04 November 2019
BUNNY IS ABSOLUTELY NOT COMPLETELY FINE
Meet the antiheroine of 2019: Bunny, an acerbic, mordantly witty, and clinically depressed writer who is sick to the back teeth of – well, everything, really, but especially New Year’s Eve, the holiday of forced fellowship, mandatory fun, and paper hats. But still here she finds herself, at a dinner with a group of particularly irritating friends, and it’s really no wonder that this leads to a pivotal moment that lands her in the psych ward of a prestigious New York hospital.
An unputdownable, at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking novel with a heroine you will fall in love with (see reader reviews such as ‘I adored Bunny’ and ‘I wanted to continue on Bunny’s journey with her’), we want to recommend Rabbits for Food to everyone who’s ever felt like they might be difficult to love.
Rabbits for Food is out on 14th November.
Read an extract below.
WAITING FOR THE DOG
THE DOG IS LATE, AND I’m wearing pajamas made from the same material as Handi Wipes, which is reason enough for me to wish I were dead. I’m expecting this dog to be a beagle, a beagle dressed in an orange dayglow vest the same as the orange dayglow vests worn by suitcase-sniffing beagles at the airport. To expect that the do-gooder dog will be the same breed of dog wearing the same outfit worn by narco-dogs no doubt reveals the limitations of my imagination.
On the opposite wall from where I sit is the Schedule of Activities board. The board is white, and the Activities are written in black marker across a seven-day grid. Seven days, just in case I want to plan ahead, map out my week. Next to the board is the clock, one of those schoolroom-type clocks, which moves time as if through sludge. That’s it. There’s nothing else to look at other than the blue slipper-socks on my feet. Shoes with laces are Not Allowed. Other shoes Not Allowed are shoes with high heels or even kitten heels, as if a kitten heel could do damage, which is why I’m wearing the blue slipper-socks. Slipper-socks with rubber chevrons on the soles. Chevrons are V-shaped, but the V is upside-down. The slipper-socks also come in dung-colored brown.
A partial list of other things Not Allowed includes: pencils, nail clippers, laptops, cell phones, vitamins, mouthwash, and mascara.
It doesn’t take long to grow bored by my slipper-socks, and I turn my attention back to the clock. The second hand stutters, ffffffifty-one, ffffffifty-two. A watched pot never boils. My mother used to say that, that a watched pot never boils. Also, every cloud has a silver lining, tomorrow is another day, and time heals all wounds. Words of comfort that invariably resulted in a spontaneous combustion of rabid adolescent rage. One of the nurses, the tall one, tall and skinny, gangly not graceful—Ella, her name is Ella—walks by, and then as if she’d forgotten something, she pauses, pivots and retraces her steps. “Mind if I join you?” she asks. To sit on the bench, Ella has to fold herself as if her arms and legs were laundry.
In stark contrast to the rest of her, Ella’s head is round like a ball; bigger than a baseball and smaller than a basketball, but that’s the shape. Exactly like a ball. She’s like a stick figure come to life, having stepped out from that ubiquitous Crayola crayon-on-paper drawing, the one with the three stick figures and a tree and a square house with a triangular roof set like a hat at a jaunty angle. From the upper left-hand corner, a giant yellow sun warms this lopsided two-dimensional world. No doubt it’s some standard developmental thing, that most children draw the same crap picture at the same crap-picture stage of life. Except for the prodigies and the children who are already fucked up. With the fucked-up ones you get a different picture, something along the same lines, but with the house on fire or the stick figures missing their heads. The prodigy, as young as the age of four, will draw a split-level house with gray shingles, and in the foreground, beneath a maple tree in autumn, a dog frolics in a pile of leaves. I know this for a fact because my sister, the older one, Nicole, was a prodigy in art although later she did not live up to her potential, assuming there was potential and her talent was not one of those things kids simply outgrow, the way my younger sister, the third of us three girls, was born with allergies to milk and wool among other things, which she outgrew at puberty.
Ella and I sit here on the bench as if the two of us are in this together, as if we are both waiting for the dog, but then Ella says, “You know what, hon? I don’t think the dog is coming today.” Ella calls everyone “hon.” I’m not special, which is one of the things that about kills me from the hurt of it, that I’m not special.
