THE RABBIT HUTCH, by Tess Gunty
It’s all writers’ prerogative to kill their darlings, though it takes a certain élan to kill your actual protagonist on the first page — or at least send her sliding somewhere beyond this mortal plane, as Tess Gunty seems to in the opening of “The Rabbit Hutch”: “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.”
It’s one of many bold moves in Gunty’s dense, prismatic and often mesmerizing debut, a novel of impressive scope and specificity that falters mostly when it works too hard to wedge its storytelling into some broader notion of Big Ideas. The parameters of the story itself are confined almost entirely to a single summer week in the fictional Midwestern city of Vacca Vale, Ind. — one of those dying third-rate metropolises, whose tenuous grip on prosperity faded when its main industry, Zorn Automobiles, collapsed under a cloud of debt and ecological misdeeds several decades before.
Blandine is a child of Vacca Vale born and raised, if rarely cared for: an autodidact and eerie Valkyrie beauty, with her piles of well-thumbed tomes on 12th-century mystics and corn-silk halo of hair. There was a mother once, we are told in a few deftly sketched sentences, with a fateful oxycodone habit, and a father in jail; then a series of foster families. Now she works at a local diner heavy on avant-garde pie — flavors of the day include lavender lamb and banana charcoal — and shares a shabby apartment with three other aged-out foster kids, all troubled varieties of teenage boy.
It’s their building that the book takes its title from: Originally designed to house Zorn laborers and christened La Lapinière in an act of misplaced faith and European flair, it’s now a run-down complex that no one ever really refers to as anything other than the Rabbit Hutch. The walls there “are so thin, you can hear everyone’s lives progress like radio plays,” and Gunty passes through them with a God’s eye, dipping in and out of units like C12, where a 60-something widower furtively checks his ratings on a dating website, and C10, where an aspiring influencer vamps, ready for his close-up. An elderly couple in C6 play out age-old patterns of low-level domestic strife in a cigarette-smogged living room while Hope, the fragile young mother in C8 struggling to bond with her newborn, finds comfort in reruns of a golden-age sitcom called “Meet the Neighbors.”
The death of the show’s former star, an apple-faced American sweetheart named Elsie Blitz, comes as hard news to Hope, though it allows the book to leap to Malibu, where adult Elsie reigned for decades as a passionate benefactor of the endangered three-toed pygmy sloth, and a far less devoted parent to her only child, Moses Robert Blitz. Elsie is a familiar archetype but a well-drawn one: the perfect Hollywood monster, so blithely dedicated to pleasure-seeking and stunted by fame that she’s raised a son whose entire persona, even in his early 50s, is shaped around hating her.
It will take a series of events incited by another Hutch resident, Joan Kowalski, to summon him to Vacca Vale, though Joan is hardly the kind of siren to lure a man and leave him smashed on the rocks of desire. At 40, “she has the posture of a question mark, a stock face and a pair of 19th-century eyeglasses. Her solitude is as prominent as the cross around her neck.” But she does work for an online obituary portal whose virtual memorial wall for Elsie provides the itchy, furious Moses with an outlet for the volcanic emotions he would never acknowledge as grief, and a reason to skip out on the funeral of the mother whose headlong narcissism left so little room for him.
His own quirks are numerous, and Gunty, who lives in Los Angeles, sets them cleverly against the self-regarding follies of show business and coastal elitism: the Olympic-level virtue signaling of guests at an art-world cocktail party; the looser mores of the Me Decade artists and libertines who once swirled around Elsie in her prime. (“Adoration and hatred — the only energies she knew how to dispense and accept.”) To Moses, Vacca Vale is little more than a Midwestern emptiness to project himself upon, “a wasteland of factories, construction and dead grass on Google Maps.” To Blandine, though, it’s a place of almost totemic weight — the only home she’s ever known, and one she’s determined to defend against an influx of local developers who equate prosperity with new-built condos, not trees and parks.
Her elaborate effort to sabotage those civic schemes becomes one of the novel’s less resonant threads, a stylistic outlier whose endgame never quite syncs up with the larger story. More germane, and more interesting, is how a girl capable of delivering vast soliloquies on medieval saints and late-stage capitalism came to be a high school dropout serving weird pies. Blandine, it’s eventually revealed, is not her birth name, and until fairly recently she was an academic standout, if not exactly a prom queen, at a local prep school pleased to take on a scholarship kid of her unusual I.Q. and sad back story.
Her reasons for leaving so abruptly before her senior year turn out to be a tale as old as time, or at least “Lolita” — though “The Rabbit Hutch” smartly reframes the depressing clichés of a vulnerable teenager and an older authority figure, in part by making them each so constantly aware of the roles they’re playing. One of the pleasures of the narrative is the way it luxuriates in language, all the rhythms and repetitions and seashell whorls of meaning to be extracted from the dull casings of everyday life. Gunty’s writing is so rich with texture and subtext it can sometimes tip over into the too-muchness of a decadent meal or a Paul Thomas Anderson film. As with many new novelists, and a lot of veteran ones too, her longer monologues tend to come off less like the cadences of ordinary speech than the workshopped thoughts of a star student, placed between quotation marks. (Gunty earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from N.Y.U.)
But she also has a way of pressing her thumb on the frailty and absurdity of being a person in the world; all the soft, secret needs and strange intimacies. The book’s best sentences — and there are heaps to choose from — ping with that recognition, even in the ordinary details: A social worker has “sunglasses that evoked particularly American things, like goatees and drive-through banks and NASCAR”; high school bathrooms “resemble bomb shelters: windowless constructions of cinder blocks painted the color of sharks.” Looming over all that, the fate of her body in the balance, is Blandine. For all her extraterrestrial prettiness and spooky, precocious gifts, she’s still a teenager — in some sense not fully cooked yet, if she’ll ever get to be. (It’s hard not to picture the actress Anya Taylor-Joy, should there ever be a casting call.) “The Rabbit Hutch”’s vibrant, messy sprawl can seem that way too, but its excesses also feel generous: defiant in the face of death, metaphysical exits or whatever comes next.
Leah Greenblatt is a critic at large at Entertainment Weekly.
THE RABBIT HUTCH, by Tess Gunty | 338 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28