In which I depart from my usual genres
“Bunny, I love you.“
“I love YOU, Bunny.“
There’s something about rabbits. Looks-wise, they are among the more innocent of woodland creatures, and that innocence contains a quality which can easily be framed in a frightening context. It has also been sexualized in at least one very famous industry; just ask Gloria Steinem.
Even their alternative name, “bunnies.” Sweet. A little eerily so, no?
Mona Awad’s latest novel Bunny satirizes both these depictions–but, amazingly, only en route to its main objective, which is to absolutely skewer MFA workshop culture. For those who may not be familiar, American creative writing programs especially at the graduate level are notorious for their small-cohort workshop sessions, rife with jargon and sometimes judgment. Of all the genres traditionally workshopped, fiction takes the brunt of this reputation; and Awad, who earned a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Brown University, has insider experience with which to take down the “system.”
Make no mistake, she does take it down. As a Creative Writing BA myself, I recognized some artifice in the attitudes of some of the students and professors, the way they conduct themselves in and out of class, the way they approach “the Work.” I could, to an extent, match them up with my MFA-matriculating friends’ tales and laments. But while aspects of Awad’s workshop world can resonate with readers, very little of it is true to life. (Okay, maybe the crippling self-doubt and alienation are true to life.) The renowned fiction workshop at Warren University (a warren = a group of rabbits) blows protocol masterfully out of proportion, as our heroine Samantha keeps tabs on the number of times her professor or classmates drop terms like “perform,” “the Body,” or “Tapping the Wound.”
Those classmates are none other than the Bunnies, a clique of four “unbelievably twee” young women who dress in pastel colors, eat miniature foods, and address each other lovingly as “Bunny.” Samantha is clearly the outsider in this cohort, set apart by her worldview (she regularly describes herself as living beneath a thundercloud in opposition to the Bunnies’ sunshine) and her socioeconomic status (she lives in the “bad” part of the unnamed-but-probably-Providence town, where crime runs rampant and random decapitations occur, in opposition to the Bunnies’ manicured lawns). And she’s content that way. Well, actually miserable, undermining her own abilities, contemplating her mother’s accidental death and her father’s absence as he bounces from one get-rich-quick scheme to the next; but content to survey the world in sullen irony alongside her best friend Ava, a sometime student at the neighboring art school (RISD, anyone?). She also contends with the attentions of Jonah, a kindhearted recovering-alcoholic-turned-poet whom she needs more than she realizes. And she clashes with the Lion, as she refers to him–a professor with whom she may or may not have had relations, which she repeatedly insists were non-sexual. Even so, she lacerates herself with her own amazement at being admitted into the program, a spot for which thousands of students across the country would kill.
So it’s an off-kilter world Awad welcomes us into, a classic, perfect-looking university where ugliness lurks just below the surface. As Ava observes early on, even the natural light on campus is unnatural somehow. Something is off.
The novel takes place over Samantha’s second and final year of the program; we see her entrenched in her antisocial ways, not expecting her mutual antipathy with the Bunnies–or anything else in her life, for that matter–to change. But then the Bunnies invite her to their next “Smut Salon,” and she surprises herself by accepting. This salon consists of a round of erotic storytelling, representing a deeper–and darker–side to the Bunnies which takes Samantha by surprise.
Little does she know that’s only the beginning. Before she knows it she is drawn into the Bunnies’ own “workshop” in an attic, a ritual where they take a real bunny (from the thriving campus population) and attempt to turn it into a man. They call these attempts “Drafts” or “Darlings,” as they are physical works in progress, nowhere near perfection. Each one usually bears some grotesque deformity, like a mangled mouth or inhuman hands–as one of the Bunnies complains at the end of Samantha’s first attendance, “his cock better work this time.”
It seems the girls originally conceived of the experiment in search of sexual satisfaction but have produced largely platonic results. Many Drafts live in the Bunnies’ houses as playthings or adoring fans: putting their heads in their creators’ laps, fetching them drinks, generally pampering them. However, should a Draft be malformed beyond use, the Bunnies have to kill him. Which they do, in the bathroom, with an ax. Never was the writer’s adage “kill your darlings” taken so gruesomely far.
This is a pivotal scene in which Awad’s genius for magical realism comes into its glory. Dating back to H. P. Lovecraft (whom Awad indirectly references) and even before, magical realism has fascinated readers for its funhouse-mirror effects. And it has fascinated writers for the freedom it allows them: to create strange events, characters, and procedures without creating logical structures to accompany them. Things can be implausible or left unexplained.
Through these horrifying alternative workshops, Awad also demonstrates her great love for–and frustration with–”the Process” of writing fiction. The Bunnies’ Drafts usually fail, as do the pieces they bring to class, because they are fighting to manipulate the work. Their desire to fashion a just-so man reflects their desire to exercise control over what happens on the page and the message it sends.
Meanwhile Samantha, as our protagonist, is discovering her own capacities, to quite the opposite effect. As if she weren’t enough of a Carrie White, her powers are new, and different, and vengeful. At the novel’s midpoint, she leads one of the Bunnies’ workshops and appears to botch the bunny’s transformation, only to subsequently encounter a mysterious man at the bus stop outside and realize he is her Draft–conjured from a stag she saw on her way to the Bunnies’ house earlier that evening.
As a product of Samantha’s mind, Max–as she calls him–finishes her thoughts mid-sentence, knows her most shameful secrets, and pops up in her closest spaces when she least expects it. But he also has a will of his own, and more besides–he takes up with Ava and is able to have sex with her, to possess her in ways the Bunnies only wish their Drafts could possess them. Samantha cannot control him; she has created something beyond herself. Her human work is in keeping with the dark, violent nature of her written work, material which her classmates and even her professor routinely dismiss as distant and unrelatable. All the more ironic, then, that Max should seduce each of the Bunnies in turn (each of whom knows him by a different name) and flip their saccharine personalities upside-down. Suddenly, the culmination of Samantha’s most humiliating artistic moment–the moment which severed her from the Bunnies–is a creature with such an irresistible pull that they are reduced to desperation for him.
In my opinion, that is exactly the atmosphere at work in the prose itself. I found myself suckered in, unable to stop reading even though at times I wanted to, unable to keep myself from shedding the occasional tear of anxiety at the moments of pure innocence (the miniature cupcakes, the plastic pony the girls all admire) thrown into relief against the sinister activity. The things they do in the daylight against the things they do in the dead of night. Samantha’s narrative voice and thought patterns are so strong that they seeped into my head in my more vulnerable moments. It felt like a game of Jumanji: I was trapped until I read the last word.
One of Samantha’s most compelling qualities is her unreliability, which is revealed incrementally–that is, her inability to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. Who is real and who is not. Her alternate names for nearly every character serve to blur the line at the outset, and the line only gets harder to find. (Example: she refers to the Bunnies by their given names at choice times but typically calls them, respectively, Cupcake, Creepy Doll, Vignette, and the Duchess.) I won’t give it all away, but we get a remarkable glimpse into a specially damaged mind.
I suspect Bunny will be scariest for writers, or for current or former students of a writing course. There is an insularity, a singularity, to that environment which leaves no one untouched. Legends circulate about the inner demons of famous writers, but Awad has crafted an everyman’s nightmare, an unnerving allegory for anyone who has even tried their hand at the daunting process of fiction. You’ll lose sleep, without question, or your sleep will be disturbed; but then, if you yourself were writing, that would happen anyway.
Image: cover of the Viking edition, published 11 June 2019