The Rabbit Hutch: A Novel
By Tess Gunty.
Hardcover, 352 pages, $28.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Wald.
Although I dislike identity politics, I must admit that when it comes to literature, I love to camp with my own tribe. In other words, I have a particular fondness for the Catholic Literary Tradition.
Which is why I was intrigued when I learned that 29-year-old Tess Gunty, yet another Catholic—or at least former Catholic—had joined the likes of Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, J.F. Powers, Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Louise Erdrich, and Phil Klay by winning the National Book Award for fiction for her 2022 debut novel The Rabbit Hutch. What sort of Catholic novelist would Gunty be, I wondered, remembering Dana Gioia’s three categories of literary Catholicism: practicing Catholics; cultural Catholics; and anti-Catholic Catholics.
From various interviews, I learned that Gunty was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana. Prior to marriage, her father had been a Catholic seminarian, and her mother a novice in a religious order. Gunty describes her mother as having a very supernatural “signs and wonders” faith, and says about herself in a Guardian interview that she was “an almost freakishly devout child.” But by 15, Gunty began “vehemently rejecting” her Catholic faith, because of her “growing awareness of the patriarchal structure of it” and because of the sexual-abuse scandals. She studied at her hometown university Notre Dame, then received an MFA at NYU, and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Although Gunty openly rejects her Catholic faith, the remnants of her upbringing—especially her fascination with Christian mysticism—pervade The Rabbit Hutch, especially in the life of the novel’s heroine, 18-year-old orphan Blandine Watkins (formerly Tiffany Jean Watkins, but who changes her name to Blandine, a second century slave and martyr from Lyon, France). Tiffany renames herself Blandine “in an effort to transcend the troublesome corporeality into which she was born and achieve untouchability.” Blandine of Lyon—the “patron saint of servant girls, torture victims, and those falsely accused of cannibalism”—had been fed to hungry beasts in an amphitheater (but they refused to eat her), roasted on a grate, scourged, impaled by a wild steer, yet would not die, proclaiming, “I am a Christian, and we commit no wrongdoing.” Finally, she was stabbed and killed by a dagger. Blandine the fictional heroine is a brilliant high school dropout, beautiful in a sort of ethereal way, working a dead-end job as a waitress at a local café, obsessed with Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century mystic and German Benedictine abbess, and who in her free time engages in environmental activism and sabotage, trying to thwart a developer’s destruction of a city park to build upscale condos.
Like Dante’s Indiana, Canadian Catholic Randy Boyagoda’s 2021 novel, The Rabbit Hutch is set in Indiana, in the heart of flyover, Rust Belt country, in the fictional town of Vaca Vale, a sort of South Bend without Notre Dame. Indeed, Boyagoda’s and Gunty’s novels make a good pairing. Both explore the vacuum created by the death or desertion of Midwest manufacturing—broken families; opioid addiction; rootlessness; hopelessness; and male violence—and satirize the economic opportunities (or traps) that might replace the vacuum (pharmaceutical manufacturing for Boyagoda; tech jobs for Gunty). They also both explore the impact—individually and societally—of sexual transgression.
The main action of The Rabbit Hutch occurs over the span of a hot summer week, interspersed with several flashbacks. Blandine has aged out of foster care, and now lives with three other former foster kids (all male) in a low-income housing complex called La Lapinière, but known colloquially as the Rabbit Hutch. In addition to Blandine and her roommates, the Rabbit Hutch is also home to forty-year-old Catholic Joan Kowalski, an obituary reviewer; a young married couple with a newborn, the mother of whom feels herself going crazy (probably postpartum depression); and a retired couple bickering their way towards the grave, among others.
Although The Rabbit Hutch introduces us to many characters, by far the most interesting and developed is Blandine. Blandine is obsessed by two things: female Catholic mystics and environmental advocacy. And in both obsessions she seeks meaning, purpose, and ultimately transcendence and escape from her own “troublesome corporeality.”
This tension between the invisible and visible, soul and matter, immanence and transcendence, is summed up in an epigraph by Hildegard: Invisible and eternal things are made known through visible and temporal things. This essentially describes a sacrament. Does Blandine herself believe in that most backward and pre-modern of notions: the efficacy of Catholic sacraments?
In interviews, Gunty insists that Blandine is not religious. That she inherited Catholicism from her foster care upbringing but is not a believer. That what she looks for in Hildegard and other mystics is an escape from her body, from the world, and from patriarchy. She also insists that Catholic mysticism is just a stand in for Blandine’s desire for escape. That her innate personality would have sought and found this same sort of connection in any other religious or “spiritual” upbringing.
