Longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2019, Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is a modern day fable about a woman who falls in love with a merman. Victoria Smith reviews Broder’s debut novel alongside her earlier poetry and essays, Last Sext and So Sad Today.
The literary world is on a Classics jag, from Pat Barker’s re-telling of the Iliad in The Silence of the Girls, Madeleine Miller’s Circe, Daisy Johnson’s re-imagining of Oedipus in Everything Under, and Stephen Fry touring theatres with his best-selling Mythos trilogy. Our obsession is not new. Western culture has been poring over the classical canon for centuries: T S Eliot, Ann Carson, James Joyce, Anouilh, Margaret Atwood, the Pre-Raphaelites, the artists of the Renaissance. The list goes on. But as those in charge appear like gods (the purported sexual escapades of our leaders Trump, Johnson et al rival Zeus’s priapic activities; Putin interferes in states’ activities on a god-like whim) it’s perhaps easier to comprehend current events when they’re refracted through the lens of ancient Greece. The familiar world order of the Greek gods also offers a relief from current political, environmental and humanitarian turmoil. And for writers, myths and legends offer simple structures and narrative solidity in a world rendered almost unrecognisable by technological advances.
Melissa Broder’s novel The Pisces is also rooted in classical Greek territory, featuring Sappho, love and myth, in a modern-day fable about a woman who falls in love with a merman. The novel centres around Lucy, a PhD student who, on a whim, says to her boring, uncommitting boyfriend, Jamie: ‘Maybe we should … break up,’ only to find that he agrees with her, sending her into a crazy tailspin that culminates in her moving from Phoenix to her sister’s glass box of a house in Venice Beach to dog sit, attend a woman’s therapy group and, as it turns out, fall in love with a merman.
And it is joyous. Written in the first person, The Pisces reads like an up-beat Bell Jar; Heartburn for a younger generation. Lucy narrates her tale in the voice of a dry, fierce, foul-mouthed Norah Ephron. When Jamie breaks up with Lucy, she spirals into glorious obsession, succumbing to the ‘crazy-woman disease: that desperation and need’ that follows a break-up. Instead of accepting Jamie’s betrayal with sanguinity, she stalks up to his door, yells: ‘Fuck you, you fucking asshole!’ and punches him – a revenge many of us (may) have wanted to visit upon an ex. Lucy’s self-indulgence and her absorption with the split is deliciously unfettered: when a policeman visits Lucy after her assault on Jamie, her main concern is Jamie’s new relationship: ‘Can you just tell me. Aside from the broken nose, did they seem happy?’
But Lucy is out of control, so she takes up her older sister’s offer to dog sit and embarks on a Greek quest, an emotional and sexual adventure through the strange land of Venice Beach, LA’s affluent suburb that is ‘saved from becoming a total Google campus’ by the plethora of homeless people who inhabit the boardwalk. These barefoot, dirt-encrusted “bums” and their enormous tent city, give an air of surreality to Lucy’s new world, amplifying her break from ‘normal’ society.
In…The Pisces, it is women’s misplaced desire to have their emptiness (literally) filled by a man that is the cause of their dissatisfaction, depression and madness.
Through Lucy’s journey, Broder examines modern women’s preoccupations: love, romance, other women, self-obsession. And sex. Through Lucy’s exploits, Broder writes about women’s sexual appetites, the sexual inertia one encounters in long-term relationships, and the gap between romantic fantasy and reality. Lucy imagines that in Venice Beach she’ll have hot sex with a series of men. But the men with whom she connects are a disappointment. One, Adam, turns out to have ‘something that was distinctly werewolf’ about him. Adam offers a deeply unsatisfactory and uncomfortable sexual encounter – Lucy eventually persuades him she’d prefer to watch rather than continue to participate. Another hook-up is a parody of a dominant man, to whom Lucy feels herself becoming attached purely because he’s handsome and bossy and treats her with disdain. Her ex, Jamie, sends yearning texts though he has a new girlfriend (her friend Claire points out that men always come back once you’ve given them up. Plus ça change).
