American Mermaid: A Novel

American Mermaid: A Novel

by Julia Langbein
American Mermaid: A Novel

American Mermaid: A Novel

by Julia Langbein


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A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF THE YEAR • "Sublime." —New York Times Book Review

"Brilliantly sharp, funny, and thought-provoking, the gripping story of a woman trying to find her way in our chaotic world." —Madeline Miller, bestselling author of Circe

Broke English teacher Penelope Schleeman is as surprised as anyone when her feminist, eco-warrior novel American Mermaid becomes a best-seller. But when Hollywood insists she convert her fierce, androgynous protagonist into to a teen sex object in a clamshell bra, strange things start to happen. Is Penelope losing her mind, or has her fictional mermaid come to life, enacting revenge against society’s limited view of what a woman can and should be?

American Mermaid follows a young woman braving the casual slights and cruel calculations of a winner-take-all society and discovering a beating heart in her own fiction: a new kind of hero who fights to keep her voice and choose her place. A hilarious story about deep things, American Mermaid asks how far we’ll go to protect the parts of ourselves that are not for sale.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385549677
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/21/2023
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 371,632
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

JULIA LANGBEIN, a sketch and stand-up comedian for many years, holds a doctorate in Art History and is the author of a non-fiction book about comic art criticism (Laugh Lines, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2022). She wrote the viral comedy blog The Bruni Digest (2003-7), which reviewed New York Times critic Frank Bruni's restaurant reviews every week, and has since written about food, art, and travel for Gourmet, Eater, Salon, Frieze, and other publications. A native of Chicago, she lives outside of Paris with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The novel that I wrote begins with a woman in a wheelchair falling into the sea.

It’s not a comedy. I wrote it alone in a studio apartment in New Haven, Connecticut, at a table on a rug that looked like it had been digested rather than woven. For three years I came home from teaching English to teenagers at Holy Cross, a secular public high school on Holy Cross Avenue, and wrote in an exhausted, anxious daze. I remember the night I started. I had bought a bottle of terrible wine after work. I was writing in my diary, then I was lying to my diary, then I wrote her. I saw her, I felt her: she was not a broken woman but a mermaid after all. Her fear of drowning filled me, and then, buoyed up in drunkenness, I felt my legs twitch with a long-forgotten muscle memory of swimming.

I lie on the giant white raft of my super-king bed, twenty stories up in an executive apartment that I’ve rented for the summer in Los Angeles. I wasn’t pretending to be an executive, and I’m embarrassed at being the wrong person for it. I have nothing but spare time here, as the time-efficient pod-coffee reminds me. I have nothing to scan on the scanner. This place was cheap because it’s in Century City, the uncoolest part of LA. You can see my building with others of its kind: architecturally, they are big-boned admin women in gray pantsuits. Unless I’ve undergone some kind of retinal bleaching in the California sunshine, I think the wall-size windows are made of sunglasses glass, the pervert kind that dim. I feel like a pervert, that mix of irresponsible pleasure and occasional shrugging disgust. Pleasure because I left my teaching job and I have my days free, disgust because of what I’m out here to do. Sometimes I push my nose against the glass wall and look down from my death-defying diving board at the unwalked pavement below, the only part of LA that could just as easily be Stamford, Connecticut. If it weren’t for the chilly stream of panic in my blood that runs on a loop like a corporate courtyard fountain, I’d forget where I was.

American Mermaid was published in December. I was a nobody—no babbling spectral internet persona, just a teacher—and I was told that I was lucky to get an advance of forty-five thousand. It seemed monumental, that sum, and I was grateful for the seventeen grand I pocketed after my agent nibbled and taxes chomped at it. Ten grand paid off my credit card debt. But even having seven thousand extra bucks was thrilling. Unallotted dollars not clothing me or housing me or drunk down inescapably on Friday at a bar three blocks from school.

I was thirty-three and even with my extra money my legs were hairy and my workplace was dirty and it was fine. Then suddenly it seemed the whole world might melt and recool in a smooth new shape.

In the spring, just a few months into the book’s publication, American Mermaid appeared on the Instagram account of a professional internet presence named Stem Hollander, an athletic charmer in his midforties with floppy blond hair and ten cheeky grins, whose humpy Segway salsa dancing gets millions of likes between endorsements of fair-trade avocados and weed-lobby Democrats. After Hollander, the librarians picked it up. Then, to my surprise, some national treasure on the Today show open-throat screamed about it too early in the morning. Thanks to her it was packed up and palleted to Costco, where I’ve seen it myself on a chessboard of hardbacks, a rook’s jump away from Dieting for Joint Health. I did a gimmicky magazine interview where I met a male journalist my age in a leather jacket in Atlantic City at a bar with live mermaid shows. Women with big naturals, their legs bound in plastic tail fins, pretended not to need to breathe, writhing on the other side of a scratched pane while we drank rum runners as if the Garden State Parkway weren’t five miles away. I cried and the journalist described it, which I think got me foreign sales in thirty-six countries.

