Binnie Kirshenbaum, reading at Prairie Lights, offers an inside look at depression in ‘Rabbits for Food’

Reading: Binnie Kirshenbaum, ‘Rabbits for Food,’

Prairie Lights Bookstore — Monday, June 10 at 7 p.m.

Rabbits for Food, released last month, closed the decade-long wait for a new book from Binnie Kirshenbaum. Kirshenbaum will be reading at Prairie Lights on Monday, June 10 at 7 p.m. After falling deep into the pages of Rabbits for Food and not being able to stop for a breath (even when I needed one), I can relate to the readers who have been aching to hear from Kirshenbaum again.

Bunny, Kirshenbaum’s protagonist, is a writer in her 40s who lives in a New York City apartment with her husband, Albie. She is named for the rabbits her parents raised for food as she was growing up. Bunny is dealing with deteriorating mental health — perhaps part of the aftermath of her isolating childhood — that comes to a head on New Years Eve of 2008.

Following her breakdown, she is taken to a psych ward, where she refuses any of the recommended treatment options her doctors offer. The reader gets to see Bunny outside of the hospital, but also inside through her responses to creative writing prompts that take up her idle time.

New Years Eve seems to be the consequence of how Bunny has dealt with a question she has been asked her entire life by her friends and family: “And you wonder why no one likes you?” To the reader, she always elaborates, “No. I don’t wonder why.”

Reading Rabbits for Food was a relaxing experience despite the dark humor the subject matter and protagonist brought to the story. On the barest, aesthetically-focused level, the hardcover novel dons a gorgeous cover, featuring a brown rabbit with a beige and off-white color scheme which compliment the story inside it perfectly.

‘Rabbits for Food’ — Soho Press (May 7, 2019)

Being put inside Bunny’s mind is a gift for the reader. She thinks about doing or saying things as exhausted and depressed people often do, but then she actually says and does them. She tells her group of friends that she has no interest in their passionate debate about balsamic vinegar, sarcastically changing the subject to olive oil. When she is given gifts, she doesn’t pretend to enjoy them and isn’t kind when she doesn’t. Bunny is straightforward and daringly honest to anyone inside or outside the pages.

Bunny is not, however, a trustworthy or reliable narrator. Though the novel is narrated in third person, I got the strong sense we were still in Bunny’s mind. When she isn’t in the scene, her voice and deep-dark humor is still omnipresent, giving the feeling that what the reader was witnessing was filtered through Bunny’s mind first — and was perhaps pure speculation. Though it doesn’t matter if she is speculating: Bunny tells the reader her truth. Her story is still the same whether what impacts her is the objective truth or not.

Bunny is a female protagonist who shows us that we have more to learn about what a “real” woman is. After a long bout of fighting for women’s rights, women are given outs from being mothers or housewives, merely existing for others. Those outs typically include caring deeply about a career or friendships or a healthy romantic relationship. Women can stray away from tradition, but they still have to place their care into something.

Bunny doesn’t care, seemingly about anything other than being the driest, darkest comedic presence possible. Rabbits for Food shows us what the opposite of convention looks like, what a woman who would be so commonly disregarded as valid looks like. It also made me love her. I can’t recall another time I have seen a character like Bunny, and for that she inspires me. Bunny makes me laugh, and then regret laughing at a quip so inappropriate or cruel. She makes me think differently about what women are “allowed” to do in their lives in the process of healing or finding a path to take.

While Rabbits for Food has been compared to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in many Goodreads reviews and blog posts, I disagree and see little likeness between the two protagonists. Bunny and Esther are both writers, and both novels are set in New York, but that’s where the similarities end. Narration from the two are worlds different, in their circumstances, setting, humor and the way they discuss their own minds.

This proves what I take to be one of Kirshenbaum’s points; though her inspiration seems to lie in something similar to Plath’s, there are not two people, or characters, in the world who struggle in the same way. That being said, anyone who loved The Bell Jar and is a fellow Plath-obsessive would have a perfect pair of eyes for Kirshenbaum’s latest release.

Reading from the beginning of Rabbits for Food until the ominous end doesn’t feel like a rollercoaster as I had expected from reading intimate details about someone who is chronically depressed. Instead, it feels like how Bunny describes a shower after a period of static depression: “The transformation from rancid to clean, particularly after a stretch of feculence, is like being born again, minus Jesus.”

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