And then there is Theo (the name means ‘gift of God’), the merman who may or may not be real. The handsome siren, the Eros to Lucy’s Aphrodite (The Pisces constellation represents Aphrodite and her son Eros, the female and male gods of love whom Zeus turned to fish to escape the monster Typhon): at an allegorical level, Theo represents the impossibility of idealised love. He is a mythical merman, a siren. He cannot exist in Lucy’s real world, and she cannot live in his. But at the level of the novel’s storyline, Theo is Lucy’s ideal partner, bringing her sensual, emotional and sexual satisfaction. He exhibits the slightly creepy obsessiveness, the neediness that fills the void of whatever it is that Lucy lacks. And if there is a central theme of The Pisces, it is exactly this: filling the void, a theme iterated by Lucy’s failing PhD thesis on the lacunae in Sappho’s poetry that exist because chunks of text have been lost, eroded over time. Lucy’s argument is that we should leave the gaps in Sappho’s oeuvre empty, that we should stop stuffing them with meaning, that we should cease to pretend that ‘nothing had ever been there in the first place’, focussing instead on the remaining poetic fragments. Lucy declares her proposal to be ‘bullshit’. She cannot finish her PhD. And yet, applied to women’s emotional and sexual existence, the argument holds weight. In the world of The Pisces, it is women’s misplaced desire to have their emptiness (literally) filled by a man that is the cause of their dissatisfaction, depression and madness. As Claire says: ‘I want a thousand giant cocks. Or I think I do. But it’s a lie, because even a thousand cocks would never be enough. And it’s crazy to think that they would. The fantasy is a lie.’
The Venice Beach therapy group ‘for women with depression and sex and love issues’ that Lucy joins is pivotal to this theme (Sara, Amber / Chickenhorse, Brianne, Claire and Diana form a sort of navel-gazing Greek chorus). Each woman is unable to sustain relationships: from Claire (who, in the novel, performs a sort of oracle-like role) who needs multiple men to stop herself from obsessing over one; to Brianne, whose mantra ‘I live a very full life’ highlights the emptiness of her existence; to Sara who cannot let go of her emotionally unavailable boyfriend. The women’s inability to find a partner (or, in some cases, anyone at all) iterates the proposition that none of them really wants to be satisfied, as Lucy realises: ‘It was the prospect of satiety – the excitement around the notion that we would ever be satisfied – that kept us going.’
…we recognise the women, all of them, as facets of ourselves…
It is a beautifully written book. It effervesces. The first few chapters had my heart racing with delight, with recognition. Broder has a poet’s economy with words: Brianne’s repulsive quest for eternal youth is expressed through long socks, plaits and a babydoll dress, an outfit at odds with her fifty-one years, and the fact that she ‘had shot her face up with so much junk that she no longer existed in time’. Broder is also sharply cruel – the women in the therapy group are all ‘losers’, each physically repulsive in their own way. But there is sympathy too – the women are all trapped by their own inability to perceive and accept their faults, each believes she is a victim of men’s unavailability – so that we recognise the women, all of them, as facets of ourselves. And there is copious sex, descriptions that are painfully realistic, sometimes disgusting but also erotic, capturing the discomfort and pleasure of sexual encounters.
The Pisces is also hilarious, skewering women’s crazy. The therapy group provides much of the book’s sharp humour, in their pitiful appearances, in their ‘I feel judged’ mantra. Lucy and Claire have most of the best lines. When discussing Theo, Lucy says: ‘… the universe put him there to show me that I can have some of that male energy in my life without going totally insane’. ‘The universe is a wanker,’ replies Claire, bathetically.
As Lucy’s madness abates, as she develops what appear to be sincere, connected feelings for Theo, the novel loses much of its verve. The tragic conclusion is believable; ends are left nicely loose; there is reconciliation and optimism. But I wonder if The Pisces would have been more satisfying, more cathartic if Lucy’s peril had been more tangible. Or, a different ending, exploring what long-term dating between a merman and a mortal might look like would, in Broder’s hands, have been a wonderful read. Either ending would have elevated The Pisces from a great book into a classic.
