Hannah, ‘my’ (that sounds so pompous – she edits things that I write and very very kindly puts them on the Lucy Writers platform) editor asked if someone would like to review The Pisces by Melissa Broder. It sounded exactly like my sort of book. When I received it I cursed Hannah for continuing to offer such wonderful things – I loved it. It is such a great read. So I wrote a piece on The Pisces and, at Hannah’s suggestion, So Sad Today, a book of Broder’s sparkling essays, and also, because I really admire anyone who can produce poetry, The Last Sext, which isn’t as wonderful as her prose, but which was good to dip into and out of. Here’s my piece (slightly different from the form in which Lucy Writer’s Platform published it):
The Pisces, So Sad Today and Last Sext
By Melissa Broder
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.
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: 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 Pisces’ 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’[VS1] that Lucy joins is pivotal to this theme. Each woman is unable to sustain relationships: from Claire (who 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.’
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 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 sex.
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.
The Last Sext is a slim volume of poetry that I think is about being, about the universe that exists both within and without a body. The poems are reminiscent of Plath thematically; 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 disappointingly inaccessible. Her succinctness and her repetition, both so compelling in The Pisces (and in So Sad) irritated me when condensed into poetry. Some of the poems seem nonsensical. Pretentious nothing.
However, I blame this partly on own willingness / ability to engage, to let the words sink in. 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 ‘Love in the Time of Chakras’ and ‘Love Like You Are Trying to Fill an Insatiable Spiritual Hole …’, for example, 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,’ and ‘It was the least satisfying ending ever’ (two sentences plucked at random from the book). 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 perhaps 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 in … 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’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 – semen, vaginal juice, 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 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 egocentrism of her writing, Broder is never boring. Her actions are enervating 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 back cover of The Pisces encapsulates
Broder’s oeuvre perfectly: ‘This book has my number so hard, I’m waiting for
its midnight texts.’
As a final note I want to say that Broder’s work has crystallised something from Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton:
I think of Jeremy telling me I had to be ruthless to be a writer. And I think how I did not go visit my brother and sister and my parents because I was always working on a story and there was never enough time. (But I didn’t want to go either.) There never was enough time, and then later I knew if I stayed in my marriage I would not write another book, not the kind I wanted to, and there is that as well. But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go—to Amgash, Illinois—and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think.My Name is Lucy Barton
I know that the above quote is about a fictional writer, but I think it is nevertheless true: that in order to be great, or even good, a writer has to be ruthless, in so many ways. Maybe I don’t mean ruthless, maybe I mean selfish – no necessarily in a derogatory way – but you have to be able to say ‘This is what I want to do’ – be unshakeable in your quest to write – and to write what you want to write. I haven’t captured this thought particularly well here. I’ll come back to it when I manage to put it properly into words. But I think that Broder has that brave ruthlessness – in her ability to do as she desires – to not hold back.
 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.
 As a side note, this brought about a revelation (though it’s not a terribly original thought): that the success of Trump’s rhetoric is because the simple structure and short words of his sentences are like religious exhortations, his speeches a kind of preaching.