Author: Mona Award
Publication: Head of Zeus, 2019
Number of Pages: 334
Bunny is a truly bizarre, creepy, hallucinatory and hilarious novel. It has been so long since I’ve read this kind of mish-mash of magical realism, fantasy and horror that I had forgotten how much I love it! I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, which has inspired me to write up the most detailed analysis of a book I’ve done in twenty years (since my Uni days!).
I have seen many users on Goodreads, including those that gave high star ratings, struggling to put into words what they thought, and I had some time on my hands between Christmas and New Year so I wanted to put my mind to the task! I have to say that in doing so I developed an even greater love for it, and uncovered new layers of understanding.
Plot: “TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS”
Towards the end of the novel, one of the titular Bunnies has an outburst that I think summarises the experience many readers have had with this book –
I feel like screaming JUST SAY IT. TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS AND WHAT YOU DID WITH HIM EXACTLY.”
One of the challenges with talking about this book is that the plot is so bizarre that it is tricky to summarise effectively, particularly without giving away spoilers! In brief, the novel follows Samantha Heather Mackey, a postgraduate creative writing student at a fancy New England University, called Warren University (I did not get the pun until my second read-through!).
Samantha cannot stand the clique of pretentious, fake-nice rich girls who make up her writing group, whom she has nicknamed collectively the Bunnies, after their pet name for each other. Then Samantha gets invited to one of their “Smut Salons” and indoctrinated into their group/cult.. and from then on things get really weird!
I’ve seen a lot of reviews comparing Bunny to the 1988 movie Heathers (which I also love), which I think is a good touchstone for the tone of this book. Think Heathers (or its descendant Mean Girls) but more black magic, exploding heads and psychosis.
Samantha Heather Mackey
Samantha is your fairly typical edgy, anti-social loner. She prefers her own dark imagination to spending any time with other people, the only exception being her best and only friend, Ava. With her mother dead and her father absent (reading between the lines, either in prison or on the run due to his financial scams), Samatha is isolated and lonely.
She keeps a barrier of snark and judgement up between herself and others. Most of the other characters she refers to nearly exclusively by a dehumanising nickname; from each of the four Bunnies (Duchess, Cup Cake, Vignette and Creepy Doll) to her professors (Fosco and the Lion). She accepts the invitation to join the Bunnies at their “Smut Salon” out of a combination of her loneliness and awareness that her isolation is ultimately not healthy for her mentally or academically.
As this whole novel is from Samantha’s point of view we are along for the ride on her mental rollercoaster, told in her own voice. To understand Bunny you need to understand Samantha.
The Bunnies are a quartet of privileged white women who shower each other with compliments, text in emojis and hug each other with such intensity they may crush vital organs.
How fiercely they gripped each other’s pink-and-white bodies, forming a hot little circle of such rib-crushing love and understanding it took my breath away. And then the nuzzling of ski-jump noses, peach fuzzy cheeks. Temples pressed against temples in a way that made me think of the labial rubbing of the bonobo or the telepathy of beautiful, murderous children in horror films. All eight of their eyes shut tight as if this collective asphyxiation were a kind of religious bliss. All four of their glossy mouths making squealing sounds of monstrous love that hurt my face. I love you, Bunny.
Samantha is as jealous of their privilege (“Their skins glowing with health insurance”) as she is nauseated by their behaviour and derisive of the empty, pretentious work they produce.
I have seen criticisms of this book for the misogyny in the descriptions of the Bunnies, but I read this as entirely intentional and a symptom of Samantha’s dark, often hateful state of mind. Their fussy feminine dresses with cutesy prints (decapitated kittens with crowns and ghosts with bloody eyes), the kitten ear headbands and the “Game of Thrones” braiding of each other’s hair are all in contrast to her own unkempt dark hair, with her “bitch curtain” fringe over half her face; her taller than average height, and her exclusively black wardrobe. The only person whose dress she admires is Ava who has an over-the-top sexy goth wardrobe of black mesh gloves, veils and silky black gowns.
