Who Committed the Murder in Apartment C4?
In "The Rabbit Hutch," Tess Gunty unravels the hopes and dreams of tenants living in a rust belt housing complex
Tess Gunty’s debut novel The Rabbit Hutch follows the inhabitants of a low-income housing complex, called the Rabbit Hutch, in Vacca Vale, Indiana. It’s a loud novel, full of many voices, since there are many inhabitants of the Rabbit Hutch, some of whom we know by apartment number and some by name: four young people just out of the foster care system, a husband and wife and their new baby, a single woman whose job is moderating online obituary comments. Like listening in a stairwell, the novel bounces from voice to voice, letting characters tell their own stories in whatever form they like: comic, obituary comment section, stage directions. But no character is more striking than Blandine, the young woman in Apartment C4 whose obsession with female mystics offers her solace but shrouds her in a kind of mystery that will end up making her intensely vulnerable.
The Rabbit Hutch is a searing book, the absolute perfect summer read. It’s the kind of novel I read in a fever dream, unable to put down. I brought it with me everywhere, hoping for a few moments on the train, at the public pool, waiting for a takeout order—desperate to read. The characters in The Rabbit Hutch are desperate as well: they are desperate to be known and be understood, desperate to escape their circumstances and desperate to find peace right where they are. Vacca Vale is a deeply American setting, a Rust Belt town since abandoned by the car manufacturers that put it on the map. The inhabitants of the Rabbit Hutch love it and loathe it, long to escape and can’t see a way out.
I talked to Gunty on the phone about centering narratives in the Midwest, the challenges of a novel of this breadth, and the ways narratives about crisis and entrapment come to define us.
Bekah Waalkes: I’m from the Midwest as well—a Rust Belt town that is far past its heyday—and I really resonated with how you wrote Vacca Vale. The Midwest—especially the post-industrial Midwest—is rarely the setting for a novel of literary fiction, but it’s a perfect setting for The Rabbit Hutch, an embodiment of desperation and love and complacency, all wrapped up in each other. Why did you choose to set The Rabbit Hutch in a declining town in the Midwest, and what’s your own relationship with the Midwest like?
Tess Gunty: Well, it was for precisely the reason that you already mentioned, which is that there is a real dearth of narratives that are out there, even though it’s home to millions of people. And growing up, I loved to write fiction for fun, and I never set anything I wrote in a town like my own because I just never saw it done. And so I thought, fiction just doesn’t take place in the Rust Belt. And then as I got older, I realized that the relative lack of these narratives was a very good reason to contribute one. And I think it’s especially important to me not just because it’s underrepresented, but because I think the Rust Belt is the place where many American crises, or at least crises that we think of as American, are so visible there. And there are very few sorts of forces in place to resist them. Whereas I think in in cities like Los Angeles and New York, where I’ve lived, it’s not that those problems don’t exist, but it is true that I think there’s more structural resistance to them or even just efforts to conceal them.
BW: I do think the way you write about climate change and the coming climate apocalypse is very spot on. Many of these forces are affecting the Midwest in ways that are so different to people who live on the coasts, who are often writing the stories we’re reading.
TG: Yes, you don’t hear about what’s going on in the Midwest. I mean, climate change is really affecting every single part of the country and the world. And yet, you know, I modeled the floods in the book on two floods that happened in South Bend, Indiana, my hometown, back to back. I think it was like a 1000-year flood and a 500-year flood that happened within one or two years of each other. And that never happened when I was growing up. And it was one of those symptoms of climate change that was kind of rarely identified as such.
BW: Blandine is one of the most haunting characters I’ve read in a long time. The novel begins with her exiting her body, and we see very vividly how this came to pass. I’m wondering how her love of the mystics and martyred saints changes how Blandine sees her own body. Her obsession with Hildegarden of Bingen is totally a part of this, but even writers like Simone Weil and Julian of Norwich seem to be inflecting her thinking.
TG: Yeah, that’s really true. And I mean, I think maybe at the outset I should say that a lot of mystics, you know, female Catholic mystics, had very troubled relationships with their bodies. I think you can see a lot of disordered eating and kind of just hatred of flesh in their work. And so I would never lift them up as an example of what kind of relationship you should aspire to have with your body. But I do think for Blandine, who for reasons in the book, kind of suggests and then also explores a little bit more directly in some places, she has never been made to feel at home in her body. And I think it kind of relates to your question about home, because she has been so structurally vulnerable and because she’s female, she has received so much sexual and physical violence. By the time that we meet her, she feels that her body has attracted very unwanted attention from pure strangers, and from people she knows. And that kind of attention has never been welcome to her. It’s made her feel kind of horribly visible and yet totally invisible at the same time, which I think is a feeling that a lot of women can identify with, even if you haven’t had, you know, a particularly traumatic experience. And so I think for her, there’s no way. There’s no way for her. She sees no way to feel at home in her body. And so to encounter the writings and the thinking of these women who found a sort of escape hatch from the body and found some ways to transcend their physical realities. And obviously, all of their writings really vary. And in some cases, the kind of obliteration of the self requires going in deep into the self first. I think Blandine finds comfort in the idea of transcendence, of transcending the physical realm altogether.
BW: I wondered what the character of the mother, Hope, who is afraid of her baby’s eyes is doing in the novel. The lives of everyone who lives in the Rabbit Hutch are so braided together, but Hope and her husband seems like they’re on their own little track. And it’s quite hopeful—she doesn’t intersect much with Blandine and Joan and the incident. How does her story change the trajectory of The Rabbit Hutch?
