like Samantha’s. She would be grateful to experience a fraction of the rage Samantha channels into creating and killing Drafts. Kirshenbaum’s Bunny — so named because her parents “raised rabbits. For food” — is a writer, but she’s in the middle of a depressive spiral so bad that she can barely leave her couch. Her depression saps the energy she would need for anger, or any experience other than pain.
For Bunny, pain is an eternal and arbitrary cycle. “Everywhere and nowhere,” Kirshenbaum writes, “hers is a ghostly pain, like that of a phantom limb. Where there is nothing, there can be no relief.” Bunny takes this to mean that her depression is incurable. She also takes it to mean her depression is her fault. She blames herself for her own suffering, though she rejects even the word suffering: “In reference to herself, the inherent theatricality of the verb to suffer embarrasses her. In this context, to suffer, she believes, would be melodramatic and self-aggrandizing, not to mention rendering her a person empathetically stunted when you consider real suffering like starving to death or stage four colon cancer.”
Bunny wants to be an empathic person, but she refuses to extend empathy to herself. Kirshenbaum makes clear that this has always been Bunny’s way. Early in the novel, she writes that “like a line memorized for the stage, Bunny will often say, ‘Generally speaking, I am a headache of a person who is not easy to like.’ It’s true. Bunny is not easy to like, but it’s possible to love her.” This idea — that Bunny is a headache of a person — steels her against social rejection. It also steels her against the reader. Kirshenbaum frames Rabbits for Food as Bunny’s work, not her own. The novel opens in first person, with Bunny on a psych ward, and then switches to a third-person account of the depressive spiral that got her there, as well as her experiences in the hospital. Thus, the reader knows from the beginning that Bunny is choosing how to present herself to us.
This is the opposite of the false innocence on offer in Bunny and Rabbit, Run. Samantha and Rabbit both want to be liked, no matter how they behave. They present themselves as inherently sympathetic characters, even while cheating on their wives or snuggling with their murderous classmates. Bunny, on the other hand, playacts experience. She pretends to know the reader dislikes her — who wouldn’t? But in truth, Bunny is a highly likeable narrator. She’s very funny, and though she tries her best to obscure her kindnesses toward her husband and fellow patients, they often glimmer into her narrative. Rabbits for Food asks the reader to root for Bunny. It also asks Bunny to root for herself, which requires a trip back to real innocence.
First, Bunny must accept that she is innocent of blame for her depression. This requires a sort of ventriloquism. She writes her way through her sisters’ and acquaintances’ desire to explain her depression, to find “a reason they can identify, identify and therefore avoid as if it were a matter of using a condom… Because they need to be sure that people don’t fall apart without a solid reason, they sift through her life panning for gold: she spends too much time alone; she’s got a negative attitude; she never had children; she smokes cigarettes,” et cetera. Bunny, too, is panning for gold here, and finds none. After this passage, she releases herself, once and for all, to the fact of her depression.
These are not novels to underestimate. They are not cute.
In theory, the next step might be for Bunny to release herself to some version of childhood, but she won’t. Bunny hated her childhood; she never got along with her parents or sisters, and she spent her early life waiting to leave them behind. She was never Hefner’s “young, healthy, simple girl,” which may influence the fact that as an adult, she festers for years over a conversation with a snotty Yale Gender Studies professor who informs her, “Bunny is a name for a child. How can you expect anyone to take you seriously when you have a child’s name? I strongly urge you to change it.” Rather than change her name, Bunny eliminates all traces of childlike behavior. She won’t even wear a paper birthday hat.
How, then, can Bunny come to consider herself innocent? How can she make herself vulnerable enough to attempt to recover? This is a huge barrier. She’s been depressed for so many years; recovery “will take effort, so much effort, and she is weary, and what if she does try, tries her very best, and fails nonetheless?” The answer, of course, is in writing. Bunny’s book-within-a-book is, or represents, her healing process (a phrase I highly doubt Bunny would like). The idea that writing represents an adult’s journey back to innocence is not unique to Bunny, or Rabbits for Food. It hides in plenty of storytelling-centric children’s books, and it appears as far back as the introductions to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience. In Songs of Experience’s “Introduction,” a poet begs the Earth to “return! / Arise from out the dewy grass… Turn away no more; / Why wilt thou turn away?” In the next poem, “Earth’s Answer,” Earth appears, “covered with gray despair” and trapped in a “heavy chain, / That does freeze my bones around!” This is Experience: imprisonment, despair, darkness. Innocence, on the other hand, is characterized by music and writing. The adult speaker in Songs of Innocence’s “Introduction” meets a child who asks him to play songs, then sing, then “‘sit thee down and write / In a book, that all may read.’”
If it’s good enough for Blake, it’s good enough for Bunny. Her experience of the world has been dominated by despair and darkness, but writing “In a book, that all may read” sets her on a more hopeful path. When Rabbits for Food ends, Bunny is neither healthy nor happy, but she is writing fiction for the first time in years. As a result, she has stepped slightly outside herself. She has begun to slip the heavy chain that freezes her bones around.
The same thing happens to Samantha at the end of Bunny. Only when she starts writing for the first time in her MFA can she wriggle free from the Bunnies’ influence. The need to write fiction eclipses the desire to perform violent rabbit-magic. Like Kirshenbaum, Awad loosely equates fiction with both freedom and moral honesty — which, together, might come as close to innocence as any adult can get.
As I read Bunny and Rabbits for Food, I thought frequently of another Bunny. My paternal grandfather was a formidable figure, an uneducated Jew who fought in the Second World War, then became a Chicago leather tycoon. He was not prone to smiling or warmth. His given name was Adolph, but Hitler rendered that one unusable. Rather than change it, he went by childhood nickname, which was Bunny. As a child, I was amused by his name, though I never would have teased him about it. As an adult, I recognize it as an eight-decade flex.
My grandfather went by Bunny to tell the world he was anything but soft. His name was a dare: Go ahead, laugh at me and see what happens. It was not an accident that his favorite song was Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” in which Sue “had to fight my whole life through.” I don’t want to psychoanalyze him too much — he died when I was young, and probably wouldn’t have wanted me rummaging through his brain, anyway — but his brand of toughness was not uncommon among American Jews his age. The United States’ robust twentieth-century anti-Semitism gave men like my grandfather reason to act tough.
Today, women in the public eye have as much reason to act tough as Bunny Meyer ever did. The Playmate of the Month has not disappeared from our culture. The pressure to be emotionally simple and sexually pliable — to be cute — remains strong. Perhaps this is why Awad and Kirshenbaum, two exceptionally intelligent female writers, built their novels around Bunnies. It strikes me as possible that they, like my grandfather, are using the name as a dare. These are not novels to underestimate. They are not cute.
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Lily Meyer is a regular reviewer for NPR Books, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlantic, Electric Literature, Tin House, the New Yorker and more. She studied creative writing at Brown University and the University of East Anglia. She won the Sewanee Review’s First Annual Fiction Contest, judged by Danielle Evans, and is a two-time grant recipient from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Editor: Dana Snitzky