The shrimp tower gives it away, at the “demitasse” that opens Mona Awad’s Bunny. Any lingering questions you may have regarding whether this novel set in an MFA program at a prestigious New England university will actually resemble the reality of life in an MFA program at a prestigious New England university evaporate when you come to understand that four women described thusly constitute fully 80% of the first-ever all-female fiction cohort at the fictional Warren (get it?) University:
“Pink-and white bodies.” “Ski-jump noses, peach fuzzy cheeks.” “Cupcake dresses.” “Game of Thrones hair.” “Ornate braids.” “Heart-shaped little heads.” “Blandly grassy perfume.” “Skins aglow with affection and belonging as though they’d just been hydrated by the purest of mountain streams.”
Awad has comprehensively imagined these four “bunnies” — so-called by the narrator Samantha Mackey, because they all address one another as “bunny” — and their outrageously elevated twee. They dine on literally tiny foods, they refer to an emotionally uncomfortable situation as an “owie,” and they call their workshop instructor “KareKare” because she’s just like “a care bear!” On school breaks, they post influencer-perfect Instagram pics from their privileged winter getaways.
Bunny has it that these four friends, when not hugging one another in very public scrums, also craft finely-honed explorations of literary form, whether in prose or in literally diamond-etched “proems.” Samantha, by contrast, is the skeptical populist who sarcastically derides her peers’ reluctance to “be slaves to the time-space continuum aka plot.”
Even once you realize you’re not reading a conventional work of satire but rather a gothic fairy tale rife with symbolism, one that takes a cartoonish distillation of a graduate program as its setting, it remains hard to bridge the disconnect between Awad’s gory allegory of the writing process and the actual aesthetic of the community she’s ostensibly investigating.
The extraordinarily affected Bunnies are antagonists who exert supreme control of their self-presentation, but their supercute coven is so utterly alien to the adult world, let alone a competitive graduate program, that Bunny itself becomes an example of the kind of bloodless writerly exercise its narrator purports to loathe.
The irony is not lost on Awad, who eventually has a character launch an incisive critique of a text implied to be akin to the very book we’re reading. The novel’s most likely fans are readers who enjoy the kind of baroque, atmospheric allegory that favors its own internal logic over a meaningful relationship to…well, reality. Fifty million Neil Gaiman fans can’t be wrong.
Despite its setting, Bunny is less in the long tradition of literary novels about college English departments (write what you know) than in the spirit of the psychological horror paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s — books where it was less important whether or why something would happen than what it would be like if. It. Did.
When Samantha inevitably falls in among the Bunnies, forsaking her goth BFF Ava, she discovers the gruesome secret behind their carefully composed public image. Awad is too tightly yoked to her elaborate allegory to fully commit to the shocks, though, so when blood starts to splatter, it does so in scenes ready-made for the carefully art-directed AMC series that’s already in the works.
Heathers is the most commonly cited reference point for Bunny, and Awad anticipated that as well, dropping specific references that let us know she appreciates the parallels between that story of social outsiders conspiring to exact revenge on their high school’s queen bees. Although Bunny is equally outrageous, it lacks the specificity of the 1988 film’s setting.
The novel’s archetypes, in fact — the condescending clique, the desperate loser, the distant parents, the hot teacher — seem to have been collectively borrowed from a million high school stories and dropped into Samantha’s MFA program, where they make a lot less sense.
That won’t much matter to readers who buy into the author’s celebration of the seductive powers of imagination. While its narrator spends much of the book struggling to write, Awad seems to be enjoying “the work” (as the characters’ teacher, Ursula, who leads seminars in room called “the Cave,” calls it) immensely.
In fact, the less that happens in the story, the more florid Awad becomes. A pause is “so pregnant it delivers, consumes its own spawn, then grows big with child again.” Samantha is “quiet as rainbows” in a room that’s “creepy-serious, quieter than even my rainbow quiet.”
Audiobook narrator Sophie Amoss doesn’t hold back on the babyish affectations of Bunnies with designations like “Creepy Doll” and “Cupcake.” She does her job: pulling listeners further into Awad’s furry world until we’re lost in it. You might finish the book and wish you could linger for a lifetime in that ornate but acid environment; or you might bolt for freedom, never looking back.