But Stem Hollander got it all started. He Instagrammed a picture of American Mermaid on his reclaimed marble nightstand. It was sandwiched between Balderdash, a book your uncle definitely read, about a Great Dane in the British Army who changed the course of World War II, and Shots Shots Shots, a memoir by a twenty-four-year-old fashion model that’s been taken as a polemic against recovery. I remember thinking, proud and bewildered, I wonder if this is what it’s like to see your kid walk at graduation, in the lineup between a jock and a twat. I know her so well, but who is my daughter in the world?

She could be a movie star, they told me: immediately after Hollander’s endorsement in April, the film agents came calling. American Mermaid was an action film waiting to happen. With your gift for female-driven action, you play right into Hollywood’s new hunger for ladyplots (I paraphrase, but barely). You could make a mint. When they told me I could be rich, I felt stupid for being so happy with seven thousand dollars, like an adult hugging a teddy bear. But my whole idea of myself was that I would never make any money. I had only gone from less remunerated to lesser remunerated, from funded doctoral student to academic to public school teacher. My other professional fantasies all put my cup yet further from the gushing falls of Mammon: poet, ceramicist, elder-carer. Someone has to set up the internet cemeteries; it might as well be me.

It was therefore completely believable to me when the book began to sell into the tens and then twenties and thirties, and eventually hundreds of thousands, that my cup still rattled hollow. The earnings from the first royalty period paid back the publisher’s advance. The second royalty period, which would begin in July, would last six months, and then the payment would not come for another six to nine months after. When I heard about the success of the book, I often felt like someone else had written it, someone wearing fresh lipstick and signing a deed, while I sat in my familiar studio, drinking coffee that tasted like plastic because my coffee machine is so cheap, it melts itself.

On May 1—International Workers’ Day, whoops—I told my principal, Pamela, a nice lady with a nut-brown pelt helmet, that I was leaving Holy Cross and moving to LA. I was surprised at how sad she seemed about it—not merely annoyed about the hassle of replacing me, but disheartened.

“You’ve been such a gift to our students. They just love you.” She shook her tufted head and looked down at her desk, a bombed city of paper towers.

“No, they don’t,” I said, imagining for a split second the slack-faced, self-absorbed teenagers I spent my days with tearing their shirts and sobbing over my grave. A tiny laugh contracted in my throat. I quickly turned it into a cough. The principal leaned to the side of her desk and pulled the plastic tab on a bulbous blue watercooler. Glub, glub, glub. Over my stage cough, the office resonated with a sound like a blue whale burping from its forehead at forty thousand leagues. She handed me a cup of water.

“They do love you, Penny, and I’m sorry you don’t see that. I hear them talk. And they talk about the books in your class. I get the feeling you crack these books and something of them leaks into real life. I don’t know how you do it, but I hear them talking about characters from these stories like they’re alive and doing things in this world. I’ve been here seventeen years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

I thought all teenagers were like that: borderless blood sacks where everything intermixes—sex, self-regard, anger, hunger, fiction, feelings.

“I know I can’t keep you here with any kind of financial incentive. I used to teach math, you know—had to trade it in for this to send my own kids to school.” She half waved her hand across her desk before dropping it onto a pile of paper, like a magician at the end of a trick that didn’t work. Her forty-five coffee mugs—Fat Albert, Meryl’s Bat Mitzvah—made Pam seem like she came from another time, a time before Starbucks.

“I figured you just liked . . . power.”

“That’s ridiculous, Penny. I’m the principal of an underfunded state educational institution. I’m not King Lear.”

“King Lear just didn’t want to die.”

“I don’t know. Mister Gatsby. Pip.”

“They all just wanted money.”

“And status,” she said. The watercooler released an autonomous belch. We faced each other over her desk.

“You should have taught English, Pam.”

I quit my job and moved to LA because I want money, too. I want money not to be something I can count like stones. The $1,540 I bring home every two weeks fritters away visibly, in chunks. A forty-dollar bar tab is a tenth of the slab of what I’ve got left after rent. I want money to be a substance that can’t be counted, a vast pool I can float on, dip a hand down into without knowing where I am in it.

