By Emma Riva
People in Pittsburgh will tell you where things are based on what used to be there. Most of the time, the landmark that used to be there is food related. A fancy seafood restaurant. An ice cream shop. In a small city, those are the sorts of things people remember. To out-of-towners, this might seem like a quaint practice, but something I’ve come to realize is that it is a profoundly human one.
As a fiction writer, I often find myself navigating the complicated narrative of how our memories and associations of the past interact with our experiences of the present. I look at a candle and think of my favorite candle store in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, which I went to for the first time because I couldn’t use the bathroom on the Y46 bus and I bolted in not expecting them to have a restroom, but they did. The candle reminds me of my desire to go back there, of the friends I know in Elizabeth. All of this interacts with the energy of the place, the former boating hub, the Monongahela River Valley that built Lewis and Clark’s boat. All of that comes from the split second of looking at a burning wick.
Tess Gunty’s 2022 debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, is a master class in this mixture of memory and present, owing in part to its setting within the Rust Belt. The novel’s setting of Vacca Vale, Indiana, is a facsimile of her hometown of South Bend, though she’s fictionalized a car manufacturer named Zorn as the ghost of industry haunting the town’s abandoned structures. “I wanted to be able to pull from Gary, Ind., and Flint, Mich., and Youngstown, Ohio, and a number of other cities in the Rust Belt whose economic devastation was much worse, I think, than it was in South Bend when Studebaker closed,” Gunty said in an interview with the South Bend Tribune.
The Rabbit Hutch is a genre-bending work that follows a cast of characters who all live in an affordable housing complex called La Lapiniére, nicknamed “The Rabbit Hutch.” Its central character is Blandine Watkins, née Tiffany, an eccentric former foster youth obsessed with Christian mystics to the point where she changed her own name to a martyred French woman’s. But the book switches between the past and the present and between the perspectives of different residents of the apartment complex, including one of Blandine’s roommates, another former foster youth who serves as an omniscient narrator for several parts of the book which foreshadow some horror described as Blandine “leaving her body.” Though the characters’ Vacca Vale has its echoes of Gunty’s own South Bend, it’s an imaginary future where the University of Notre Dame didn’t fill the gaps in South Bend left behind by Studebaker. Here’s what Gunty’s characters say of Vacca Vale, while stoned and watching a commercial for a new apartment complex, much nicer than the titular complex they live in:
“Vacca Vale, Welcome Home,” scoffed Todd, but he looked sort of emotional to me. “What the hell kind of slogan is that?” “More like—Vacca Vale: Don’t Touch the Rust,” said Malik. “Vacca Vale: Excuse Me, Sir, Are You Lost?” I added. “Vacca Vale: We’ll Clean That Up in the Morning,” said Todd. We laughed. We warmed. We didn’t know who we were trying to impress. “Vacca Vale,” joked Malik. “We Used to Make Cars Here!” “Vacca Vale: Where the Churches Outnumber the Humans.” “Vacca Vale: Where the Rabbits Outnumber the Churches.” “Vacca Vale: At Least You Can Still Fuck Here.”
For many in the literary publishing world Gunty has ascended into, the Rust Belt is only a feeling, not a region. It’s an image from the movie Flashdance or a short chapter in a history textbook. So, it’s important to define what it is exactly we’re talking about when we say “the Rust Belt.” There’s some confusion among people who don’t live here about the categorical differences between the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and the Midwest. Pittsburgh and Buffalo aren’t exactly in the Midwest, but they’re still in the Rust Belt. The map in the Encyclopedia Brittanica looks like a gasoline blotch on a sidewalk or an oddly shaped hickey.
It’s a region defined by things which used to be there, sites of innovation and excess then turned to rot, now home to … what? Those of us who live there will be familiar with the exchange that takes place in one scene of The Rabbit Hutch. Blandine and Jack get into a heated argument in the loft of a real-estate developer who plans to “revitalize” their city. Blandine complains about how the real estate development is ruining Chastity Valley, one of her favorite parts of the city, and Jack shoots back:
“Look,” says Jack. “I know what you want me to say. You want everyone to hate the Valley plan as much as you do. But I just don’t. A lot of people are excited about it, and I think you’re being sort of judgmental and shortsighted. I mean, a lot people say it’s going to help our economy and make jobs and stuff. And I’ve only met him a couple of times, but Pinky doesn’t seem that bad. From what I’ve heard, he grew up poor, he knows what it’s like not to have what you need, and now he wants to help Vacca Vale get out of the gutter. Sure, he’s making money off it. But so what, if it helps people at the end of the day? We need to get out of the gutter.”
