American Housewife, by Helen Ellis

I wonder how someone so fake can be so pure.

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It’s rare to see a writer pull off the kind of tightrope walking between falsehood and purity that Helen Ellis manages in nearly every story of her collection American Housewife. Taken together, the stories depict a world of married women—urban or suburban, comfortable, moneyed—that is simultaneously spot-on and surreal. The volume is turned up just a little too high for us to feel as though we’re in the “real world”; this is satire, and like most satire, sometimes it doesn’t work or repeats itself. Most of the time, though, it made me cackle, then gasp. By the end, I was with Ellis and her women—messed up messers-up who inspire horror and sympathy in equal measure—wherever they wanted to take me next.

The longest stories are the most effectively poignant, establishing situations that slowly become ever more incredible, without the reader really noticing until the end. In one, the narrator is a literary author who’s nabbed a slot on a reality show called Dumpster Diving with the Stars (this is one of a few explorations in the collection of the way in which writing is an increasingly commercial concern. In another story, a woman’s novel is sponsored by Tampax.) On the dumpster-diving show, our narrator/heroine is partnered with a former Playboy bunny, Mitzy, whose twin (“Bitzy”)is suffering from an unspecified illness. Mitzy’s strangely innocent demeanor is what prompts the quotation used at the head of this review. As the show develops, the unnamed narrator becomes increasingly aware of how the contestants’ relationships—to each other and to their outside families—are being manipulated and put under pressure to give the reality show a sense of drama and narrative. It’s almost, one reflects, like the producers are trying to make a novel out of thin air. The narrator’s observations are often couched in maxims: “Cardinal Reality Rule # 3: Strain relationships… Cardinal Reality Rule #6: Tug heartstrings… Cardinal Reality Rule #7: Forge unlikely friendships.” But she can be just as observant, and less cynical, in straightforward prose. Of a married couple, celebrity actors and Scientologists in the manner of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, she notes the compromises that lie beneath their public personae:

He chuckles what I’m guessing is his marriage chuckle. All we marrieds have a marriage chuckle. A marriage chuckle is a fake laugh you bring out when your spouse does something dumb that you have to pretend is charming. My marriage chuckle is for when my husband tells our new friends that he doesn’t believe in brunch. The Scientologist husband’s must be for when his wife preempts his dumb thing.

There’s a sense in a lot of these stories that the stakes are irrationally high; in one of them, a haunting vignette entitled “The Fitter”, a woman with terminal breast cancer is married to a man endowed with the unique ability to perfectly predict a woman’s bra size by sight alone. His talents have made him sought-after in their little Midwestern town, both as a businessman and as a potential husband. The wife is dying; she knows another woman will pounce as soon as she’s cold, and quite possibly before. And yet over the course of one fitting with poor, saggy-titted Myrtle Babcock, she finds herself relenting. Myrtle is grateful for the kindness she receives. She’s kind in her turn, providing a cold washcloth and gentle hands when the fitter’s wife feels dizzy and ill. And she has very little in the way of privilege herself: the pink princess bra that could change her life is too expensive. At the end, the terminal wife slips that bra into Myrtle’s purse. There’s no promise of survival, happiness, or acceptance, but there’s this gesture that, in context, is as momentous as a battlefield decision.

High stakes and irrationality are the result of a microcosmic worldview: these things matter because the universe of most of Ellis’s characters is limited to one social group or class. If you lose cachet there, you lose it everywhere. It explains, for instance, the email duels of the two women who share an entrance hallway in “The Wainscoting War”, and the murderous perfection of the heads of the apartment co-op in “Dead Doormen”. These are the places where, if you don’t really want to follow Ellis already, she might lose you. This, for instance, from “The Wainscoting War”:

Hi Gail! Me again! …I’ll be home much, much, MUCH more than usual and I will refocus ALL of my efforts into convincing you that a hallway renovation is not only wanted by my husband and myself, it is WARRANTED. My life coach says that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. So please forgive me for taking a shit on your sewing machine table.

The caps lock, the hysteria, the general grossness, all fit with the story, more or less (among the better features of which are a phalanx of cats, one of which is rumored to have eaten its former owner’s face after she died in her apartment). But that sense of things being dialed up a bit too high grates here. It’s like when the writers of a sitcom get slightly too pleased with their ability to write witty dialogue, and for a couple of episodes all of the characters sound like total pricks.

However, this is entirely tempered by a series of stories scattered throughout the book, all of which run to only one or two pages, and which are formatted as lists. Here is where Ellis’s sharpness comes out, where her eye for the weird but essential detail reveals itself. Here, in other words, were the stories that made me cackle, then gasp, then read a passage aloud. Perhaps my favourite, given my personal history, is entitled “Southern Lady Code”. I can attest that the entirety of the following quote is factually true.

“Is this too dressy?” is Southern Lady code for: I look fabulous and it would be in your best interest to tell me so. …

“She’s always been lovely to me” is code for: I don’t like her either. …

“She’s old” means she’s racist as Sandy Duncan in Roots.

“You are so bad!” is Southern Lady code for: That is the tackiest thing I’ve ever heard and I am delighted that you shared it with me.

“No, you’re so bad!” is code for: Let’s snitch and bitch.

Meanwhile, “How to Be A Grown-Ass Lady” is a two-pager that manages to be sincere, ironic, giggle-inducing, thought-provoking, and actually pretty decent advice. It has also caused me to do a quick mental reassessment of every woman over thirty that I know:

[…]Buy three pieces of clothing twice a year at full price. Get refitted for bras on your birthday. Replace your tights every winter. Forget thongs…Don’t brag about not going to church. Don’t complain about your interior designer. Give flight attendants your full attention during their take-off routines. Talk to cab drivers. Engage people waiting in line.

Don’t reprimand people who call you sweetheart. Don’t reprimand people who call you ma’am.

Listen to gangsta rap in the privacy of your own headphones. Listen to erotic audiobooks when you scrub the bathroom floor. Worry about cancer. Google menopause. Challenge insurance claims.

I kind of want to print the whole story out on a big poster and frame it.

Ellis started off writing these stories online, and she runs a Twitter handle, @WhatIDoAllDay, where you can find an unending quantity of the kind of snappy one-liners for which American Housewife is such a good showcase. (There’s more Southern Lady code on there, for those of you who’re into that.) I’m interested to see what she does with her skewer in a longer format. Apparently she’s written a novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, which seems to have just the sort of small-town, deep-South insanity that American Housewife hints at, like Steel Magnolias where the magnolias are actually made of steel, and possibly being swung at you. On the basis of American Housewife, I think it’d be well worth a read.

Thanks very much to Elizabeth Preston at Scribner for the review copy; American Housewife is published in the UK on 15 January.

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