Last Sext is a slim volume of poetry about being – or rather, the universe that exists both within and without a body. Thematically, the poems are reminiscent of Plath; being preoccupied with the self, concerned with the dysfunction of love; and there are also traces of Plath in images of opals, blood, bones, descriptions of a ‘violet mouth’, a ‘poison suit… darned out of myths’. Some of the lines are sublime: ‘She opened up a curtain / Where her silence lived / And I went behind the curtain / And laid my skeleton down’ (in ‘Are We Fear’). But in comparison with Broder’s prose, I found Last Sext somewhat inaccessible. Her succinctness and her repetition, both so compelling in The Pisces (and in her collection of essays, So Sad) irritated me when condensed into poetry, with some of the poems verging on the nonsensical and pretentious.
However, I blame this partly on my own willingness / ability to engage, to let the words sink in. With these poems I feel like I should wait a while. Have another go. Try harder.
So Sad Today
So Sad Today, Broder’s collection of non-fiction, was a revelation. The pieces explore many of the themes raised in The Pisces: ‘How to Never Be Enough’ is about filling the void, and both ‘Love in the Time of Chakras’ and ‘Love Like You Are Trying to Fill an Insatiable Spiritual Hole …’, amongst others are, ostensibly, about sex.
The essays, all of which are quite short, emphasise Broder’s style: her efficiency with words; short sentences that seem to preach truth, such as ‘If people never become real, it’s harder for them to disappoint you’. I wonder if this is part of Broder’s appeal – in our post-religious world, where we no longer look to the gospel, to preachers to explain to us, in clear terms, both how we feel and how we should act, prose like Broder’s plugs the gap. In ‘Under the Anxiety is Sadness but Who Would Go Under There’ Broder reveals that she started a Twitter account called @sosadtoday, a platform for expressing her sad thoughts. I checked it out. Her Tweets, like her sentences, are pithy but expressive, which explains her nearly nine hundred thousand followers.
So Sad also illuminates Broder’s use of repetition. Repeated words and phrases give her writing a pulsating rhythmic quality: ‘There was’ used over and over and ‘I feel bad’ in ‘I Don’t Feel Bad About My Neck’. The repetition is also comforting because it mimics the repetition inherent in so many of us, in our concerns, in our personalities: each of us has a mantra that we repeat ad infinitum: I feel judged, I feel triggered, and so on. However, Broder’s style is sometimes oppressive. I flicked past ‘Help Me Not To Be A Human Being’ because the phrase ‘: a love story’ felt like being hit repeatedly over the head with a linguistic hammer.
Besides her easy-access prose, Broder is readable because her subject matter – herself – is fascinating. She pores over her prolific sexual activities, her addiction to drugs and alcohol, her anxiety, her depression, her (once) open marriage, her husband’s chronic illness, one that renders him bedridden with flu-like symptoms for long periods of time. The detail is astonishing, explicit: she shies away from nothing, excavates everything – literally everything, from semen and vaginal juice to vomit. There is a lot of scatological detail in all three books (‘O that glittery shit’, she writes in her poem ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’). She scoops herself out, lays herself open for us. It is admirable; it takes courage to slice yourself open and pin your flesh back for everyone to see your innards. Eternally, like another classical figure: the fire-stealing Prometheus. But besides the writing about it, I also admire the living. Despite her professed anxiety, Broder does – anorexia, copious sex with men and women, addiction, weeping. I think it’s because of this dynamism that, despite the auto-centrism of her writing, Broder is never boring. Her actions are invigorating and inspiring. And her confessional style, her declarative sentences make one feel as if she speaks to and for all of us. A quote from the back cover of The Pisces encapsulates Broder’s oeuvre perfectly: ‘This book has my number so hard, I’m waiting for its midnight texts.’
Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is published by Bloomsbury Fiction and is available to purchase in all good bookshops and online, as are Last Sext and So Sad Today. For more information about Melissa Broder, click the links for her website and her Twitter handles @melissabroder and @sosadtoday