Amy Fusselman’s Playlist for Her Novel “The Mean$”

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September 16, 2022

Amy Fusselman’s Playlist for Her Novel “The Mean$”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Amy Fusselman’s debut novel The Mean$ is one of the funniest books of the year, an acute satire of modern life.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“With its deadpan absurdity, pithy prose and moral je ne sais quoi, Fusselman’s latest will appeal to fans of Marcy Dermansky….With its satire of the particular hypocrisy of the Hamptons, including homeowners associations, graft, and garbage and recycling practices, Maria Semple….We may be entering a golden age of the comic novel, surely one of the best possible outcomes of this desperate moment in history.”

In her own words, here is Amy Fusselman’s Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Mean$:

The songs that I am submitting for this playlist aren’t songs that would necessarily be played in the world of my book, but they are songs that were important to me in the writing of it.

I was particularly interested in songs that are structured as lists. I was thinking about how lists are often associated with domesticity—shopping lists and to-do lists—and I ended up using a list as a written portal into what my narrator, Shelly Means, would think and do. My novel starts and ends with a list.

Lists seem friendly, helpful, and humble, which are qualities that I admire in writing. In my work as a mother and caregiver, I also write at least one list every, single day of my life.

These list songs were important touchstones for me in the writing of The Mean$:

“52 Girls” by the B-52s

I love harmonies and Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s voices are spectacular in this song, which is built around Kate and Cindy asking the question, “Can you name them?” and then answering themselves by singing 20-some female names. (The “52” of the title is a nod to Kate and Cindy themselves, the B-52 girls).

“Can you name them?” is an invitation, and the song operates like “The Name Game” by Shirley Ellis, in that it acknowledges the listener (“Let’s play a game”) even though a call and response between artist and listener isn’t really possible— we are listening to a recording, after all. But the fact that the song overtly invites the listener in, in language, contributes to the warmth of it, and I wanted that feeling of inclusivity in my writing.

“I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash

A lot of people have covered this song but Johnny’s OG version is my favorite. The beauty of this song is that Johnny’s singing the list works as evidence for the title—the longer you listen, the more you have to recognize that Johnny Cash has indeed been everywhere, man. And the longer he sings the list of places he’s been, the more you sympathize with his determination and grit, and admire how, in the final chorus, his voice has the joy of a marathoner at the finish line.

I got a lot from the song’s exhausted and dogged good cheer, particularly because this book took me awhile to write.

“That Funny Feeling” by Bo Burnham

This song works a little like “I’ve Been Everywhere” in that the verses, which are a beautifully crafted list of some of the most bitterly insane juxtapositions of modern life (“The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door”), accrue until they break into the chorus, “that funny feeling” of derealization-depersonalization disorder.

The reason this song works so well is that Burnham unexpectedly sings it slowly and tenderly. It’s not quite a love song to this horrible phenomenon—but its tone is resignation and acceptance, and this delivery makes the brutality of the song hit all the harder. (Phoebe Bridgers, a sad songmaker of the highest order, does a cover of this song that may be even better than Burnham’s original).

I loved the idea of presenting some of the horror of modern living in a frame that was unexpected and in that way heightening the listener/reader’s ability to recognize it. Through humor, I hope I have done that in my book.

Amy Fusselman is the author of four nonfiction books: Idiophone; Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die; 8; and The Pharmacist’s Mate. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlantic, McSweeney’s, and many other outlets. She lives with her family in New York City where she teaches creative writing at New York University.

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