Mona Awad’s first novel, the prismatic and devastating 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, started working its way into me by the end of the second chapter. I’d been feeling awful for the protagonist, Lizzie—it’s hard not to. She seemed, to me, so vulnerable, so unaware, so needy. But then, a sharp shift happens: Lizzie suddenly seemed fully aware of her vulnerability’s pull, and starts using it, inverting and playing the power dynamic, making a fool of the drunken, failed musician who falsely believes he’s the center of her world. I broke out in a grin and thought, “This seems quite impish.” It’s one of the few times that book made me smile—the pedicure scene made me sob, and the ending is wonderfully mysterious and lonely.
Transformations, inversions, and longing are Awad’s specialty, and in her new novel, Bunny, the impish quality is turned on in full. Samantha Heather Mackey (what a name!) is the archetypal outsider at an exclusive east coast M.F.A. program. The program’s mean girl clique is cloying, referring to themselves and each other as “Bunny” (how perfect in its layers of meaning—cutesy and pagan at once), while they critique Sam’s work as being “in love with its own outsiderness.” Sam gets an invitation to join the Bunnies’ off-campus salon-style workshops. She drags her feet, but, of course, she can’t resist. The workshops quickly reveal themselves as literal magical coven meetings. In the name of their artistic “practice,” the women conjure broken humanoid men (who look sort of like “pre-TB Keats” or Tim Riggins or Dracula or James Dean)—pseudo boyfriends who they refer to as “drafts.” The Bunnies themselves are rendered in a hilarious mix of self-seriousness and cluelessness, giving and withholding pep talks throughout:
Bunny, we know you sometimes get depressed that your sister is this incredible neurologist in training or whatever … But then the day came when you went into your mother’s room and dragged her diamond ring across her vanity mirror … etching messages from the goddess of Wisdom … That was the day you started giving your special gift of you to the world. Sure your sister saves lives, Bunny, but you save souls with your diamond proems. And how many people can say that?
The first part of Bunny is a shifting, gleeful collage of cultural references and stereotypes. Then, the novel breaks and reforms its own logic, going deeper into the nature of creation, friendship, community, and the boundaries between reality and perception. The ending, which I won’t give away, has some achingly sad, and very real moments.
Mona and I met at a reading last March. After gushing a little at her, I asked if she’d like to do an interview over email.