An important American novel about a dying city – The Irish Times
The Rabbit Hutch is an affordable housing complex located in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a post-industrial town located in the heart of the Rust Belt in the United States. In apartment C12, an aging recorder scrolls through his one-star dating rankings. “This man is a tater tot”, reads a comment. In C2, a lonely woman whose job it is to filter online obituaries for “foul language” or “meaningful remarks” about the deceased chooses to ignore disturbing sounds beneath her in C4, an apartment shared by three teenagers and a strange and fascinating teenager obsessed with mystical women, all of whom left the foster care system on their 18th birthday. In C6, a 70-year-old couple ponder whether to place a dead mouse in a trap outside the young couple’s door upstairs.
The Rabbit Hutch complex provides a metaphor for the narrative architecture of Tess Gunty’s quirky and incisive early life. The chapters are told by different characters in disparate forms and media, the stories are linked through Blandine, one of the teenagers of C4. Born to a drug-addicted mother, she went through a series of foster homes. She’s a polymath, intensely bright and curious, but her upbringing strayed after the attentions of a music teacher. Blandine provides devastating and amusing commentary on everything from literature and the environment to social media, gender power dynamics and late capitalism.
When Blandine meets C4’s wife in a laundromat at the beginning of the novel, she tells him: “We are all sleepwalkers. Can I tell you something, Jane? I want to wake up. This is my dream: to wake up. Gunty shows us how we are sleepwalkers, living in a distorted hyperreality where the real is replaced by its representations, “everyone influenceeveryone under radiation, everyone is looking at their own lost profile looking for proof that they are likeable”. And as individuals sacrifice their realities to the “algorithmic predators of late capitalism,” around us our environments are destroyed.
In its effort to revitalize itself, Vacca Vale is destroying a 500-acre park created during the 1918 pandemic, imagining it will attract tech companies. “I want a life that’s a little more like life,” Blandine tells one of the other teenagers in her apartment who keeps watching the Vacca Vale revitalization tourist ads on her laptop and cries, the ads recounting house concepts, something he has never experienced.
Vacca Vale ranks first in Newsweek’s annual list of dying American cities. Gunty’s hometown of South Bend, Indiana also made the list, and the story of Vacca Vale’s downturn not only echoes South Bend, but countless other Rust Belt motor towns. In Vacca Vale, the fictitious Zorn Automobile Company poisoned the water supply with benzene before bankrupting the economy and cutting pensions and insurance. “Zorn mutated the people” he left behind, economically, psychologically and physically. “Zorn is the reason you saw your father cry. Zorn was the reason you didn’t have a father. Why did he overdose or deal.
Indiana’s state motto is Vacca Vale: The Crossroads of America, the iconic slogan of a geographic and historical nexus, the moment we stand in right now. Indiana’s acres of green corn and soybeans mask dust and drought. “That future is already materializing, and so now, when the earth can no longer sprout anything, it sprouts the suburbs.” And the suburb we built is anti-pedestrian and pro-car. The sidewalks end where the strip malls begin, their cheap and “built to be temporary” architecture.
It is an important American novel, a portrait of a dying city and, by extension, of a dying system. Her propelling power is not just in her insight and wit, but in the story of this ethereal girl who has been brutalized by a system over and over and continues to try to solve it and save it. She is so alive and awake that when I finished this book, I wanted to feel that. I wanted to walk outside. I wanted what is real. I wanted to wake up. At Tess Gunty’s The rabbit hutch is breathtaking, compassionate and spectacular.