Far be it from me to disagree with an author about her own creations, but … I’m not convinced. Having first read the novel, then listened at length to Gunty talk about it, I found Blandine’s obsession with Catholic mystics in general—and Hildegard in particular—to be a sincere, albeit imperfect, devotion. While she is young, precocious, and certainly not fully orthodox, she genuinely desires to have what Hildegard and the other mystics had. And what did they have? Not merely gnostic escape. Not release from the chains of patriarchy. Not total freedom to pursue “self-realization.” But union with God. Receptivity of unearned grace from outside oneself, not simply inner elevation of oneself to a godlike state. And importantly, all done through the flesh. No Catholic can chastise too harshly the flesh, for the Catholic believes not that a piece of bread escapes being a piece of bread to become the spiritual Jesus, but rather that a piece of bread becomes the flesh of Christ and nourishes and gives life. What Hildegard wanted—and received—was not release from the flesh but union with Christ in the flesh.
Putting mysticism and sacramentality aside for a moment, there’s much to commend here. Gunty has a gift for crafting odd, multifaceted characters. Her writing, on the sentence level, is also rich with imagery and beautiful to the ear. And once you pierce through the satire and grotesquerie, Gunty expresses a deep sincerity and love for her characters. She hasn’t escaped flyover country only to then deride and lament its backwardness. And the final scene is moving, as Joan visits Blandine in the hospital in a bit of sisterly—or even motherly—concern, giving hope that each may find in the other friendship, love, and release from isolation and loneliness. Also, the relationship between the young couple is sincerely and beautifully drawn. The husband is particularly sympathetic, a nice counterweight to the toxic masculinity or otherwise disfigured male characters in the novel.
But The Rabbit Hutch is also flawed. Its multi-viewpoints and kaleidoscope movement at times obscures the heart of the story, which is clearly Blandine. Yet, there are long sections of the story where Blandine is absent. The side story of former Hollywood child star Elsie Blitz and her now middle-aged son Moses seems particularly unfitting and unnecessary.
Further, the environmental concerns of the novel are a little too cute; unnecessary socio-political writing that diminishes the believability of Blandine’s character.
The biggest problem I have with the novel is the vagueness regarding Blandine’s faith, or belief, or desire for transcendence. I wonder if the full flowering of Gunty’s literary talent might be stunted by her antagonism toward the Catholic faith. The power of Catholicism at times seems to shine in the novel in spite of—rather than because of—Gunty’s upbringing. Far be it from me to say that Gunty must believe. I am reminded of novelist Christopher Beha, who was raised Catholic and is now again a practicing Catholic, but who went through a period of non-belief. He describes that journey as if the gift of faith had been removed from him. That he was not looking to not believe, but he just couldn’t believe anymore. He also recognizes that his very categorization of non-belief, and the way he speaks of it, relied upon the language of belief: it was as if the gift of faith had been removed. By whom? All that to say faith is a gift and a mystery, and I’m in no position to say Gunty must believe. Yet, I’d encourage readers to compare the debut novel Beha wrote during the time of his non-belief, What Happened to Sophie Wilder?, with Gunty’s debut novel. Both are well written, critically praised novels. But whereas Beha treats his female protagonist’s Catholic belief sincerely, treating Catholic doctrine about grace, sin, repentance, and forgiveness seriously, Gunty is muddled. Nowhere is this clearer than in each book’s endings (which in Gunty’s case, is her opening paragraph).
When Beha’s Catholic heroine despairs of forgiveness and commits suicide, she is dead; what happens to her soul is unknown and unknowable. But what happens to her body is clear. She’s dead. Not so for Gunty. When Blandine is stabbed by one of her roommates she “exits her body,” and becomes, among other things, “knife, cotton, hoof, bleach, pain, fur, bliss,” as well as “trash and cherub, a rubber shoe on the seafloor, her father’s orange jumpsuit … she is every cottontail rabbit grazing on the vegetation of her supposedly dying city. … On that hot night in Apartment C4, when Blandine Watkins exits her body, she is not everything. Not exactly. She’s just the opposite of nothing.” What exactly happened to Blandine? Did she die? Did she have a mystical experience? (Gunty writes that Blandine’s “agony is sweet, as the mystics promised.”) It is unclear; the whole experience seems a sort of ratatouille of gnostic pantheism.
Maybe that’s fitting for the times we live in; maybe Blandine is as close to Catholic faith and mysticism as we’re likely to see in a National Book Award winner for many years to come. Maybe Gunty is just the sort of “Catholic” novelist we need right now; someone who can reveal the spiritual quagmire we live in because of her own place in it.
What if Gunty could take the next step? If not in her own life, then in the lives of her fictional creations. That instead of saying, “This isn’t true. It’s simply The Patriarchy,” she’d leave open the possibility of the power of faith; the truth of Jesus; the reality of Divine Love for fleshly creation. That she might at least consider the possibility that Hildegard, and Blandine (both the fictional and historical Blandine), and the rest of the Catholic saints and mystics experienced grace and power and love not in spite of their Catholic faith but because of it, and not in spite of their flesh, but through it. If God blesses her with that vision, watch out. She might not win another National Book Award, but her stories would dazzle, could speak to a world grown deaf to the voice of God, blind to His active work, and mute to proclaiming His praises.
Jeffrey Wald writes from the Twin Cities. His writing has appeared in publications such as Dappled Things, The University Bookman, Genealogies of Modernity, and Front Porch Republic.
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