The Bunnies are cartoon characters, but that is the point. Like The Heathers, or The Plastics, they have a uniform – though each one has an individual themed flavour much like the Spice Girls or Bratz dolls – the privileged hippy, the uptight preppy girl, the cutesy alt girl, and the trashy punk. I thought they were fantastic – and I could clearly picture them as characters in a movie.
I do want to discuss the themes of this book in some depth which means there are some moderate spoilers ahead. You have been warned!
Elite Creative Writing Programmes
The Bunnies, along with their Workshop Professor (Fosco aka KareKare aka Ursula), are also a commentary on the ridiculous pretensions at an “elite” art school; where daft vague instructions and empty criticisms are repeated just for the sake of saying something that sounds engaged.
… 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! I still don’t quite understand what it means to write about The Body with title caps but I always nod like I do. Oh yes, The Body, of course.
Other words I’ve been keeping track of: space, gesture, and perform.
“I appreciate the uncertainty the piece gestures toward,” Creepy Doll says. “I just think she could go further into the dream space. It’s so interesting how she performs and reenacts trauma.”
The Bunnies in their Salons, in their own Workshops, are very literally working on The Body. While this is ostensibly about The Work it really just seems to be about sex. The Darlings (” we don’t call them boys”) they create are never complete. They have no personality, no hands.. and crucially, their cocks don’t work.
“Exactly. This is about the Body. Performing the Body. The Body performing in all its nuanced viscerality.” “The Body fucking,” Victoria adds.
I have never been to an elite university, never mind a creative writing programme, but I think Mona Awad did a great job of conjuring the silly snobbishness of those institutions that takes themselves far too seriously. The regurgitating of nonsense art speak – all the saying a lot while not really saying anything at all – were some of my favourite passages.
All the lofty art speak about their creations, while they also frequently complain about the lack of genitalia, or that they scream and are afraid of beds; was a hilarious juxtaposition.
A ‘wrong town’
Outside of the campus of Warren the town is depicted as a dark and dangerous place, which also speaks to the dual themes of elite snobbishness and the question of reality.
Smilingly oblivious to the fact that they are in the mouth of hell. Or as Ava and I call it, the Lair of Cthulhu. Cthulhu is a giant squid monster invented by a horror writer who went insane and died here. And you know what, it makes sense. Because you can feel it when you’re walking down the streets beyond the Warren Bubble that this town is a wrong town.
People encountered outside of the campus are twisted and dangerous, and Samantha comments on a near epidemic of murders, rapes and decapitations happening in the town. I can also see this as a commentary on the attitudes of these elite institutions towards the less privileged who live in the towns outside their walls. The University runs a safe cab service for its students, that the Bunnies apparently use even in the light of day – because you just can’t be too safe.
I suspect that some of the more critical readers of this book don’t appreciate that Samantha is absolutely an unreliable narrator. The whole story is from her point of view, and she tells us repeatedly through her memories of her mother that she gets carried away with her imagination
How much did I invent in the end? Probably a lot. Why do you lie so much? And about the weirdest little things? my mother always asked me. I don’t know, I always said. But I did know. It was very simple. Because it was a better story.
By the end of the book, I was not sure what has been real all along, and what had been invented by Samantha. There is, I think, a few different ways you could read it, both of which I find interesting.
Kill your Darlings – literally?
You could accept that some of the magical realism elements were real, that the Bunnies had tapped into dark creative magic and that “kill your Darlings” involved literal blood and gore. This makes sense with Samantha’s references to crazy people and frequent beheadings happening in the town, and that she and Ava were going to tango classes. Fosco and the Janitor towards the end also seem fairly non-plussed about the crazy things that students get up to. You could take some of this at face value.
Or, you can accept that almost everything we experience in the novel was a product of Samantha’s imagination, and what we have read was her final thesis based on her experience in the writing programme.
