To Be Real

‘The Means: A Novel’ by Amy Fusselman


AMY FUSSELMAN WRITES like a comic—or a “stand-up philosopher,” as Mel Brooks’s character describes himself at the ancient Roman unemployment office window in History of the World, Part I. No matter how serious the topic, Fusselman reveals the humor. Her 2007 memoir, 8: All True: Unbelievable, for instance, delves into her experience with childhood rape in a way that leaves her reader unburdened and happy. Likewise, in The Pharmacist’s Mate (2001) and Idiophone (2018), she makes fun of stuff that’s not funny at all. She accomplishes this magic so deftly in her recent novel, The Means—about a white stay-at-home mom’s quest for a house in the Hamptons—that it is possible to miss her point entirely. I almost did.

When we meet our heroine, Shelly Means, she’s a disgraced former president of the PTA with a “reputation as a hotheaded bottle thrower.” She recently coordinated the sale of the family’s lake house after a raccoon fell down the chimney and trashed the place with peanut butter and bloody handprints. Her husband, a voice-over actor, has so far kept the family well-off enough to own a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan (on the West Side, in the 20s), so Shelly spends her days toiling in the kind of unpaid, “not-real” jobs that come with being a nonearner in a family, the one with the time and freedom to be a stay-at-home parent.

“What a luxury! Must be nice!” goes our culture’s sardonic attitude toward stay-at-home moms, especially affluent, white ones. Even the phrase stay-at-home mom makes me tense up in defense, and so does wife—the first, for being one comma away from a command, and the second, for sounding like knife, which makes me want to reach for one. If you’ve ever worked this gig, you know it’s a shit job. If it was good for you . . . well, I don’t know what to say, except we are not the same. Shelly wrestles with her conscience and her baffling status: wealthy lifestyle with no means of her own. It affects her sense of worth, her belief that her life has meaning. The narrator of her own story, Shelly lets us know:

This is something I am ashamed about, especially in regard to my daughter, because I want her to see me as someone who is capable of making money in a ‘real’ job. But so far I can’t figure out how to do that except in this unreal job where I do a billion tasks a day (except clean the apartment) and still, I am viewed as not working.

The unrealness of her work—and, therefore, lack of value—feeds her desperation for the beach house. The people around her, who are often richer than Shelly and freer, profit off her beach-house dream. Her cognitive behavioral therapist/real estate broker, her architect, her lawyer who’s training to be a shaman, and the Hamptons’ homeowners association all capitalize on Shelly’s fantasy, urging her out onto thinner and thinner limbs while remaining safely grounded in a position of power which they are determined to keep. Even Twix the dog, who speaks to her in words, feels entitled to comment on Shelly’s contradictions and lifestyle. In the exact way our culture does, Fusselman locks the heroine in on all sides. She’s informed that she can’t afford to build from scratch, but a more affordable, prefabricated, shipping-container beach house is rejected by the homeowners’ association as a “trailer” that will bring down their property values. Shelly feels simultaneously ashamed of her desires and of her inability to manifest them by using a “wealth mindset.”

Shelly’s dynamic with her husband, George, illustrates her thankless role as both dependent and responsible party. Making sure the bills are paid on time is her task, but George controls the purse. Early in the book, George’s voice-over work suddenly dries up—but even unemployed and bringing in no income, he has veto power on anything Shelly wants to do. She describes paying the bills as a kind of ritual: “I write the numbers on the pale green paper rectangle in two ways, first as a number $123, and then as words, one hundred twenty-three dollars, and then I sign my name, Shelly Means, and in that moment, I am as real as I will ever be in the world.” Is she kidding or dead serious? Both, it seems.

George’s maleness and status as earner exempts him from every tedious interaction in which Shelly needs to bob, weave, and debase herself to stay afloat in the poisoned waters of social climbing, overachieving, and “whiteness” in which they are both choking for air. Shelly solves all the family’s problems with money, whether she is choosing the least expensive therapy to control her temper, hemorrhaging cash to save the dog’s life on a Sunday at the only open vet facility, or bribing the Hamptons’ homeowners’ association to let her build with shipping containers. All her efforts are, in essence, worthless. “Even when you think you’re not spending money,” George chides, “you are.” The rules for being a good stay-at-home mom include being a “home economist,” clever and certainly no spendthrift. Don’t have enough money to make it all work? How embarrassing—I wonder what that says about you.

While it may be obvious to readers who believe ourselves to be better than a superconsumer housewife like Shelly that the beach-house drama is a distraction from her pain, we risk missing that it’s a distraction from ours as well. The point is not the beach house—it’s the aliveness and nurturing she wants to feel when she’s there, as opposed to the stress she feels in her life of nonstop, not-real, unpaid work on her family’s behalf. To see her striving as pathetic distracts us from our own pain at being unable to jump off this vicious, hamster-wheel economic system, breathless as we try and keep up—not even with the Joneses but with the bills, meals, forms, correspondence, and relationships that keep a family functional.

In her most intimate explorations, Shelly confides that she wants more than anything “to be real.” Her realness also scares her—with good reason, because Shelly’s realest moments are when she is out of control and throws things (her phone, water bottle, housekeys) at the heads of those who disregard her. Afterward, she is swiftly punished like a child and forced to apologize and make amends, sometimes publicly. Shelly floods with emotion in close proximity to animals, such as the 450-pound sea lion in theme-park captivity named Tim; touching his back for a moment—feeling his aliveness—brings a wave of tears. She extends grace to her mother and care to two very real children, whose own emergent relationships to money and power challenge and inform hers. Her fearsomeness and vulnerabilities make her more real than any bill-paying or beach house ever will. Still, she fights like hell for the value that would confer realness onto her. Shelly grieves for a world where everything is “cordoned off, owned, and for sale.”

I want to see the real world we are all in, and I want to see it all collapse. I want to see it revealed as flimsy, as made of tissue paper and glue. I want to see it pop like a bubble because then I will do something wonderful, which is stop believing in it.

Shelly’s quest for realness makes me think of Cheryl Lynn’s 1978 anthem, “Got to be Real,” basically a single verse on repeat: “What you find / What you feel now / What you know / To be real!” What Shelly finds is that there’s a hierarchy to everything, and she cannot get the house she wants. What Shelly feels now, in her shipping container with its microsized everything, is like she is “living on a cross-country flight that would never land.” What she knows is that she needs money and a 401(k), so she accepts a job working for the dog walker she let go a few months back to curb expenses. This woman, who has the gall to pursue something we all want, craves a little bit of luxury to assure her of her value after all she’s done to prove herself. And it’s time to be real: It’s just not going to happen.

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