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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


Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?



Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of books and their authors. This week’s installment asks you to identify memorable characters from mid-20th-century novels. After the last question, you’ll find a list of books highlighted in the quiz.

The Book Review Quiz Bowl appears on the Books page every week with a new topic. Click here for the archive of past quizzes.

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In Her Fiction, Ayana Mathis Refuses to Ignore Black History



THE UNSETTLED, by Ayana Mathis

As a novelist and a student of history, I’m interested in the question of whether Black novelists must acknowledge history in our work, or if it is possible, in the name of artistic freedom, to truly set it aside. I, for one, submit that Black history will always hover over American literature, whether or not the author intends it to. As Toni Morrison wrote in 1992, the Black American population “preceded every American writer of renown and was, I have come to believe, one of the most furtively radical impinging forces on the country’s literature.”

Ayana Mathis’s explicitly historical second novel, “The Unsettled” — appearing nearly 11 years after her acclaimed debut, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” — makes a strong case for the fact that the past can never truly be shaken off. Mathis follows three central characters across time and geography: the emotionally delicate Ava, a young mother trying to create a sense of home for herself and her son in 1980s Philadelphia; her wonderfully profane mother, Dutchess, who still lives in Ava’s tiny, all-Black hometown in Alabama; and Ava’s precocious son, Toussaint, who is arguably the book’s protagonist. He begins the novel with a short prologue in which he’s 13, has run away from foster care and is heading down to Bonaparte, Ala., to find Dutchess. Ava is now in prison.

The novel introduces these mysteries — Why is Ava in prison? Where is Toussaint’s father? Why is the boy running toward instead of away from Alabama, as so many Black folks have done since the Great Migration? — before jumping back a few years, to 1985, when Ava drags 10-year-old Toussaint into a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. The mother and son have been thrown out of the home they shared with Abemi, Ava’s abusive husband and Toussaint’s stepfather, in New Jersey. What brought them to this point?

Mathis renders Ava and Toussaint’s time in the shelter in poignant, heartbreaking detail. The staff members are at best cold and insensitive, at worst sexually exploitative. Though Ava tries her best, she increasingly loses connection with reality, reminiscing about her past with Toussaint’s father, Cass, in a series of disorienting, fragmented memories. These episodes, along with the residual trauma from Abemi’s abuse, prevent her from nurturing Toussaint, who is left to his own devices, essentially adultified. Her maternal neglect tests the reader’s sympathy as she leaves her child to ready himself for school, forgets to take him to the shelter cafeteria for their meals, doesn’t search for him when he disappears for hours at a time.

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In Defense of Men? Caitlin Moran’s Answer Will Surprise You.



WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran was giving a speech, and she was annoyed. For years, she’d been on this circuit — talking about her books, her columns, feminism and the state of womanhood. Everywhere she went, she seemed to get the same question: What was her advice for men?

Men, of course, are not her area of expertise. She isn’t one, for starters, though she is married to a man. She hasn’t birthed any, though she has daughters. Her successful writing career hasn’t been about men; she’s best known for her books “How to Be a Woman” and “How to Build a Girl.” Anyway, shouldn’t somebody be asking a man these questions?

Moran dismissed these inquiries with a joke: “My advice to men? I guess, a) please, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t rape us, and b) put the bowls in the dishwasher — rather than next to the dishwasher?”

The questions kept coming — eventually, from Moran’s own teenage girls. But it took a conversation with four boys from one daughter’s school — during a Zoom for International Women’s Day, no less — to really shake her.

“Men are just seen as bad, or toxic,” one boys tells her. “We’re blamed for everything. People just automatically presume we’re all rapists.”

When the call was over, the girls pleaded with her to recommend the boys some reading, a TV show, anything that would help close the gap between the sexes. She couldn’t think of anything. At least not anything that was useful and entertaining.

Moran changed course.

The result is “What About Men?,” an irreverent, albeit anecdotal, dig into the claim made in incel chat rooms, on Reddit and in the so-called manosphere that it’s easier to be a woman than it is to be a straight white man today. And, guess what? She believes it.

No, really.

In part because straight white men are still seen as the “default,” Moran writes, “it’s almost as if the actual details of their lives have become see-through. Invisible.”

That, and they can’t blame the patriarchy for their problems. For women, she writes, “change begins with the delicious moment” when you realize the problem is not your own. “But how can men blame ‘the patriarchy’ when, as a straight white man, you look like the patriarchy? Then you’re just in a ‘Fight Club’ situation, where you’re hitting yourself in the face.”

“What About Men?” is written in Moran’s usual confessional style — except that she’s defending the very people we’ve grown accustomed to her poking fun at.

Moran begins by interviewing men ages 40 to 55 (a hilariously narrow slice of the population), about the messages they received about how to be a man. For instance, many boys learn they “have to hit someone,” and there are apparently rules about this playground violence: Slapping is insulting. Kicking in the groin could be mistaken for “a bit gay.” For those with no physical skills, there’s always humor — “a currency and a power,” Moran learns.

Moran talks to a friend in an eye-opening chapter about being addicted to porn. (This person is not an expert, per se; just someone she happened to chat with. The majority of Moran’s subjects have this vibe.) She takes on unattainable beauty standards for men, who don’t have a “body positivity” movement to flood their Instagram with “rolls, stretch marks, lavish thighs and triumphant wibbly-wobbly bums.” She interviews a friend named Hugo about pickup artists, explores why men don’t go to the doctor (fear of judgment; fear of death; fear of looking weak) and takes on aging.

Moran also dispatches some womanly advice.

About sex: Women don’t really care about size, though “in the weeks, and sometimes months, after a breakup, women will almost always accuse their ex of having a tiny penis.”

About libido: “Women are as horny as men.”

About why women often don’t act on that libido: “The toughest thing about being a heterosexual woman is that the thing that, very often, we love the most — that you are bigger than us; your beautiful strong hands; the solidity of your arms; the weight of your body on top of us … — is also the thing we are most scared of.”

Those hoping for a sociological dig into men and masculinity will be disappointed. Her strength is in writing what she knows, and it is impossible even for the most clever and comprehensive author to sum up an entire sex.

And anyway, “What About Men?” isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It’s meant to be funny. But that at times, without research of any kind to support her clever observations — and no, a stoned conversation with her husband’s balls does not count — she runs the risk of perpetuating the very stereotypes she’s trying to unravel.

Ultimately, Moran seems to approach the world with irreverence. In the case of this book, readers should do the same.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times.

WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran | 320 pp. | Harper | $29.99

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