Book review: The Constant Rabbit

The rather cryptic reference at the foot of the previous #NewMusicMondays post, about a rabbit holding an accordion by a stone marker at the end of the Julia Jacklin video, was a bit of a link to what was then planned as my next post (this one): a review of Jasper Fforde‘s The Constant Rabbit, published at the start of July. A happy, and entirely unplanned, coincidence.

There are no rabbit-playing accordions in The Constant Rabbit – but perhaps there could be: an apparently spontaneous, but unspecified and probably unknowable, Anthropomorphic Event happened back in 1965 which saw eighteen rabbits, alongside some other animals, take on human characteristics so that they become part-human while still retaining their animal characteristics. The rabbits are 6′ tall, use human language, they reason, decry the pictorial representation of rabbits in human culture, live in houses, go to the cinema, shop in supermarkets and drive cars (slowly) – but are vegan, continue to burrow, enjoy the delights of lettuce and, well, being rabbits what was a few has now become over 1.2m in the UK alone. Faced thus with a rapidly growing humanised rabbit population, a post-Brexit UK, headed by Prime Minister Nigel Smethwick’s UK Anti-Rabbit Party, also has a solution – ‘Rabxit’: the packing of all rabbits (who are, largely, already segregated) off to a MegaWarren in Wales, aided by the middle-class militant thugs of ‘TwoLegsGood’.

In my review of Fforde’s previous novel, Early Riser, I noted that the somewhat whimsical tone of much of Fforde’s (otherwise engaging and interesting) work (his debut novel was in 2001) had taken on a significantly dystopian note. 2010’s first volume of Shades of Grey (the long-awaited second is now formally planned) likewise. With humanised rabbits the theme of this work, you might be forgiven for thinking this is a return to whimsy – but this would ignore the deeply allegorical, and utterly chilling, nature of the novel. Take the Prime Minister, for example, whose name is extremely well-chosen: Nigel is of course evident, especially given the initials of the party he leads; but Smethwick – well, back in 1964 (one year before the event initiating Fforde’s novel), Smethwick was the electoral constituency which defied the national trend and went Tory, and where campaigning was famously accompanied by the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’.

The central theme of The Constant Rabbit is, therefore, racism and, quite specifically, the modern notion of ‘replacement theory’, with UKARP expressing fears around ‘litterbombing’ – fast-breeding rabbits soon outnumbering humans in their own country. Fforde uses the duality of the novel – rabbits make fine neighbours since they are unselfish, live in harmony with the environment and practise sustainability while having a strong sense of social responsibility; but are the targets of a peculiarly English type of casual racism (class snobbishness mixed with outwardly pleasant indifference but disguising cold rejection) – in a way in which wit, satire and intelligent humour are allowed to carry the novel’s predominant approach to its theme.

It is of course difficult to carry off a treatment of an extremely serious issue by using humour. Fforde is clearly aware of this and has expressed in several interviews (in a podcast for the New Books Network, in a piece in The Guardian, and an interview for SciFi now, for instance) that he is alive to the dangers of someone – never discriminated against once, in his entire life and with all the luck of privilege being defaulted to him at birth – talking about racial discrimination and prejudice. He has also posted a reading list on his website, and it’s clearly informed by some important works, Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s among them.

He addresses this not by trying to put himself into the shoes of someone without that privilege – an object of racism – but by putting it from one of the other sides, not from the perspective of a worst-of-the-worst member of a hate group but from someone whose unthinking ignorance and bystander complicity has allowed such a group to continue their narrative unchallenged and away from the spotlight. Peter Knox – likeable, but spineless and also flawed – is the central human character and the narrator of the novel who works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce: an agency charged with enforcement activities because of his ability to tell rabbits – which otherwise all look alike – apart. Humans don’t come out of the novel particularly well, being substantially leporiphobic, regarding rabbits in all the demonising and dehumanising ways in which one group will ‘other’ a minority group, and the plot of the novel concerns the extent to which Knox (and, by extension, humans more generally since he does stand as a privilege-based ‘everyman’) is able to redeem himself.

It’s also a valid criticism that Fforde risks trivialising the issue firstly by using (evidently non-human) rabbits as his minority group. Allegory and tragi-comedy, however, has a long-standing role in pointing out failures – TwoLegsGood is, of course, a tribute to Orwell’s own allegorical powers in Animal Farm – and I think is justifiable in a literary context. Humans are fully capable of mixing, at one and the same time, the cruel and the unpleasant with the comedic – Fforde has, for example, pointed in interviews to the role of M*A*S*H in mixing laughter alongside the evils of war, while the science fiction of District 9 uses comedy to sharpen the sense of tragedy. A book without comedy is indeed not a book about human beings and, consequently, the comedy makes the darker themes more recognisable and therefore more identifiable and, as a result, it is easier to be more empathic about the lessons being demonstrated. A spoonful of sugar may indeed help the medicine go down.

Amidst the humour of the opening chapter’s ‘Speed Librarying’, enforced as a result of cuts with the resource going instead fully into the monitoring of libraries’ compliance with the new rules (in a parody of curtain-twitching watch schemes), Fforde has written some genuinely horrifying scenes: Mr. Ffoxe (foxes and rabbits of course do not mix) is a terrifying character; while one scene set in a prison (which, otherwise, contains two of about the only good humans in the book) is quite shocking. Amidst the comedy, such moments of pure evil have to work if Fforde is to carry off his purpose.

Fforde’s ultimate message here is, I think, a two-fold one.

Firstly, that the Anthropomorphic Event contains a message: the rabbits came with a warning for humans also about the unsustainability of our ways and what we are doing to the planet. Furthermore, in listening to others tell us of their alternative conception of the fundamentals on which a society should be based, we are allowing them to teach us: and we all of us need to be reminded of that.

Secondly, that we can no longer stand by when something has become obvious which was hitherto invisible. Individual and incremental, not heroic, action can be enough given that we are ‘not all revolutionaries’ and that ‘enough people challenging the problem can make a difference.’ Choosing no longer to be ‘constantly rabbiting’ on about a subject (one of the ways in which the title of the book works on several different levels), but deciding, as a result of realising the need no longer to be in denial, to increase our self-awareness and then to convert that into action is one way in which we can stop being, like Knox, an unconscious part of the problem. For Fforde, if readers ‘laugh when… reading this book, and frown a little when… finished – and that together, eventually, as part of a much larger and broader and more principled coalition, we can start to loosen some bricks in that wall’ the work will have served its purpose.

About the chances of this, Fforde seems in conclusion to be mildly optimistic – although with the clear warning that messages such as this one don’t come along very often; and that, critically, as Smethwick well realises, ‘the language of division can always be monetised’.

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