Having a little fun in the heart of darkness
Sometimes titles can give you clues as to what kind of reading experience you’re in for, and this one, for Binnie Kirshenbaum’s first book in a decade — “Rabbits for Food’’ — does just that. Yes, this is going to be a wounding narrative (rabbits are being eaten, after all), but it’s also wickedly astute and hilariously funny.
Kirshenbaum’s created Bunny, a 43-year-old writer who isn’t writing, who stands on the precipice of a nervous breakdown, despite her talent, and her solid marriage to Albie, a zoologist at a museum of natural history. She can’t eat, can’t sleep, or shower; she’s drowning in depression and crying. And then, on one fateful night, New Year’s Eve, 2009, at a dinner with friends, she loses her grip on both her ravioli and herself, and plunges the fork into her thigh.
Ending up in a mental institution for 19 days, Bunny struggles to survive. And this, dear readers, wraps up our description of plot and commences our discussion of why you should read this wonderful book anyway. For starters, Kirshenbaum’s a terrific tour guide through the institution, where Bunny’s not allowed pencils, nail clippers, or laptops, but can wear blue slipper socks. We meet the other patients (Bunny calls them lunatics, psychos, and loons), like Nina who yanks her hair out, or Underpants Man, who wears his underwear over his regular pants. There are the anorexics, catatonics, and depressives like Bunny, a whole grouping of people she both belongs to and doesn’t want to belong to at the same time.
Practically forced into doing some kind of activity as a part of therapy, Bunny chooses time with a service dog, and when the dog never appears, she takes creative writing, and that’s where this book achieves absolute genius.
The creative writing prompts are totally vanilla: “Describe a landscape (300 words or less),’’ but what Bunny does with them, scattered throughout the book, reveal the inner Bunny in astonishingly lucid, revealing, and heartbreaking ways. A prompt about Thanksgiving may seem innocent, but Bunny writes about how as a young person she stayed home one year from the family celebration, and when her own family returned, her sister gleefully told her that no one had missed her at all. Bunny’s response? She considers this her happiest holiday ever. Writing about a hat becomes a story about her parents visiting her at the hospital, but the asterisk at the end of her story belies a raw pain: Her parents never really came at all. Through her writing, Bunny sifts through what actually happened in her life and what didn’t, even as she explores herself and her reality in the present. She tells herself she’s just passing time writing, but we wise readers know better.
Most movingly, she somehow feels she deserves this turmoil of being in a mental hospital, and she’s sure that she’s unsympathetic and unpleasant. “I must have done something terrible. People don’t like me,” she says, but then she adds, in a moment of self-soothing, that “[p]eople who are not easy to like, they have feelings just like nice people do.” Bunny keeps showing us how Bunny, honest, raw, writing her life down, like pieces of broken glass, is willing to look clearly at the darkness, even if she doesn’t ever anticipate light, and that bravery, and her raw humor, makes her magnificent.
It makes sense that Kirshenbaum would write this book in present tense — the words, like Bunny’s feelings are immediate and raw. Kirshenbaum has Bunny address the reader (“You might ask: is she getting professional help? Does she see someone? . . . [A]nd it’s fair to say ‘Fat lot of good it’s done her.’ ” But she also occasionally moseys into Albie’s put of view, too, illuminating his struggle, because he loves his wife, but might be getting a little too cozy with his closest friend Muriel.
If you are going to enter the heart of darkness, you might as well enjoy it with Kirshenbaum’s fierce, funny, writing. When she discusses her earlier shrinks, she tells us she stopped seeing one because she can’t get past the facial hair. Another is also a no-go because it was a shrink who “felt Bunny’s pain more than she did, which she felt to be unfair.”
As Bunny’s time in the hospital goes on, there are meds she refuses, cognitive therapy she insists only morons find helpful, and the last ditch effort is, of course, reminiscent of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’’: electroconvulsive shock, an option with no definite promise of betterment. Kirshenbaum doesn’t give any easy answers to Bunny’s plight. Instead, Bunny simply and brilliantly lives, scribbling her story, experiencing her world in a mental institution with no sort of release date. Is this too sad? Well, Bunny tells herself, “This is not a true story. This is fiction.” Right. Like her writing prompts, can this kind of art save her? The answer, like everything in this funny, wise, brutally compassionate novel, is maybe.
By Binnie Kirshenbaum
SoHo Press, 384 pages $26
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Caroline Leavitt’s new novel With or Without You will be published by Algonquin Books in Summer 2020.