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One Apartment Building, Many Lives




It’s all writers’ prerogative to kill their darlings, though it takes a certain élan to kill your actual protagonist on the first page — or at least send her sliding somewhere beyond this mortal plane, as Tess Gunty seems to in the opening of “The Rabbit Hutch”: “On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body. She is only 18 years old, but she has spent most of her life wishing for this to happen.”

It’s one of many bold moves in Gunty’s dense, prismatic and often mesmerizing debut, a novel of impressive scope and specificity that falters mostly when it works too hard to wedge its storytelling into some broader notion of Big Ideas. The parameters of the story itself are confined almost entirely to a single summer week in the fictional Midwestern city of Vacca Vale, Ind. — one of those dying third-rate metropolises, whose tenuous grip on prosperity faded when its main industry, Zorn Automobiles, collapsed under a cloud of debt and ecological misdeeds several decades before.

Blandine is a child of Vacca Vale born and raised, if rarely cared for: an autodidact and eerie Valkyrie beauty, with her piles of well-thumbed tomes on 12th-century mystics and corn-silk halo of hair. There was a mother once, we are told in a few deftly sketched sentences, with a fateful oxycodone habit, and a father in jail; then a series of foster families. Now she works at a local diner heavy on avant-garde pie — flavors of the day include lavender lamb and banana charcoal — and shares a shabby apartment with three other aged-out foster kids, all troubled varieties of teenage boy.

It’s their building that the book takes its title from: Originally designed to house Zorn laborers and christened La Lapinière in an act of misplaced faith and European flair, it’s now a run-down complex that no one ever really refers to as anything other than the Rabbit Hutch. The walls there “are so thin, you can hear everyone’s lives progress like radio plays,” and Gunty passes through them with a God’s eye, dipping in and out of units like C12, where a 60-something widower furtively checks his ratings on a dating website, and C10, where an aspiring influencer vamps, ready for his close-up. An elderly couple in C6 play out age-old patterns of low-level domestic strife in a cigarette-smogged living room while Hope, the fragile young mother in C8 struggling to bond with her newborn, finds comfort in reruns of a golden-age sitcom called “Meet the Neighbors.”

The death of the show’s former star, an apple-faced American sweetheart named Elsie Blitz, comes as hard news to Hope, though it allows the book to leap to Malibu, where adult Elsie reigned for decades as a passionate benefactor of the endangered three-toed pygmy sloth, and a far less devoted parent to her only child, Moses Robert Blitz. Elsie is a familiar archetype but a well-drawn one: the perfect Hollywood monster, so blithely dedicated to pleasure-seeking and stunted by fame that she’s raised a son whose entire persona, even in his early 50s, is shaped around hating her.

It will take a series of events incited by another Hutch resident, Joan Kowalski, to summon him to Vacca Vale, though Joan is hardly the kind of siren to lure a man and leave him smashed on the rocks of desire. At 40, “she has the posture of a question mark, a stock face and a pair of 19th-century eyeglasses. Her solitude is as prominent as the cross around her neck.” But she does work for an online obituary portal whose virtual memorial wall for Elsie provides the itchy, furious Moses with an outlet for the volcanic emotions he would never acknowledge as grief, and a reason to skip out on the funeral of the mother whose headlong narcissism left so little room for him.

His own quirks are numerous, and Gunty, who lives in Los Angeles, sets them cleverly against the self-regarding follies of show business and coastal elitism: the Olympic-level virtue signaling of guests at an art-world cocktail party; the looser mores of the Me Decade artists and libertines who once swirled around Elsie in her prime. (“Adoration and hatred — the only energies she knew how to dispense and accept.”) To Moses, Vacca Vale is little more than a Midwestern emptiness to project himself upon, “a wasteland of factories, construction and dead grass on Google Maps.” To Blandine, though, it’s a place of almost totemic weight — the only home she’s ever known, and one she’s determined to defend against an influx of local developers who equate prosperity with new-built condos, not trees and parks.

Her elaborate effort to sabotage those civic schemes becomes one of the novel’s less resonant threads, a stylistic outlier whose endgame never quite syncs up with the larger story. More germane, and more interesting, is how a girl capable of delivering vast soliloquies on medieval saints and late-stage capitalism came to be a high school dropout serving weird pies. Blandine, it’s eventually revealed, is not her birth name, and until fairly recently she was an academic standout, if not exactly a prom queen, at a local prep school pleased to take on a scholarship kid of her unusual I.Q. and sad back story.