Samantha sprinkles through memories of her childhood and her mother where she repeatedly mentions her retreat into her own dark worlds, which hints at a history of mental illness beyond simple childhood imagination. In one, she is close to outlining the plot of Bunny –
The fevered stories I wrote in the hair salon were all rip-offs of the thriller and horror paperbacks she devoured on breaks and in the evenings, which I read on the sly. I based the characters on her clients, my classmates, teachers who distressed me.
There is a scene towards the end where she is on a bus and observes a lady reading a medical poster that would offer an explanation for her psychosis –
There is my grandmother sort of. Wearing the clothes of a slightly insane person. Tattoo on her throat of a spider in a web. Reading a ripped-up medical poster about schizophrenia aloud. SCHIZOPHRENIA: Do You Have the Symptoms?? She reads each symptom on the list, going, “Oh I have that, oh I have that.” Making sounds of delighted surprise. Like it’s a recipe she’s reading and she’s tickled to discover that— “—she already has all the ingredients in her fridge. No need to go shopping.”
The creative process
If we read with the understanding that this is all a product of Samantha’s psychosis, then the “Darlings” were not real men, but just invented drafts of characters. We can believe that Samantha is a very talented writer (we hear this from Jonah, Lion and Fosco, also evidenced by her place on the programme) and that the Bunnies, who are arguably less naturally gifted, may have been jealous and wanting to learn from her. Their “Darlings” are shallow, incomplete characters because the Bunnies don’t have the skills for truly believable creations, those that readers are able to fall in love with, like those that Samantha is able to produce.
Her classmates refer to her work as brilliant but dark and are scared of it. Samantha’s two greatest creations were conjuring while she was at her most lonely and vulnerable (her mother having passed; being rejected for showing vulnerability with her professor friend), and when she was at her most angry with the Bunnies. Her imagination has always been her way of coping with difficult situations.
She also has the additional pressure of graduation looming and being creatively blocked. Soon she will have to go out into the Real World, which as I already discussed is depicted as a dangerous and terrifying place. She has no family or support system to help her when she gets there. These are things that would stress even a mentally stable person, so would be understandable as the catalyst for her psychotic break.
During the final confrontation, the Duchess makes references to how much further Samantha has gone than them, and that their actions ultimately were perhaps to help her rather than cause her harm. Perhaps they did initially want to use her to improve their own work but did not realise the depth of her issues.
… you were just so delusional. We thought maybe if we told you, you would have like a breakdown or pee your pants or something. We didn’t know. I mean, you were just so invested in being too cool for everyone, in not being around us or even the poets or any actual people at all, you know.
The character of Jonah, I think, represents getting help and is the only character who appears to be supportive in a healthy way of Samantha. At first, she is dismissive of him and the fact he is on medication for his past addiction issues; that his medication makes him smile – and smiling makes you look stupid in Samantha’s world. Over the course of the novel, she begins to appreciate his help, and in the end, she appears to be open to his friendship – and even invites him into her world. But then, whether or not Jonah himself is real is another interesting debate that can be had!
Of course, those last two lines are so beautifully ambiguous!
“You could come with me,” I say to Jonah. “If you want.” I lower my gaze to the mud.
“Sure, Samantha,” says the mud, “I’d love to.”
I love Mona Awad’s writing – so much I may have gone overboard with the quotations! It’s so darkly funny, and some of her turns of phrase made me laugh out loud.
“She gives me the full hate bouquet of her smile. Every fuck you flower.”
Samantha’s slide deeper into madness is so well captured. I love that in the second part, as she is sucked into the Bunny Cult she uses “we” instead of “I”. The peppering in of all the Bunny phrases through the final third too, as they now have seeped into her consciousness, is fantastic.
I think I have made it obvious how much I enjoyed this book. I even read it twice, and then wrote up this whole essay of a review for it! The last time I pulled quotes from a book and thought about themes and meanings was twenty years ago for my English Lit degree!
Thank you Mona Awad for reminding me how much fun there is to be found in analysing a really good book!
This book is deceptively layered and complex, and I think many readers who did not enjoy it perhaps misunderstood it and tried to take it too much at face value. Though even at face value I think it’s a super fun weird, gory little story!