Mental Trauma: On Binnie Kirshenbaum’s “Rabbits for Food”

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RABBITS FOR FOOD is Binnie Kirshenbaum’s first novel in 10 years, and it’s astounding. Her previous one, The Scenic Route, followed a divorced woman and a married man who meet in a cafe in Fiesole, Italy, and then travel the landscape of love through a grand geography tour of Europe. Its series of digressive narratives was a Two for the Road redux.

This time, Kirshenbaum, a professor in the MFA program at Columbia University, tracks the devastating exhumation of mental trauma from its onset to its shattering resolution.

Structurally, the novel falls into two distinct parts: one opens with a brief prelude to the setting of Part Two, the mental ward of a New York City hospital where the protagonist, Bunny, is confined after the life-altering events of the first section.

In that portion, like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses, Kirshenbaum details the events of one day and evening — New Year’s Eve, 2008.

Bunny, a 43-year-old successful, clinically depressed writer, and her 45-year-old husband, Albie, a zoologist at the Natural History Museum, live in an apartment that is “emblematic of the lack of maturity in the way [they] live their lives.”

It is 9:21 a.m. on a dull and dreary, blustery December 31. Snow is predicted; Bunny and Albie are scheduled to have dinner with two couples — Trudy and Elliot, Julian and Lydia, who are longtime friends. Afterward, the six are supposed to head off to an after-party at the Frankenhoffs (Lizzie Frank and Jack Hoffman). It’s been a four-year tradition — next to Thanksgiving — that Bunny loathes. She despises the “false gaiety, mandatory fun and that song” that “requires arm linking and swaying and it sentimentalizes friendship with an excessive sweetness.”

She doesn’t know it yet, but Bunny is not going to make it to midnight. She is not going to have to survive the “worst part of the night,” watching the ball drop in the “eyesore that is Times Square” from the Frankenhoffs’ 44th floor of a “vacuous building in an apartment with walls that are mostly windows.” That means obligatory mingling for an “interminable hour or two” with strangers. These are people who “define themselves by their professions: film producers, editors, architects, professors in theory-dominated English departments, neuroscientists, museum curators, something-in-the-theater and administrators for non-profit organizations.”

This year, Bunny “defines herself as nothing.” She is already running on empty with less than four hours sleep. Aspects of her anxiety have already surfaced. In addition to her sleeplessness, she has a disinterest in anything. It’s been over a week since she last showered or changed her T-shirt. She badgers Albie, continually. She is constantly weeping — a symptom resurfacing on a regular basis after she is hospitalized.

Despite Bunny’s trepidation and over her serious objections, by 6:00 p.m., she and Albie set off for the restaurant. Nothing good can come from the rest of the day. And it doesn’t.

The three couples convene at the Red Monkey, a restaurant that Julian has chosen. He is a freelance food critic and always takes it upon himself to select the dining accommodations. This is an Asian-fusion establishment well past its expiration date. Western silverware and black lacquered chopsticks are offered alongside napkins and white plates. For the festive evening, there are red party hats, “conical and dusted with gold glitter, and one of those party favors, the kind that unfurl like a snake’s tongue.”

Bunny wonders how long she can “sit at a table with five people engaged in a passionate discourse about balsamic vinegar, the answer to which turns out to be three seconds.” Even worse, she can’t imagine how long she can endure the dining room floor. It is made of “thick glass tiles […] where red, black and gold ornamental fish swim below and around lily pads.” It is all “too much.”

By 9:27, Bunny’s nerves are “jangling like bangle bracelets.” She has lost her ability to taste to the point where “all food is tofu.” One of the fishes in the floor is belly-up. The meal culminates in one of the most searing scenes in contemporary fiction. Bunny’s “knuckles turn white, and all she wants is for it to stop.” Her violent reaction to the evening propels the novel into Part Two, which slips into a Beckettian, Keseyesque mode.

