A REVIEW OF ALISHA PIERCY'S
BUNNY AND SHARK
BY SAMANTHA NELSON
The Rusty Toque | Issue 8 | Reviews | Fiction | June 30, 2015
Alisha Piercy's Bunny and Shark is both this and that. It's a juicy, eye-widening adventure and it's a fragmented, lyrical meditation on change. It's a story of one woman's transformation and yet we learn almost nothing about her. It's brief, rhythmic and fast-paced until two thirds in we're stuck at a painful standstill. This is how Piercy lures us in, and this is how she holds us back.
Piercy's novel follows the protagonist, Bunny, off a cliff and into thirteen days of exile, and wild, spiritual transition. Bunny is betrayed by her own husband, known only as The Bastard, and left for dead in the ocean, entirely alone on an island where she once belonged. Unsure of what to do or where to go, Bunny delays her fate by swimming to and from yachts and the island, hiding in crevices along the way. Here, Bunny is forced to deal with how she will rebuild her life. The reader learns early on that Bunny was already facing both exile and transition, as an ex-Playboy Bunny trying to maintain her lifestyle and seductive prowess despite wrinkles and weight-gain. The novel focuses heavily on Bunny's former identity and coming to grips with building a new one. These thirteen days snatch Bunny from her former life and violently force her to decide who she is.
The novel has a lot going for it: its fearless imagination, its brevity, and a few charming stylistic details, such as its characters' playful names: The Bastard, who throws Bunny off the cliff to begin with, and his friend Coke-Bottle. The format is also effective. Piercy divides the novel into thirteen chapters, each chapter covering the details of each day. Chapters are cheekily called Day One Dead, Day Two Dead, etc. A brief italicized description of each day's main events sits below each heading, simultaneously enhancing and mocking the drama of the story. The novel takes what you expect of a story about a Playboy Bunny and skews it, successfully adding dimensions to the themes of identity and transition.
Throughout the novel I oscillated between feeling overwhelmed, and feeling disgusted. By the end, this accumulated to an overall sensation of excess, surely Piercy's intention: a representation of Bunny's former life. That feeling was, of course, largely brought on by the overwrought drama of the plot. It was, however, also encouraged by constant descriptions of excess. We catch glimpses of sexy glamour and debauchery, but these depictions are rarely pleasing. What should be sparkly and erotic is, at best, off-putting and, at worst, grotesque. We never forget that Bunny is fat, because we are constantly reminded. She frequently stuffs her face with food, and her body into too-small clothing. We see prescription painkillers, lines of coke, drunkards and hangovers, violence, sex, and money, and Piercy has no interest in glamourizing it. Even in flashbacks to before the madness of Bunny's current situation, the experience is far from sexy. We hear about “[t]he raunch under your armpits and gathering in your underwear as you move through crowds of suits and their girlfriends.” Her work as a Bunny is reduced to living with accumulating body fluids. Piercy creates a distinct mood of gross extravagance through the constant portrayal of excess.
Piercy's direct portrayal of the vain struggle against ageing is an extension of the physical excess, and one that I appreciated. Of course, the identity that Bunny is losing and that the book centres so firmly on is largely represented by Bunny's fading looks. Still, Piercy boldly addresses it head-on. Bunny fixates on her diminishing attractiveness, longing to “be seen as an icon of the sexualized, available woman.” Looking at herself in the mirror, Bunny describes herself as having “transformed into everything a Playboy Bunny fears but strives to keep at bay. Wrinkles, pouches, white roots.” She then contemplates the fate of ageing Bunnies claiming that “nobody likes to say they were a Bunny once they’re old. Bunnies don’t admit to what they once were. Because then ageing gets measured ruthlessly. So they all go invisible and change their names until you can’t find them anymore.” This novel is an account of Bunny's own name-change as she ages out of the body of a Bunny.
Piercy avoids the expected, and contrasts the hedonism of a Playboy Bunny lifestyle and the ageing process with spirituality. Bunny's swimming is healing, the ocean a cocoon for her personal transition. Bunny repeatedly swims as though in a trance. The ocean makes her body strong. Her rhythmic movements are productive and significant, despite her having nowhere to be. Her angry, frantic thoughts are put to rest in favour of smooth, steady calm. Piercy effectively lingers here, providing needed breaks from the fast-paced drama, and facilitating Bunny's ultimate transformation.
This transition in Bunny becomes noticeable as the novel progresses. Bunny is largely static in her decision-making until almost midway through the novel. At this point, she starts to emerge, albeit without a plan, and begins to reject her former values. When a sympathetic acquaintance offers her money, Bunny turns it down, despite having none. This precedes Bunny going home with a man who reminds her of The Bastard, and violently attacking him and, in essence, her former life. Finally, she experiences a traumatic, physical transformation that simultaneously intensifies and relaxes the story.
The novel is ultimately an addictive read because of its content, but Piercy makes the excess hard to gorge on. The overwrought drama is cut with a poetic style, and often sliced into fragments. The juicy, dirty details are harder to grasp at when they’re described in quips or surrounded by numerous adjectives. On top of that, Bunny narrates the story in second person. Although difficult to get used to, the point of view works to lessen the distance between Bunny and the readers. I found that when focused, I was deeply involved in the action of the plot. When Bunny felt fat, I felt fat for her, and when Bunny was in shock, I was in shock with her. The combination of these stylistic choices also invariably suggest immediacy. For instance, when Bunny describes hiding out, she states that she is “[a]lmost used to it now. Crawl spaces. Hiding out. Waiting for the right moment. But to maintain your focus, you need to be on the move.” The reader feels in the moment with the action. This sensation is maintained throughout the novel. When Bunny gets a taste of her old lifestyle, she describes the sensation: “the single glass of wine in your system inspires you. The reawakening, the shivers the tinkle sounds give you: of diamonds, of crystal of the sequins on dresses going by you at parties.” The style enhances the novel but makes it less accessible.
I also found myself disappointed that a novel so intently focused on identity does not narrow in closely on its primary character, or any character for that matter. Piercy is more strongly concerned with the ideas of exile and shifting identities than with exploring the intricacies and complexities of one woman's journey. You may imagine, then, that we have no chance at getting to know any other character in the novel. They operate as mere props for Bunny, facilitating the sequence of events. We learn almost nothing of The Bastard, Coke-Bottle, or Jablonsky. They are just markers and pillars for Bunny to navigate her way around.
Despite this lack of character building, I found myself feeling exceptionally sympathetic towards Bunny. From the very first pages, Bunny struggles with both herself and the environment surrounding her, and it was a struggle for me, reading it. Of course, the physical transformation she goes through, though slow and boring compared to earlier events, is particularly affecting. I felt as alarmed and upset as Bunny herself. Ultimately it was the novel's ability to do this that won me over. Had it not been capable of inducing such emotion, I would have viewed the story line as too demanding. Additionally I am interested in Piercy's stylistic decisions. The form is as important as the story However, I have no doubt that not everyone is interested in this, nor that everyone would like it. Piercy's novel, although brief enough to be an easy-read, is simply not one. The novel is in many ways fun, but is not fun to read. The novel is good without being feel-good.
SAMANTHA NELSON is a corporate whore and occasional writer living in Calgary, Alberta. She has contributed to such publications as This Recording, The Shanghaist, and a number of advice columns where she writes in seeking guidance.