How An L.A. Writer Distilled American Hope And Despair Into Summer’s Big Literary Debut

Image: Penguin Random House


Seven years ago, when Tess Gunty began to write her debut novel, “The Rabbit Hutch,” she was 23, living in New York and experiencing a constant barrage of catcalls when she walked down the street.

She felt, she says, “like a deer living in hunting grounds.” As if her flesh didn’t belong to her. To cope, she would dissociate. “I started to feel this sort of alienation from my body,” says Gunty, now 29. “I started to feel like I had to leave my body in order to get to my next destination.”

“The Rabbit Hutch,” out next Tuesday, opens with the protagonist literally exiting her body. Blandine Watkins, a brilliant and striking 18-year-old fresh out of the foster care system, lies bleeding on the floor of her apartment. “[S]he has spent most of her life wishing for this to happen,” the narrator clarifies. “The agony is sweet.”

It’s a powerful and brutal opening to a powerful and brutal book, brimming with dark and funny lines as it ranges, like Blandine’s purgatorial spirit, over the fictional town of Vacca Vale, Ind., along with a bizarre cast of characters who reside in the La Lapiniére Affordable Housing Complex, also known as the Rabbit Hutch.

Entangled in Gunty’s kaleidoscopic plot are Hope, a young mother afraid to look into her baby’s eyes; middle-aged singleton Joan Kowalski, whose job is to screen online obituary comments; Elsie Blitz, a former child star who publishes her own obituary; Moses, Elsie’s traumatized and unstable adult son; and roommates Jack, Todd and Malik, Blandine-obsessed teenage boys who devise a cruel, lethal game in an attempt to woo her. Gunty’s true subject, though, is a land of loneliness, squandered potential and exploitation that feels uniquely American — and also the human interconnections and strokes of luck that can help us survive it.

It’s hard, at first glance, to square the author of this web of torment, mayhem and ecstatic visions with the calm, humble woman in a white-collared black dress who sits across from me on the patio of Botanica Restaurant in Silver Lake, where she lives with her partner. But then, gradually, existential dread bubbles up in a conversation about her novel, New York, Los Angeles, the Midwest and loneliness. Between interruptions from honking cars and clattering semis, she confesses she is sometimes consumed with crippling anxiety.

When I ask what gets her out of bed every morning, she offers two responses. “My cats begging for food,” she says, laughing. She adores Fiona and Tello (short for Donatello). Then she pivots to curiosity and the radical lessons of the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil.

“I feel most alive when I’m learning, and I feel most alive when I’m immersing myself mentally in something I don’t understand or that’s very new to me,” Gunty says.

She quotes a line from Weil’s essay “Attention and Will”: “To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do — that is enough, the rest follows of itself.”

Gunty thinks about that line a lot in relation to the experience of being a human among others, including the creatures of the natural world.

“Every pain they feel is as real as your pain, every joy is as real as yours, and I do think that if you can really, truly believe that of everyone you meet and everyone you don’t meet, you are just naturally drawn to kindness,” she says.

It’s a philosophy at Blandine’s core. Orphaned and abused by the people and systems that failed her, she holds almost no structural power but possesses a strong moral force to resist them: She rants about the horrors of capitalism and violence against women, and when an urban revitalization project threatens to destroy a beloved park, she protests a developers’ meeting with voodoo dolls and fake blood.

Blandine, who is obsessed with martyred saints, is the heroine Gunty always wanted to see — not just as a child, but now, as an adult.

“I think she’s an extremely principled person who is interested in acting on her principles, without performing, and finding ways to make her immediate environment a more just place,” Gunty says. “I don’t think anything she does is guaranteed to work and she knows that … and yet she resists anyway, and that is extremely hopeful to me.”

Vacca Vale is a former epicenter of car manufacturing gone to rot; it feels like a microcosm of American decline — and a victim, to Gunty, of so many of the country’s problems: structural racism, housing scarcity, climate change and on and on. “Lately and increasingly I feel a very visceral dread about poorly regulated capitalism,” she admits. “I do think that almost every major crisis that America is facing right now is enabled and worsened by the extraction economy.”

Floating in and out of the characters’ thoughts can make for a dizzying reading experience. Gunty’s friend, Crystal Powell, felt a similar way whenever the author spoke up in their New York University master of fine arts program.

“It’s an iconic Tess move,” Powell said, “the non-sequitur question.” Gunty would raise her hand and ask “something completely out of left field” — channeling the conversation in unexpected directions.