Gunty then notes: “In the ensuing silence, Blandine spots a camera, situated atop a thick book called Rust Belt: The Second Coming.” There is much reference to Catholicism in The Rabbit Hutch, and “the Second Coming” refers to resurrection, that most American of impulses. It’s no coincidence that the nature park to be bulldozed for the buildings is called Chastity Valley. But The Rabbit Hutch is no hollow anti-gentrification plea.
From having grown up in New York, I have a keen and nuanced understanding of gentrification and the ways in which contemporary activism often ignores its tangled nature. The Rabbit Hutch frames the Chastity Valley developments and the so-called “revitalization” of Vacca Vale as part of a meditation on the uncomfortable truth about change. One of the most gutting lines in the book is: “Six months after Tiffany/Blandine had submitted her court papers, proof of birth and $210, she discovered that the name Blandine is Latin for ‘mild,’ while Tiffany is Greek for “Manifestation of God.’” I, too, went through long stretches of hating my own name, wanting to replace it with something more elegant and powerful. In those lines, Blandine reveals how, though her activism comes from a genuine love for Vacca Vale, there’s a deeper hypocrisy and insecurity there. Though she wants Vacca Vale to retain its grit, the scars that give it character, she is unable to deal with her own scars, to the point where she threw away her own name for a fantasy.
There is much more to talk about in The Rabbit Hutch, and the only way to truly experience all of it is to read it for yourself. But here are a few sneak peeks. There’s the death of an aging child star and the vengeance of her bitter, angry son—another scar of the past opened into a wound. There’s the woman who moderates content on a site for obituaries, who spurns that son by deleting his callous comment on his mother’s obituary—a marker of the absurdity of how we deal with loss.
The Rabbit Hutch is all about people on the margins, people who are orphaned by society in some way, regardless of their age or their circumstances. In the contemporary publishing industry, there’s a certain obsession with “marginalized” or “underrepresented” identities. It feels like a reduction, like generational oppression is a badge of suffering for coastal publishing executives to give out to those poor, unfortunate souls in quote-unquote Middle America. I’m perhaps one of the people Blandine and her friends might laugh at, who traded New York for this strange, desolate place. But I know exactly how Blandine feels about Chastity Valley, because I watched my childhood public library in Washington Heights get bulldozed to make space for an “affordable” housing complex with a supposed library inside of it, the skeleton of which now looms over Broadway like a dying animal. I know exactly how it feels to not care how many people get to live in that building or how many families get to make nicer dinners because of the paychecks the developer creates, because connecting to a sad, poor place makes you feel like your suffering matters in some grand story of socio-economic distress.
In the same conversation, above, Jack says to Blandine: “’I’m not judging you.’ The tenderness in his expression catches Blandine off guard, makes the room glitter vertiginously. ‘I just want to know what happened to you.’”
What happened to you? I hate the passive voice. As a literature tutor, my screed to my students is that passive voice makes them sound less confident. I don’t say weak but the implication is there. And of course, there are political and emotional implications. We’ve all heard mistakes were made or I was assaulted. Of course, it’s an important step in reclamation of your life and accountability to say You made mistakes or He assaulted me. But in modern American language, we are profoundly uncomfortable with the passive voice even when we overuse it. Being scarred by your history is a hard thing to admit. You have to admit that things affected you. That (how terrible to admit!) they damaged you. That (even worse!) you are damaged. The Rust Belt is one big, glaring scar of affectation and damage. Its very name is spoil and decay. We spend a lot of our lives teaching ourselves not to be affected by things. In The Rabbit Hutch, what Blandine seeks when she wants to leave her body, is truly to feel instead of simply to suffer.
The Rabbit Hutch, winner of the 2022 National Book Award for fiction, is available from Penguin Random House or wherever books are sold.
Emma Riva is an author and art writer living and working in Pittsburgh. She serves as the managing editor of UP, an international online and print magazine covering street art, graffiti, fine arts, and their intersections in popular culture. She is also a staff writer at regional magazine Belt and a contributor to Pittsburgh-based art criticism site Bunker Review. You can find out more about her on her website and her Instagram and order her book Night Shift in Tamaqua wherever books are sold.
Rebecca here, with huge thanks to Emma for her fascinating review.
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