Last night I was floating around a party, because there are always parties and it’s my job to go to them. “Wow, your dad is Wallace Stevens?” is something I heard.

I woke up the next morning and tried to figure out how someone at a party’s dad could be Wallace Stevens. Wikipedia: Wallace Stevens had one daughter, Holly Stevens, born 1924. Could she have been there? No, everyone at that party was thirty-three. As I squinted at my phone screen in the dark, it illuminated a message on stationery (“Mountain Plaza Residence”) on the nightstand. It said, in unfamiliar handwriting, “Derek Leary called several times.” I must have fallen into my bed with the note in my hand blissfully drunk. But I woke up alarmed and found a series of unread texts from Derek on my phone: “I’M COMING TO LA.” “I’M STAYING WITH YOU.” “COOL?” “OBVIOUSLY COOL, RIGHT?”

Why is Derek coming?

Is this some sort of intervention?

Who gave me a paper phone message?

Derek and I had been teaching together at Holy Cross for only a couple of months when he began driving me to the pier at Long Wharf after school. We’d sit and talk in his car. Once we were sitting on the pier, looking at the Sound, and a large yacht appeared to be coming at us with surprising speed. Out of the silence I said, nodding at the boat, “You’ll walk the plank. They’ll ransom me.”

Derek finished sucking on a cigarette, and without moving his head, his eyes rolled toward me slowly in their lizard sockets.

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

I love Derek, but I hope this man is not coming to save me.

On the way out of the apartment I stop at the security desk, where an attractive thirtysomething woman in a blazer stares at her smartphone.

“Hi,” I say. She looks up with raised eyebrows. “Did you give me a note last night? On my way in?”

“It must have been the night guard.”

“Okay. I’m sorry, I don’t even understand how my friend managed to call the security desk here.”

“Oh, that’s simple. If someone calls the apartment’s landline number, it comes to us and we transfer it to the room. The night guard must have taken a message for you when you weren’t in.”

“So, like a hotel.”


I walk a few steps toward the door and then pivot back to her with an apologetic gasp. “Oh! There’s no laundry machine up there. What do I do about laundry?”

“You’ll find a bag marked ‘laundry’ in the closet; throw what you need washed in there, call downstairs, and someone will collect it. You’ll get it back in a day.”

“Great. So, like a hotel.”


I don’t understand anything.

Chapter 2

I am at another party.

“Oh my god, you wrote American Mermaid?”

“That’s so cool!”

One of these people does music for movies and the other is a screenwriter. These two people are the only people who don’t look like members of a superrace. Everyone else at this party has taut skin and shimmering cheeks and hard, white, plastic teeth. I become self-aware of my bone teeth. Lightly smoked bone. My teeth look like antiques compared to all the teeth here, like valuable scrimshaw.

“I think it’s so genius that you put your superhero in a wheelchair,” the composer says.

I ask him, “Do you actually call yourself a composer? Or is that just for Tchaikovskys?”

“It’s for everyone.” I keep saying things that would have sounded conventional or even nice in Connecticut but pick up spite as they zip through desert air. Anyway, the dig slips off his smile like studio rain off a silly hat.

We are in the “Hollywood Hills,” which is only words to me. I’m sure it connotes more to someone else: Porn? Wind? I am letting myself be taken places. Mostly I’m taken places by my film agent, Danielle MacAleese, who is my age, fun, and mean. She is at the same firm as my literary agent, who is old, sober, and nice. The first time Danielle and I met, at the Union League Cafe in New Haven, a waitress dropped one French fry on the black satin lapel of the business jumpsuit that encased Danielle’s softened athletic frame. She looked at the fry skidding onto the table as if it were a severed finger. She jerked her face upward, cocked her head to the side, and squinted at the waitress.

“No, I mean, honestly, is this you trying to fuck with me?” she said to the woman. I wouldn’t have used any of those words in that situation. Not one. How did she even know to start with “No”? We have different sets of words, I realized, which seems a good enough reason to hire someone.

That night we had a conversation where all my smoldering rocks of anxiety were doused by Danielle’s cold confidence. I said things out loud, things I’d never even said to Derek—how afraid I was of being poor the rest of my life if I stayed a teacher. Danielle nodded, encouraging me along but skimming the details until I hit the cancer part of the story. If I had been a streaming movie, she would have been on her phone until this part.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer during my second year of teaching at Holy Cross, and her oncologist said I should do the BRCA1 and 2 tests. My parents paid for the tests, which cost over three thousand dollars. They were going through such an ordeal with my mother, they wanted to make sure my sister, Susie, and I were safe.

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