Tess Gunty’s debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, is a tour de force. The swiftly-paced story unfolds over a week in the fictional Vacca Vale, a city in the post-industrial Midwest. The novel’s main setting is the titular Rabbit Hutch, a run-down apartment complex built to house workers from the city’s now-defunct Zorn Automobiles. The ghost of Zorn still haunts the city physically and economically — husks of dead factories dot the landscape, and the spectre of debt plagues Vacca Vale. Against this backdrop, Gunty explores larger sociopolitical issues, like climate change, consumerism, and environmental devastation.
Gunty intimately understands that settings can be characters in and of themselves, and in this, the novel excels; The Rabbit Hutch is as full of character as the cast. The apartment complex, a relic of past glory days, is a microcosm of the city it stands in and the culture that surrounds it. The novel pays homage to the industrial towns that dominated the Rust Belt — a region that stretched roughly from Wisconsin to New York and experienced booming economic growth from industrial manufacturing — until the 1980s. Gunty even opens the novel with a quote from Michael Moore‘s Roger & Me, a 1989 documentary about the economic decline of Flint, Michigan, after the withdrawal of General Motors from the area. This echoes the material reality of Vacca Vale’s residents.
The Rabbit Hutch‘s story follows several characters, one of whom is 18-year-old Blandine Watkins, a recent high school dropout, as she reckons with her past. Blandine is a character who skirts the manic pixie dream girl trope — she is described as being ethereal and other-worldly, she frequently quotes from a tome she totes around with her about 12th-century Catholic female mystics, and inexplicably, all three of her roommates fall in love with her at the same time. However, Gunty imbues Blandine with enough individuality to keep her in a category of her own.
As the story unfolds, we learn more about Blandine and the rest of Gunty’s eclectic cast of characters: Joan Kowalski, a 40-year-old woman who works as a content moderator for an obituary website; Moses Robert Blitz, the son of a recently-deceased television star who covers himself in glowstick paint and breaks into people’s houses in his spare time; and Blandine’s three roommates, Jack, Malik, and Todd, who slowly spiral into obsession and violence throughout The Rabbit Hutch. As the tapestry comes together, the threads that bind these characters together are revealed.
It’s fitting that the story revolves around an apartment building because much of this novel’s reading experience is like glimpsing into the lives of others through window panes. Gunty moves deftly and expertly between alternating perspectives, never lingering too long on any character. This makes for a suspenseful reading experience, made all the more interesting by an unknown tragedy Gunty warns of on The Rabbit Hutch‘s first page. We know that an obscure act of violence will eventually occur in Blandine’s apartment, involving her three roommates. So we spend the story hurtling toward an unknown precipice.
One of The Rabbit Hutch‘s greatest strengths is how unapologetically strange it is. Gunty leans into the peculiar not just with her cast of characters but also with the novel’s format. Not only is the story told from multiple perspectives, but it’s also told in varying tenses and mediums, from newspaper clippings to interview transcripts to stark black-and-white drawings. Gunty masters each mode of communication with deft precision and an acute sense of observation. The only time the prose falters is when Gunty’s high-calibre writing pushes the suspension of disbelief perilously close to its limits — it’s difficult to imagine any 18-year-old coming close to the lyricism Blandine waxes in the novel.
One of The Rabbit Hutch‘s strongest scenes happens near the end when Blandine confronts a spectre of her past and ambitiously compares an exploitative relationship to the functions of late-stage capitalism. The man, an authority figure in Blandine’s life, is positioned as the bourgeoisie and Blandine as the proletariat. At first, the analogy seems ridiculous and satirical, a youthful, clumsy argument attempting to shoehorn Marxism where it doesn’t belong. But as the scene and the argument unfolds, the analogy becomes poignant, brilliant – and far too real.
The Rabbit Hutch is underpinned by themes of devotion, obsession, vulnerability, pain, longing, and most of all, loneliness. At its core, this is a story about outcasts. Every character is damaged somehow (aren’t we all?), and isolation abounds. Despite this, Gunty manages not to let the story slip too far into melancholy. The Rabbit Hutch should be bleak, considering this subject matter, but the story is buoyed by the messiness and complexity of the human experience in all its absurdity. At its core, Gunty’s story is about trying to live in a declining landscape rife with alienation, about wanting to transcend the mundane and find meaning in a life that has taken more than it has given.