Sometimes the most divisive books are the most interesting or, at least, the most fun to discuss. The furore surrounding Yanagihara’s massively successful novel “A Little Life” sparked dozens of articles, hundreds of impassioned reviews and countless spirited discussions between readers. Perhaps Melissa Broder’s “The Pisces” hasn’t caused as big a storm, but plenty of people who’ve read it have very strong opinions about it – both positive and negative. There was a lot of anticipation surrounding this debut novel. Usually it feels gauche to quote the number of followers an author has on Twitter, but it’s interesting how Broder’s Twitter account @sosadtoday with it’s 800K followers invokes a tone of voice so similar to the nature of Lucy, the narrator of “The Pisces”. Indeed, the sort of clipped dour statements made on Twitter “reality has never been my favorite” or “so how do you, like, be a person?” are the kind of mopey reflections Lucy often makes throughout the book. But because this is a story we’re given a lot more depth to the existential feelings which inspire these quips and how they fit into the life of a wayward grad student who goes to live on Venice Beach in LA and has a fantastical romantic encounter.
Lucy is writing a dissertation on Sappho or, rather, avoiding working on the dissertation amidst the breakdown of a long term relationship. She falls into a gloomy state where she schemes to get back the boyfriend that she no longer wanted and spends the little money she has on astrological and psychic readings. Her wealthy sister offers her a period of recuperation and reflection by having Lucy housesit in her beautiful beachside residence and watch after her dog Dominic who she thinks of as her child. This offer also comes with the stipulation that Lucy attend group therapy to deal with her anger and sexual compulsions. Lucy does so, but develops a combative attitude towards many of the women in her group and engages in desultory sexual encounters which leave her unsatisfied - until she meets a mysterious man on the beach.
I think the majority of objections to this novel come from Lucy’s unlikeable character who is frequently severely judgemental towards other people (especially women) and in the book’s frank portrayal of sex and sometimes unsavoury nature of our bodies. But while she’s a deeply troubled and oftentimes ornery character I don’t think she’s unsympathetic. She’s someone who gets hung up on gloomy thoughts and she acts out because she can’t understand why everyone isn’t equally effected by them: “Why were some sadnesses so much more permissible than others? Why did it seem like everybody was going to be okay but me?” I appreciate how a lot of her interactions are composed of spontaneous acts of self-creation. Quite often she’ll say or do something to another person without any awareness of her own motivation behind the action. This felt true to life in the way we’ll deal with people in destructive ways but find it difficult to psychologically understand why we’re acting this way without a serious amount of reflection.
Also, Lucy isn’t someone who could be considered a “good feminist” as she actively seeks the attention from men to validate her existence and actively sneers at women in her support group who frequently feel victimized. She wonders “Who was I if I wasn’t trying to make someone love me?” and puts herself through multiple humiliating or degrading circumstances letting men sexually use her in order to feel that she has worth or value. I can understand why this sort of character would irritate or anger some readers. But I think it’s understandable how people can fall into a cycle of seeking casual sex in the hope of achieving validation but finding it inevitably leads to disillusionment because what they really want is an emotional connection rather than a physical one. The sex portrayed is often ugly because it’s not about a romantic connection or even achieving fleeting physical pleasure with the person she’s with but using them as a substitute to give her life meaning.
Her fantastical encounters with a merman which might be real or a fantasy show how she’s attempting to break this cycle. She’s trying to form a better relationship with herself first because she can’t really love someone else without loving herself first. One of the most effective things about this novel is how it shows the ways we avoid and distract ourselves from what we’re feeling. She states “This is just what people did now. We went from emotion to phone. This was how you didn’t die in the 21st century.” Rather than deal with the mess of our emotions we find it easier to casually project our despair or anger or frustration outward and cast around hoping for any small bit of attention from social media. So I felt this novel represented an exaggerated form of our compulsive neediness and an aspect of modern life where we frequently feel adrift.
While I felt this central message was meaningful there were aspects of the novel which weren’t quiet successful. The most glaring annoyance to me was in the character of Claire who becomes Lucy’s closest friend from group therapy. She’s an interesting individual with an insatiable sexual desire and streak of depression. Claire is also British but the way Broder uses English idioms within her speech feels so forced and untrue that I couldn’t believe in her character at all. It may seem like a minor gripe but she becomes quite an important character in the story and the way she’s portrayed is so clumsy. Nevertheless, I thought the novel as a whole worked in how seriously it takes Lucy’s existential angst and the complicated dynamics of sexual relationships.