Mona Awad's 'Bunny': a sweetly sick take on academia

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In Mona Awad's Bunny, Samantha Heather Mackay is the typical outsider. A creative writing student on scholarship at Warren University, a haven for the wealthy and well-educated in a new England town plagued by poverty and violence, she scorns the campus's "tall old buildings, the ornately spiked gates, the endless stretch of carefully manicured perfumed green teeming with bright-eyed squirrels and rabbits, the students walking here and there, discussing Derrida and their nose jobs." Cynical and lonely, Samantha has one real friend: Ava, a goth dream girl who delights in being brash and irreverent. 

Samantha hates her school and struggles with her writing, but she's most disturbed by the other writers in her fiction cohort: the Bunnies, a clique of four young women who call one another "Bunny" and embrace the more performative aspects of friendship: offering endless praise and affirmations of love, indulging in muti-person hugs. "How fiercely they gripped each other's pink-and-white bodies," Samantha observes, "forming a hot little circle of such rib-crushing love and understanding it took my breath away."

They're cute, in a dark way, wearing dresses patterned with "beheaded girls with blond beehive hairdos," "little Bunsen burners," "unicorns in midleap," and "kittens licking ice cream cones." Like the members of the Spice Girls, each has a slightly different aesthetic. One, wearing pearls and a cardigan, looks "so much like a cupcake" that Samantha experiences "a very real desire to eat her." The second Bunny is the group's "sexy punk"; the third, a silver-haired, lace clad "C-list moon goddess"; the fourth, a doll-like woman with "saucer eyes" and "Shirley Temple curls."

If this all feels surprisingly adolescent, it's because Awad is deliberately invoking high school movie tropes. Are the Bunnies grad school mean girls? Is Samantha about to be drenched in pigs' blood, Carrie-style? Samantha obsesses over the Bunnies, overcome with corrosive envy and disdain, but when they invite her to join them, she predictably begins neglecting Ava for the promises of her shiny, new, decidedly twee friends. Together, they go out for frozen yogurt, eat miniature versions of food items, and engage in ritual sacrifice. 

Yes. You see, the Bunnies go to workshop at Warren, where they discuss their writing projects ("postfeminist dialogues" and "existential vignettes about Disney princesses engaged in blood orgies"). They also host their own kind of workshop, where they bring to life male creatures to date and be entertained by, with mostly middling results.

The boys -- no, call them "Drafts," the Bunnies would say -- lack certain body parts, such as "hands, genitals. An untwisted mouth." They're handsome, eerie versions of Marlon Brando or Donald Glover, well-versed in "Fellini films and the novels of Proust." Yet these are but drafts, so some of them get the axe -- literally. Heads explode, rabbits explode, blood and guts spatter every Peter Pan collar and cutesy dress. Things get messy. 

The plot continues to take some wild turns, though this supernatural fantasy is inextricably tied to the world of creative writing departments. The Bunnies call their hybrid men "darlings" and follow the old dictum about writing by...killing them. In discussing their work, they employ the language of the academy. One Bunny suggests "some sort of revisionist fairy-tale work" or a "subversive play on canonical tropes," which, Samantha understands, "is short for Bunny wanting a merman again. Or another wolf in the woods. Or some pale, sober prince emerging from the briars to climb her hair."

The Bunnies, workshopping each other's writing, might offer that a text "languages the circumnavigation of the hermeneutical circle." Samantha notes that "at Warren, the Body is all the rage. As though everyone in the academic world has just now discovered that they are vesseled in precarious, fastly decaying houses of bone and flesh and my god, what material. What a wealth of themes and plot!" Satirizing creative writing departments and the conventions of academic discourse is well-tread territory, but Awad's playful critiques still mostly manage to land. 

Even so, I wondered what the novel was ultimately trying to say about writing. Academic jargon can be a tool of exclusion, obfuscation, and pretension; it can be a fancy way of saying nothing. Similarly, both the Bunnies' writing and animation projects are depicted as exercises in narcissism and wish-fulfillment, and the lofty theory talk only serves to disguise the banality of their ambitions. It's one thing to satirize MFA programs -- the professors' cult of personality, the insularity, the adoption of a homogenous aesthetic and voice -- but it's another not to offer any redemptive vision of fiction's purpose and possibilities. 

Bunny is so steeped in irony, so charmed by its own cleverness, so deliriously allusive, that it felt, at heart, a little hollow. For instance, near the end of this axe-heavy novel, one character says, "A book should be like an ax." Seeing where this was going, I grimaced as another character finished Kafka's well-known saying: "For the frozen sea within us." It's a move made of convenience (ah, nice ax and literature tie-in!) and, like the Bunnies' performative intellectualism, winks to those in the know.

Yet in the same letter, Kafka writes that "we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide." To me, this encompasses the problem with the novel: Kafka is calling for books that move us. The axe promises violence, not for its own sake, but as a tool to elicit an affective response. Not all novels need touch us in this way, but by quoting Kafka here, Awad invites us to apply his criteria to Bunny and find it lacking. 

Bunny is frothy and fun; it bites with a sharp wit; it dazzles with imagination and fairy tale magic; its sentences are, quite often, enviable. It speaks poignantly about friendship and belonging. However, it's also a very different kind of book from the one Kafka describes, and its final reveal (which I won't spoil) shows Awad has prioritized narrative contrivance over substance. 

At one point, when Samantha has told an embellished tale, she acknowledges that it might have been "a tenuous castle made of air." This novel might be that castle, but many will enjoy visiting this sweetly sick, deliciously absurd kingdom nonetheless.  

Marisa Grizenko is a writing consultant, editor, and enthusiastic reader living in Vancouver.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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