And worse than the hurt of not being someone special is the shame of it, the shame of how much I want that, to be someone special.
A Q&A WITH BINNIE KIRSHENBAUM
Our Senior Marketing Manager Flora Willis interviewed Binnie Kirshenbaum for our newsletter – scroll down to read the Q&A. Sign up to our newsletter here.
Hi Binnie! I’m excited to be quizzing you on Rabbits For Food because I’m in love with this book. Or, more specifically, with the protagonist, Bunny, a whip-smart, black-humoured forty-three-year-old woman who has depression. Why did you decide to write about mental health?
It wasn’t so much a decision as it was inevitability. There’s a genetic strain on my mother’s side of the family, myself included, that predisposes us to bouts of severe depression and the occasional burst of mania. My grandmother was often “tired,” and one of my aunts, who was a professor of rhetoric, went way out of her mind and underwent ECT, which was effective insofar as she returned to sanity. Perfectly fine, no flatline, no memory loss except for her field of study. She couldn’t tell you what a comma was. Also, half my friends carry around their daily meds in throat lozenge tins.
When the novel opens we join Bunny in the psych ward of a hospital, waiting for the Pet Therapy dog. How did you research the workings of psychiatric hospitals?
I did have some first-hand knowledge. Twelve or thirteen years ago, I spent a brief time in a psych ward, but I didn’t want Bunny’s experience to be based all that much on my experience. I spoke with other people I know who’d done a stint in a psych ward about how it was for them. I went online and found that quite a few institutions have websites that are similar to websites for a week at spa. The bulk of my research was about ECT. Online, the data and opinions from the psychiatric community were enthusiastic, asserting new precision and the only possible side effect was short-term memory loss, which would return within a few months. Testimonials were glowing. Then, I spoke with three psychiatrists and a neurologist who were dead-set against it. What took the longest time to find out was how the procedure was performed. I had to go to a medical library for that.
Rabbits for Food is a bittersweet novel, at once heartbreaking and very funny. Why do you think humour works so well in a novel about such serious themes?
If we don’t find a way to laugh, how do we face the day? I don’t mean that we laugh at suffering, but we do laugh at the absurdities and stupidities associated with suffering. Right now, it is the stand-up comics who are the getting us through the daily horrors of Trump and what he has wrought. And so much of what is comedy, has an element of tragedy to it. Why was Charlie Chaplin slipping on a banana peel funny? Why would we laugh at humiliation? Some of the best comedians rise from oppressed peoples. And telling the kind of truth that social grace tells us not to tell is often very funny, which is why Bunny is funny. (She’d hate the rhyme.)
I’ll never forget the pivotal scene: the New Year’s Eve dinner party, when Bunny and her husband, Albie, go to a restaurant with a group of intensely irritating friends. Why did you set this scene on New Year’s Eve?
I’ve always thought that the way New Year’s Eve is celebrated guarantees a let down. The pressure is on to have fun. Fun, when it’s demanded of us, results in our faking fun, which is depressing. It’s like one of those holiday cruise ships. New Year’s Eve can’t live up to the hype of itself. Restaurants are too crowded. People drink too much, they do things they regret in the morning, and there is vomit on the street. Every New Year’s Eve party I ever went to, come midnight, invariably I’d be standing next to the last person in the world I’d ever want to kiss. It’s been a long time since I last went out on New Year’s Eve.
Without giving anything away, you write a perfectly pitched sub-plot about Bunny’s partner, Albie. Was it important to you to try and tell the story of those close to someone with a mental illness?
Mental illness, like other kinds of pain—a toothache, for example—will often bring about a kind of narcissism because it is difficult, if not impossible, to focus on anything but the pain. As a result, those who are close to the mentally ill person will often suffer more than the mentally ill person does. Despite how Bunny can be difficult and unpleasant under the best of circumstances and, of course, at this time in her life she’s far more difficult and unpleasant, I wanted Albie to sincerely love her. But I didn’t want him to be a martyr or pitiful. To do that, I had to give him a life separate from Bunny. It allowed him to cope, but it didn’t make him love her any less.