Her reasons for leaving so abruptly before her senior year turn out to be a tale as old as time, or at least “Lolita” — though “The Rabbit Hutch” smartly reframes the depressing clichés of a vulnerable teenager and an older authority figure, in part by making them each so constantly aware of the roles they’re playing. One of the pleasures of the narrative is the way it luxuriates in language, all the rhythms and repetitions and seashell whorls of meaning to be extracted from the dull casings of everyday life. Gunty’s writing is so rich with texture and subtext it can sometimes tip over into the too-muchness of a decadent meal or a Paul Thomas Anderson film. As with many new novelists, and a lot of veteran ones too, her longer monologues tend to come off less like the cadences of ordinary speech than the workshopped thoughts of a star student, placed between quotation marks. (Gunty earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from N.Y.U.)

But she also has a way of pressing her thumb on the frailty and absurdity of being a person in the world; all the soft, secret needs and strange intimacies. The book’s best sentences — and there are heaps to choose from — ping with that recognition, even in the ordinary details: A social worker has “sunglasses that evoked particularly American things, like goatees and drive-through banks and NASCAR”; high school bathrooms “resemble bomb shelters: windowless constructions of cinder blocks painted the color of sharks.” Looming over all that, the fate of her body in the balance, is Blandine. For all her extraterrestrial prettiness and spooky, precocious gifts, she’s still a teenager — in some sense not fully cooked yet, if she’ll ever get to be. (It’s hard not to picture the actress Anya Taylor-Joy, should there ever be a casting call.) “The Rabbit Hutch”’s vibrant, messy sprawl can seem that way too, but its excesses also feel generous: defiant in the face of death, metaphysical exits or whatever comes next.

Leah Greenblatt is a critic at large at Entertainment Weekly.

THE RABBIT HUTCH, by Tess Gunty | 338 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28


Love, Absence and Loss, Filtered Through Philosophical Poems



This makes perfect sense, because in the Shaughnessy multiverse, everything contains everything else, or has that capacity. “There are no opposites,” the poet tells us. “There are only dimensions, relations, recurrence, series.” Elsewhere she says: “But nothing’s natural./And nothing’s unnatural either.” For Shaughnessy, the self is fluid, inquisitive, acquisitive and porous. “One person, that tangle of matter and energy, that bag of broken clocks dreaming of ness-ness, can never be only that one person nor the entirety of that person, but they can be more.”

If you had told me when I was in college that I could love a book of poetry that mentioned “the self” as frequently as this one does, I would have heaved a dictionary at your head. Yet Shaughnessy’s vibrant dives into the possibilities of that phrase invest it with multitudes. “I always wanted self/to be a magic scroll/the universe kept safe,” Shaughnessy writes. Me too. Maybe that’s why my younger self became irate when she felt poets were flinging the concept around lightly. Luckily, the self and its youthful prejudices can sometimes be revised.

Femaleness and iterations of feminism provide a framework for “Tanya.” The collection can be seen in part as a version of midlife stock-taking, via odes to women artists, mentors, lovers, frenemies and former selves. Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” Shaughnessy’s doing that here, tracing her own derivation and education through myriad mothers, stretching definitions of “mother” to include frictions, crushes, heartbreaks and inspirations that became part of her DNA.

No surprise then, given all this permeability and interpenetration, that boundaries, outlines and doors, those would-be enclosers and barriers, occur frequently in these poems. Shaughnessy asks whether artists have the right “to weigh and lay/to rest the question of half, of division, of border, of definition, of edge?” Elsewhere, in one poem she describes a ballerina as crossing “the strange wide water/between flower and force.” The beauty and economy of that line called up for me an image of the dancer bridging a riverlike division between delicacy and power, embodying both.

The book ends with the “long, careening” title poem, a 43-page surge that feels like high tide after the rising ocean that precedes it. (Structurally, this is similar to the way the last and title poem in Shaughnessy’s earlier book “Our Andromeda” becomes a crescendo, rallying and deepening the collection’s concerns.)

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And You Thought Your Family Had Problems



Indeed, one questions the motivations of a woman who casually relays to her brood over spare ribs and scallion pancakes that her late father was in fact a Black man. Sandy has always known, though he presumed she might spend a lifetime explaining away her kinky hair and olive skin: “Who knew that instead she would carry those facts like a suicide vest into a Chinese restaurant on Amsterdam and 69th? On Christmas Day, no less, the year’s strangest day for Jews, no less for him, a former celebrant.”

