With the adage “write what you know” being so popular, it is not surprising that writers like to write about other writers. We can see this anywhere from the submission queues at literary journals to the shows we watch on television. The subject matter is common. What is less common is to see it presented in a fresh and compelling manner. Mona Awad’s Bunny (Penguin Random House) does just that. A follow-up to her 2016 debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Awad’s newest novel explores the usual landscape of a young, isolated writer in a most unusual way.
The novel’s central character, Samantha Mackey, is a young fiction writer, studying at a prestigious New England MFA program. The other students in Samantha’s cohort come from privilege, which makes Samantha uncomfortable and leads her to self-isolate. Her only friend is an artist and fellow outsider named Ava. While Samantha holds nearly everyone in her program at a distance, it is a group of four close female friends with a penchant for calling each other “Bunny” for whom Samantha has the greatest disregard.
To say that the Bunnies are codependent is an understatement. Their lives and personalities are intertwined in such a way that at times it is difficult to distinguish them from one another. As Samantha watches the group from a distance she reflects on the intimacy of the four girls with a certain disgust: “I quietly prayed for the hug implosion all year last year. That their ardent squeezing might cause the flesh to ooze from the sleeves, neckholes, and A‐line hems of their cupcake dresses like so much inane frosting. That they would get tangled in each other’s Game of Thrones hair, choked by the ornate braids they were forever braiding into each other’s heart‐shaped little heads.”
When Samantha receives a surprise invitation to join the group’s writing workshop, called “Smut Salon,” she quickly finds herself drawn into the world of the girls she privately refers to as Cupcake, Vignette, Creepy Doll, and Duchess. When Samantha first joins the clique, the Bunnies are welcoming, if not overly so. The girls are fiercely intelligent, and at times angsty, but otherwise normal enough. But just as Samantha begins to question her negative perception of the Bunnies, things suddenly take a turn into a strange, even grotesque, realm. In Smut Salon, the line between reality and disbelief becomes increasingly blurred.
As the lives of Samantha and the Bunnies become increasingly intertwined, Samantha’s independent nature, as well as her grasp on what is real and what is not, diminishes. This shift serves to heighten the tension in the novel and is delightfully frustrating for the reader. Juxtaposed against this new codependency she has fallen into with the Bunnies, Samantha’s relationship with her only close friend, Ava, becomes strained and takes off on its own toxic and confusing journey.
To say much more about the ensuing plot would ruin the great pleasure that comes from discovering the engine of Bunny. That is not to say that Awad withholds important information from the reader. Rather, she unfolds the story meticulously, exposing layers bit by bit throughout the duration of the novel. Awad performs one of the greatest tricks possible in literature. She executes a disorienting and strange plot, but the central narrative always remains clear and easy to follow.
Not only does Bunny grab and sustain the reader’s attention through its narrative structure, but it has great moments of interiority which offer opportunities for Awad’s prose style to really shine. The moments are often small and simple, but striking and evocative. When one of the Bunnies offers to take Samantha’s coat, although she’s not wearing one, we get from Samantha: “She’s looking at me so hopefully. So willing to take a coat I am not wearing. I almost want to give her my skin.”
Awad’s Bunny is, at least in part, satirical. While it may be true that anyone who has survived the experience of a creative writing workshop may get an extra thrill out of the plot, this is not a story exclusively written for the enjoyment of other writers. The experience of being in an intimate, vulnerable setting carries with it a universality. Also, the exploration of power dynamics and personal insecurity also carry with it a message relatable to any reader.
Bunny is funny and smart, but also terrifying. There is an underlying unease that enters the book in its early pages, even before the plot reveals its unusual contours. This unease continues throughout the duration of the novel without ever growing wearisome. At times Bunny is part dark comedy, much like the 1988 film Heathers. But at other times it ventures more into the realm of cult classic horror, like 1996’s The Craft. It is very much about relationships—both those with others, but also the relationship we have with ourselves.
Late in the novel, Awad describes the love expressed by one of the characters as being “more like a slowly unfurling fist. It might unfurl all the way.” Bunny can be described in the same way. It is intelligent, but subversive. Delightful, but full of sadness. Wicked, but funny. Most importantly, it is deliciously bizarre, unfurling like a fist before the reader’s eyes.