I should open this with a confession: I… have an MFA. I received it from Sarah Lawrence College, after what were, honestly, two of the best years of my life. I made some of my closest friends there. I wrote most of a novel. I read and read and read, and it was GREAT.
But I recognized myself and my cohort in roughly every line of Bunny, which is a perfect satire of MFA programs in addition to being a pretty great dark fairy tale.
Samantha Heather Mackie comes to the prestigious Warren University writing program as a scholarship kid. She doesn’t have much family left, and what she does have is estranged. She came to class with a strong voice and some messed up stories, and very little else. And then things went a bit off course. Warren is in a New England city, a town that is figuratively haunted by a horror writer who isn’t quite H.P. Lovecraft, and (allegedly) literally haunted by a gang of people who run around decapitating people. There is an unbreachable chasm between the Warren kids and the townies, who hate the spoiled rich kids who pour into their city each fall. There are rabbits everywhere, hordes of rabbits hopping all over the campus at all times, and swans floating in the campus pond, and sometimes you’ll wait at the bus stop next to a handsome fellow carrying an axe. But for Samantha, the biggest problem is the Bunnies.
Samantha is part of Warren’s first-ever all female fiction cohort, a group of five women who, ideally, will bond and work together for three semesters of Workshop (intense periods of writing and critique), and one semester of Thesis, where they’ll put all of their skill into one final project, whether a novel or short story collection. But the Bunnies hate Samantha on sight. The four girls, whom Samantha calls Cupcake, Creepy Doll, Vignette, and The Duchess, but who actually call each other “bunny,” are gorgeous, extremely rich, with styles ranging from preppy to vintage to goth to babydoll, in a way that works together to form a twee rich girl Voltron. All four are dedicated to experimental prose pieces that plumb the depths of feminism, wrestle with gender dynamics, and meditate on fairy tales without ever telling a story. They love each other, which leads to critique sessions like this: “Can I have five thousand more pages of this, please? Can I just say I loved living in your lines and that’s where I want to live now forever?”
Stories are gauche.
Stories are what Samantha writes. Which leads to critiques like this:
“It’s very… angry.
Yes. Abrasive. For my taste?
Exactly. Sort of in love with its own outsiderness? Its own narrative of grittiness? Of course, that could just be me. (Small smile of deference.) Still. I do wish it would open up a bit more.”
So by the time we meet her, at the opening of her second year, Samantha is a pariah. Her one friend in the word is Ava, a townie who works in the library. The two of them have created their own little world in Ava’s ramshackle house, and Samantha’s first big secret is that she’s barely written a word in a year.
Then the Bunnies abruptly invite her to “Smut Salon,” their private weekly after-hours workshop, and Samantha learns about their terrifying project, the real work that lurks behind all the silly fragments and prose poems (proems, UGH) that they present in Workshop each week. From this point the book turns from a campus satire into a much darker story that skids between dark modern fairy tale, Heathers riff, and body horror.
Which leads me to the big question I’d like to ask—but in order to do that I’ll need to spoil some stuff. So if you want to remain unspoiled, hop down two paragraphs and I’ll tell you when it’s safe.
Is Bunny a horror novel? I’ve been mulling the idea of horror a lot lately, because, well, life in the U.S. kind of demands it. I’m still not sure if this book works in that way for me. A few chapters into Bunny, Awad shows us the true nature of the Bunnies’ project: they use some sort of collective psychic energy to explode rabbits with their minds. These rabbits’ consciousnesses are then reborn into “hybrids”—creatures who look like human men, but who don’t seem to have much in the way of free will (or, as one Bunny laments, genitalia) and who usually have to be killed pretty soon after their creation. Beyond the fact that this might be the best parody of pretentious art projects I’ve ever heard of, it’s objectively horrific. The hybrids’ terror is upsetting, and, since they usually have to be dispatched with a hatchet, many of the “workshops” descend into surreal, faux-feminist riffs on American Psycho. But I think a lot of readers will already know that something is off, because we’ve already met Samantha’s best friend Ava, who can’t possibly be real. (I spent half the book trying to suss out whether she was a ghost or a Tyler Durden-esque hallucination.) When Samantha attempts her own hybrid it seems like a failure, but then the girls meet a man named Max who seems to be The Big Bad Wolf and The Huntsman rolled into one sexy, sexy man. Eventually we learn that this is Samantha’s hybrid—and he’s not a rabbit at all, nor a wolf, but a transformed stag. He’s also Samantha’s second Hybrid. Her first was Ava. In the first week of school Samantha sat by the campus pond, watching the swans and feeling utterly alone, and poof, there was Ava, a swan/woman transformed by Samantha’s desperate need for a friend.
As I said, at points Awad seems to be hinting that Ava is either a ghost or a figment, choreographing characters so it’s never quite clear whether they see her, putting us so far in Samantha’s point of view, and making her sense of reality so unstable, that sometimes the entire structure of the book starts to wobble. But in the end, rather than going for a Fight Club-style reveal, or American Psycho’s ambiguity, Awad gives us a book where magic is objectively real. The hybrids are real and solid enough to hurt and be hurt, and when they finally fight back the damage they inflict is quite apparent to people outside the Bunnies’ circle. We never learn why Samantha is so much more powerful than the Bunnies—indeed, the Bunnies themselves think she’s a failure—so how does it work? How did the Bunnies, of all people, discover it? Obviously neither of these things need to be revealed to make the book work, but I did spend some time weighing those two worldbuilding questions against the book’s overall tone, which is a feeling of dread and general, nebulous fear that reminded me of The Secret History. I think it’s fair to say that The Secret History is ALL tone—the reveals are creepy, but the book never quite walks the knife edge of “psychological disturbance” and “ghosts are totally real” in the manner of, say, The Haunting of Hill House, or The Grip of It. I would say that especially for “literary” horror, the horror aspect has to live in the clash between the concrete and the atmospheric, and I’ve been thinking about this book for a month now and I’m still not sure if it quite hit that balance for me. Bunny piled a few too many reveals on at once, I think, and I would argue that it needed to deal a bit more with the way the real world consequences of the hybrids—particularly Ava and Max, who seem to lead lives outside of Samantha’s immediate influence, and so are a bit more tangled up in reality than the Bunnies’ sad creations. How are the two of them surviving with, presumably, no ID or money? Ava appears to be squatting in an abandoned house, but what are the logistics of a retro Goth white girl living in a falling-apart house in a seedy neighborhood? If the hybrids are fully real, how do interactions with people other than Samantha and the Bunnies play out? Again, leaving these details a bit nebulous certainly doesn’t hurt the book, but it did make me think quite a bit about when and how it worked as a story, and I think it need a little more hard-edged reality to tip fully into a horror novel rather than a dark fairy tale.
OK, end of spoilers!
Bunny is easily one of the best books I read this year, fun and funny, but not afraid to get very dark and very gross. And if you’ve ever attended a writing workshop, or love someone who has, this book may help you work some stuff out.