“It’s one of the things that made me fall in love with her,” Powell added. “Whenever I think of Tess, I’m like ‘What happens in her mind?’ because she sees things other people don’t see. She has such a density of thought that I can’t even begin to comprehend.”

There are two ways of recounting Gunty’s life so far. In one version, she is a natural-born storyteller, making up stories as a toddler, emerging by dint of raw talent from a low-income area of postindustrial South Bend, Ind., to study with some of the most influential writers and editors in New York. The other version of the story is that she was lucky and had a lot of help. This is the one she prefers to tell.

From a young age, Gunty was keenly aware of the socioeconomic disparities of her hometown, one inspiration for Vacca Vale. Because her mother was an art teacher at a Catholic high school, Gunty attended the expensive school for free.

“In the context of my neighborhood, I felt almost embarrassed sometimes by the awareness of the uneven distribution of luck at birth and the fact that everyone is dealt a hand, and it doesn’t seem like the same deck of cards produces each hand,” she says.

In the novel, Blandine is precocious — tragically so; it makes her a target. As a kid, Gunty was too; before she could spell she enjoyed drawing and narrating stories to her father, who would transcribe them.

But she adds that it was a friend’s gift that inspired her to start writing stories as early as age 3 or 4. “She was really incredible at writing, even when we were children,” Gunty recalls. “Especially as a child, when you see another child accomplishing something great that you think only adults can do, it’s extremely motivating.” Her friend’s mother would assign the children writing prompts, and her love for the craft flourished.

Gunty was fortunate too to have a father who worked at Notre Dame: Tuition was free. “I never would have chosen to stay in my hometown if I had a choice,” she says, laughing. She considered becoming a journalist, but the school didn’t offer a program, so she studied creative writing. In some ways, writing fiction “was a fate that was decided by accident.”

After graduating, she immediately fled the Midwest to pursue an MFA. It was in New York that she discovered she wasn’t really alone. “Obviously you don’t want anyone to suffer, but it’s a great comfort to be surrounded by people who also find the daily chore of inhabiting a consciousness to be demanding and difficult and sometimes insurmountably hard.”

John Freeman, an editor at Knopf who taught a course on building stories at NYU, remembers that Gunty listened in class more than she spoke.

“But when she did say something in class, it had the force of a revelation,” he said. “She has the ability to look at both the structure of a book and its meaning at the same time, and I was just really blown away by her narrative intelligence.”

Later, when Freeman went on to read “The Rabbit Hutch” and eventually become its editor, he was “dazzled” by Gunty’s range of voices and her “ability to write on the spirit level while also writing about urban decay. ... I think it’s unusual, to put it mildly, that a book with such dazzling architecture and depth of spiritual insight should come at the very beginning of a writer’s life, so I can only imagine what’s going to come next for her. It fills me with a great anticipatory happiness.”

Jonathan Safran Foer is another admirer. “Tess writes with generosity. Despite the overflowing offerings, it is not anxious, and not out to prove the intelligence of its creator,” said the novelist, Gunty’s mentor and former NYU professor, in an email.

“It wouldn’t fit into the category of ‘hysterical fiction’ that [critic] James Wood defined a couple decades ago,” Foer says. “Rather, it is filled with a kind of infectious life-force. It fills a reader with joy and wonder.” (Wood coined “hysterical realism” in 2000 to critique ambitious novels teeming with intertwined, sometimes outlandish plots but inauthentic characters.)

In the years Foer has known Gunty, he has come to seek out her advice. “She is one of three people I go to when I need an idea that I can’t come up with on my own, when I am puzzled and seeking clarification about something in the world, when I simply want a wise opinion,” he added.

Elsie, the book’s former child star, writes in her auto-obituary: “Everything affects everyone.” If the novel had a thesis statement, that would be it, Gunty says. For all its dread and isolation, “The Rabbit Hutch” is a story about being simultaneously interconnected and interdependent, one whose ending forges a bond between two characters who believed they were alone.

After four years of toiling in New York, Gunty and her partner, an urban designer, moved to downtown Los Angeles in 2019. When the pandemic shutdown hit in 2020, they relocated to Silver Lake, mostly because she missed trees.

Just as she did that year, Gunty still spends most of her time around the Silver Lake Reservoir, walking along its edges or sitting in the meadow, reading and sketching ideas until either it’s too hot or she’s starving.

Then she walks home to eat, take care of the administrative tasks that come with publishing a book and, most important, write. And rewrite. She’s working on her second novel, “Honeydew,” which will be published next year.

She’s reluctant to say too much, but it will be structured as three novellas built around three characters, all strangers, who are affected by an event that binds them together.