For much of the second half of the novel (over 20 days), Bunny and the other patients are, like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, waiting. Waiting for a dog, as one form of therapy, with others including beauty, yoga, and arts and crafts. There are also a number of group therapies (MDD, BPD, OCD, eating disorders, phobias) listed on the Schedule of Activities board. For dog therapy: “You hang out with a dog. Pet him and stuff.”

However, as Vladimir and Estragon continue to wait for Godot, Bunny and her fellow patients anticipate the imminent arrival of the dog. It is an absurd existence. Comparisons to Kesey’s classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are unavoidable., but not simply because of the easy comparisons with the settings.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, rabbits have their own thematic prominence. They represent a particular element of the personalities of Kesey’s characters. One of them, Harding, says, “All of us here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees, hippity-hopping through our Walt Disney world […] we’re all in here because we can’t adjust to our rabbithood […] It’s not the rabbit’s place to stick up for his fellow.” He describes his fellows as rabbits “sans whambam,” the one discriminating trait that defines the furry beings. In Kirshenbaum’s novel, rabbits have their own significance, beginning with the origin of Bunny’s name.

The other direct through-line between Kesey and Kirshenbaum are the healing functions of laughter and tears. Randle McMurphy notices that nobody laughs around him. He asserts that “when you lose your laugh you lose your footing.” Laughter is also absent in Kirshenbaum’s novel. Bunny “can’t laugh” and is continually crying. She hears another character yowling with “a lachrymosity as cacophonous as a car crash.”

As in the Kesey novel, Rabbits for Food details daily routines and restrictions. Some items are Allowed, others Not Allowed. The difference between the categories is “the difference between a person and a crazy person.” Bunny’s cardigan sweater is Allowed; her bathrobe is Not Allowed (“what ties around the waist can tie around the neck”). Not Allowed: shoes with heels, black tights, a spiral-bound notebook and ballpoint pens. Allowed: Chapstick, sneakers (but no shoelaces). Albie takes home a red suitcase filled with the Not Alloweds, and when he visits bringing legal pads, pens, and Scotch tape, the tape is confiscated (“metal teeth on the dispenser”).

Meals are mandatory, and dinner is followed by visiting hours from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm. People are divided into groups. As Nurse Ratched oversees her domain in Kesey’s novel, Kirshenbaum’s tale has Nurse Kendall to regulates activities. An Underpants Man (who wears his underpants as outer pants) monitors phone calls. Patients are identified by their treatments, particularly those who succumb to ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). This is only one of the possible options to induce antipsychotic behavior. Others include doing nothing, trying an advised drug protocol with its own side effects, or relying on the preferred form of cognitive behavior therapy. Bunny’s initial resistance to all options leads to the Creative Writing exercises as approved on the Activities Board.

These become the prompts (of 300 words or less) that are the intercalary chapters of the novel. They are meant to “stimulate the creative process.” In a prompt “introduction,” Bunny makes lists of possible variants of her name (“Funny Bunny, Bunny Wabbit, Dumb Bunny, Bunny Lake Is Missing”). Other prompts (“A Shoebox”) elicit flashback memories of the trauma of being a middle child or describe what is supposed to be a “charming and quaint” meal with her mother being “hokey and fake” (“Two People Having Lunch”). By the end of Rabbits for Food, these prompts coalesce into what may be a novel Bunny is writing. Or perhaps, only what she is “thinking about writing [in] a novel.” Her Creative Writing therapist tells her, “You are not without talent […] You should think about becoming a writer.”

One of the remarkable achievements of Rabbits for Food is how Kirshenbaum manages to be clever in the midst of overwhelming despair. Because of her wit, the patently dour subject is not depressing; there is a great deal of humor, compassion, and sensitivity for the material. Readers will quickly commit to this extraordinary novel. Laser-sharp prose, compelling observations, and an engaging, sympathetic central figure conspire to make it a page-turner. Rabbits for Food is an impressive achievement. It should be read as soon as possible.

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Robert Allen Papinchak, a former university English professor, is a freelance book critic.