A fiercely unapologetic Naomi dismisses her own disclosure out of hand as “an asterisk.” In Row’s studied 2014 satire “Your Face in Mine,” white characters gladly volunteered for “racial reassignment surgery”; for Bering, though, the news is shattering, a core truth of her selfhood cruelly withheld.

By then she has already begun and ended a sexual relationship with her brother — a bombshell the book returns to intermittently as it bobs and weaves between other fraught narratives: Patrick’s post-collegiate spiritual quest in Nepal and monastic self-exile to Berlin; Winter’s struggles as an immigration lawyer in Trump’s circa-2018 America and the looming deportation threat against her Mexican-born fiancé; Sandy’s emotional reckonings and Naomi’s fresh romance.

Looming over them all is the novel itself, an anthropomorphized thing that serves alternately as spirit guide, secret architect and scamp — one that Row both engages with and interrogates, like a recalcitrant pet. “Suddenly, the novel wants to say. Suddenly something happened,” he writes, on the occasion of one startling revelation. “The novel opens its hand. Let me shock you, let me embarrass you. Cover your eyes, cover your mouth. Turn the music up.”

And the music here is very much turned up, a symphonic chorus that can be undeniably stimulating but also wearing. Can’t the Wilcoxes ever catch a break? Or, one wonders, do they want to? Likability might be for the lazy, but this family eschews it to an almost heroic degree: They are strident and congenitally stubborn, hamstrung by grievances and wounds they can’t or won’t close.

Even from the grave, Bering — her Hotmail drafts folder becomes a primary posthumous source for the text — remains something of a prickly enigma: a mercurial girl too scantly explored to really be known before she’s gone (though her journey allows Row to paint a deft, vivid sketch of the quagmire that is Palestine and Israel). The incest subplot feels like gilding an already rococo lily, the pure shock of it never entirely earned or explained, and Row’s heady prose occasionally tips into lit-major bombast, his paragraphs dappled with references to Barthes or Borges.

It can be delightfully tactile though, too: TV makeup is troweled on, “the consistency of hummus”; root vegetables lie in a crisper, “the warty stepchildren of the vegetable kingdom.” This is a book of warty, messy things, intractable and strange — but stumbling, maybe, toward a state of grace.

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Welcome to Immortality. Your Body Can’t Come With You.



The novel is set circa 2030. In America, the authoritarian right has jettisoned democracy, surveillance drones sweep the sky, deportation officers in skull masks patrol the subways, Florida has been nearly wiped out by tsunamis, there is talk of cannibals and doomsday cults running amok and … whatever. This critic feels as if he’s perpetually wandering, lately, through a mall bookstore called Dystopias R Us. The bookstore has locked its doors and will not let him out. Aiieeee!

Kalfar’s dystopia feels thirdhand. Happily, he has other things to work with. His heroine, Adela Slavikova, lives in a Czech village. On the novel’s first page, she learns she has not long, perhaps a year, to live. Her doctor, “a great poet of the macabre,” doesn’t give her the option of denial. He is determined to tell her exactly how awful it’s going to be: “crumbling bones, renal failure, death by brain bleed or fungal infection.”

Not long after, Adela is drunk on box wine in her bathroom, sliding off the toilet, as one does, when a carp she is keeping in the tub begins to speak to her. “Find your daughter, go, go now,” it says. “Idiot. Your destiny awaits in the New World.”

Adela gave a daughter up for adoption at birth, and she decides to go to America — the world according to carp — to find her. Kalfar’s inventiveness rolls as if on wheels. Adela flies on an ultra-budget airline where the seats have no cushions, each passenger is limited to one cup of water and you have to pay in cash to use the toilet. In New York, at MoMA, she sees a life-size hologram of Vincent van Gogh pop up and chastise a boy for touching a painting.

There’s a slight tentativeness to Kalfar’s written English (he was born in the Czech Republic, and immigrated to the United States at 15) that endears his protagonists, and renders them believable. He makes a virtue of a limitation. He has a Kurt Vonnegut-like satirical touch, at his best, as well as Vonnegut’s interest in science. He also has an old-world melancholy, beneath the humor, that will put some readers in mind of writers like Mordecai Richler and Jerzy Kosinski.

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