TG: So the chapter “The Flood” was one of the few that I wrote after I had acquired the book, and I was editing it with John Freeman, the editor, and he pointed out that the novel needed some more touches of light, just a few. And he didn’t, you know, he didn’t want to do an overhaul of the darkness, but he wanted a few more touches of light and hope within the book. And he was so right about that.
I mean, it’s sort of like the composition of a painting where if you if everything is in shadow, you can’t see what you’re depicting. And I do think that moments of hope and joy and pleasure end up making the tragedy more tragic. And also the darkness makes the levity more meaningful. You can have small moments of joy that end up feeling kind of ecstatic within the context of the book because it’s such a such a relief. And so I was thinking originally when I had written Hope’s character was about a entrapment, a kind of psychological entrapment. I think this is a book about various forms of entrapment. And so it was important for me to represent mental illness of various kinds. And also I was thinking a lot about motherhood and what it means to bring a life into a dying city and a couple’s world. And I think that Hope’s phobia of her baby’s eyes is sort of a manifestation of an anxiety about bringing someone into a troubled, damaged world. So when she has the scene with her husband at the motel, I wanted to show a moment of freedom and a moment of home, as we were talking about earlier. Within this sort of storm of mental illness or various other concerns that she has to deal with. You know, she’s obviously living in a low-income building. She doesn’t work anymore. You can kind of tell that they’ve been financially strained. To me, it’s important to represent these moments of love and connection within the storm. Because without them, what are you fighting for? The apocalypse is only tragic if there’s something to lose. And so it was important to me to show what there was to lose.
BW: It’s kind of a radical model for a novel—an apartment building of people in their own orbits, sometimes coming into contact but also not. The chapters “All Together Now” and “Altogether, Now” bring every apartment into conversation, showing everyone’s little idiosyncrasies and individual loneliness next to everyone else. Your novel has its own architecture that brings people together. And yet, one of the epigraphs to The Rabbit Hutch comes from a woman from Roger and Me, detailing how rabbits have to be separated, or the males will castrate each other. How do you think about the peril and promise, even the violent potential, of being in proximity with others? Of being known?
TG: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what I was thinking about when I was writing. What is the violence of this forced proximity and what is the possibility that this forced proximity offers?
I grew up in a neighborhood in South Bend where my house was eight feet away from the house next to mine. And I was very good friends with my neighbor. We were dealt completely different hands at birth. And it always struck me, especially as we grew older and sort of apart, it struck me how you could live so close to someone whose life was so different from yours. It wasn’t a meritocracy. No one had done anything to earn their lot. We just were dealt these hands. And that struck me in my neighborhood generally, just because I think my neighborhood was full of people who came from really [different backgrounds]. It was a neighborhood full of either like people associated with the University of Notre Dame (and those people tended to have access to resources and opportunities) and then people who had been there for generations—and had been really, really failed by the economy and couldn’t just transition into a job at Notre Dame, which is now the major employer of the town after the automobile industry closed in the ’60s.
So when I heard that line in Roger and Me, it seemed to me such a poignant illustration of horizontal violence: like we really want to kill the cage that we’re trapped in, but we can’t. And so we attack each other. And this was also dramatized when I was living in New York, in Crown Heights, and in this kind of dilapidated apartment building full of people who had been really failed. A lot of people have been there for a long time and they were in rent stabilized apartments that were condemned and like catching on fire. But they couldn’t afford to have them renovated because then their rent stability would disappear. And you could hear people’s lives playing out like radio plays around you, and yet you knew nothing about them. And that just constantly struck me as so odd. And if there’s any kind of hope in the book, or even in my own psychology, it’s the immediate community. Local efforts joining forces with their community and then waking up to the fact that we’re all very interdependent is the only way to resist these colossal, unstoppable forces like climate change and unregulated capitalism.
BW: Speaking of community, it’s striking that Blandine thinks of the contemporary mystic as someone who is fundamentally in community—she can’t get past the “fundamental selfishness” of Catholic female mystics, that they see “solitude as a precondition of divine receptivity.” She wants to break out of this model, to “break out of her solitude.” Yet Blandine does live a solitary life, especially to the boys she shares Apartment C4 with. And I was struck by how we can live so closely to people—within feet of them—without knowing them at all. What kind of world, what kind of community, does Blandine and The Rabbit Hutch imagine? What kinds of things do we owe to each other?
TG: I think that’s the question that the book is asking, and I’m not sure if it provides any answers. But I do think that locating your faith in the sort of awareness of each other’s reality, I think that’s the first step towards any kind of change. We do live in a world where chain collisions are happening all the time on a macro scale. And you can see our emissions and industrialized countries are causing people in Bangladesh to be displaced, even though Bangladesh has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world. I think that the kind of cause and effect and chain reactions that happen on a global scale can sometimes be so vast and so complex. They’re hard to process, but ones that you can look at and become alert to are the ones that are happening in your immediate surroundings. And so I’m not sure if the book imagines a different community. I think it what it imagines is the members of that community are waking up to each other, taking an interest in each other’s welfare, especially when that person’s welfare might require you to sacrifice something. Like the revitalization efforts that are happening in Vaca Valle funding. Blandine’s primary critique of it is that she doesn’t see her community reflected in the team that’s revisioning the city. It’s, you know, a group of white men from outside of her city. I do think if there’s any kind of hope for these for these places, not just in the Rust Belt, but I think all around the world, in the forgotten cities that have been failed over and over again, it is that any change has to be led by the community itself and by a very diverse coalition of people within it.