A Monthly Book, #3: The Pisces

9781408890950

~~caution: some spoilers ahead~~

The first paragraph of The Pisces nearly wrecked everything for me: featuring the rancid breath and un-self-conscious shit of our protagonist’s sister’s beloved foxhound (named Dominic), it seemed to represent exactly the sort of Moshfeghian abject devotion to the grossness of the body that starts to pall after about two sentences. But then Broder’s protagonist, Lucy, saved everything: “I thought, This is the proper use of my love, this is the man for me, this is the way.” It’s such a weird, sweet(-ish), innocent(-ish) thought to express: wrecked by a breakup she realizes too late she doesn’t want, recuperating in her rich but kind sister’s fancy Venice Beach pad, perhaps a dog can represent a safe locus of all the love she has to give.

It’s something that Broder returns to again and again over the course of The Pisces: who is truly worthy of our love? And how can we stop ourselves from lavishing it on someone who doesn’t deserve it? The way of framing the question is sneaky, because it subverts not only the way women are taught to think about relationships and desire, but many of the connotations of the way The Pisces itself is structured. Lucy, as we learn early on in the novel, has broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Jamie–mostly because an idle threat issued in a moment of frustration took on a life of its own–and has moved to Venice Beach for the summer, nominally to house-sit for her sister, but really to mend her broken heart. We know how this is going to go; it’s how many romance novels, wish-fulfillment tales, are written: a newly single woman escapes to some place where it’s sunny and warm and she doesn’t have to work, spends time and energy recreating herself, and is narratively rewarded for her efforts, at last, with a romantic relationship. But even from the start, Broder is messing with these tropes and with us. Lucy is unemployed because she’s a graduate student trying to finish her thesis, on how to read the textual lacunae in the extant works of Sappho. She is having a difficult time doing this, but she is meant to be doing it; she is meant to be working, and working intellectually. Already, her California beach retreat is shown to be tethered to real life, to responsibility and maturity.

In her romantic encounters with men, too, Lucy has experiences that possess the structure of a classic romance novel, but the import of which is very different. That incongruity forces the reader to reassess traditional perspectives on the situations Lucy finds herself in. There’s an excruciating sequence, for instance, in which she meets a man on Tinder and plans to have no-strings sex in a hotel with him. She buys $300 lingerie, they maintain the fantasy via text, and then the reality–he meant a hotel bar bathroom, not an actual room; the anal that he wants is painful and the attempt swiftly abandoned–reveals how empty and shallow their interactions have actually been. Crucially, Broder is not saying that having no-strings sex in a hotel bathroom is bad in and of itself; what she’s criticizing is the pressure to lavish huge amounts of time, effort and money, in the name of sexiness, upon someone whose fundamental superficiality and indifference to you renders them unworthy of that effort. The reason Lucy’s fellow patients in group therapy are all so spectacularly unable to get over their various issues with intimacy and relationships, likewise, is because all of the energy they’re expending in “self-care” is intended to make them more desirable. It’s not self-care at all; it’s an investment in product development, in the hopes that it will increase that product’s market value.

When Lucy finally does meet someone who seems to be worth it–the sexy merman Theo, who loves giving head–it looks like the romantic payoff we’ve been expecting. Or at least, it does from one angle. From another angle, it looks a little too good to be true: who actually has cosmic-level period sex? Who actually has this level of connection with a lover they barely speak to (or rather, whose dialogue with their lover is only minimally reported)? And in choosing a man who mostly lives underwater, hasn’t Lucy rather conveniently selected another person who is, at best, only half available? (“Available”, as a concept, is something Broder touches upon frequently.) The way the novel ends is confirmation of this more suspicious reading of Theo. He may be hot and good in bed, but he’s also a bottomless pit of need: almost literally, since Lucy discovers that he’s dragged seventeen women before her to the bottom of the sea.

The Pisces, therefore–if you’ll forgive me for mixing my animal metaphors–is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a romance novel that eviscerates romantic tropes; it’s erotica that revels in the awkward; it’s the story of a woman finding herself by, eventually, forgoing her narrative reward of A Man’s Attention (Labeled Love). It’s smart as hell, and not too far below the surface of the irony there’s an acknowledgment of what Lucy calls “nothingness” or “the void” that lends the novel ballast. Is it sexy? Sure. But it’s also sincere, and profoundly unexpected. I wouldn’t be sad at all to see it on the Women’s Prize shortlist.

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14 thoughts on “A Monthly Book, #3: The Pisces

    • Haha, thanks – it’s an aesthetic that I find depends very heavily on shock, which is hard to sustain for a whole book; my theory is that’s why many people bounced so hard off of Eileen. Luckily The Pisces, although quite happy to enter the realms of physical grossness, never stays there without a reason, generally something that reveals psychological depth or advances the plot.

    • I can’t tell you how pleased I was to enjoy it, and writing the review only made it clearer to me how much Broder is deliberately undermining tropes of romantic fiction. It’s much cleverer than it looks.

  1. Fuck yes to this entire review. I approached this from a similar angle of apprehension and I was just stunned by how deceptively clever it ended up being. The undermining of tropes was genius and Broder’s commentary on love and worthiness was so on point, and that tension between wanting to be loved and not wanting to give all of oneself hit so hard. And that ending! Perfection.

    • The ending was such a relief to me – I was so unsure about how the relationship plot was going to resolve, and Broder keeps us uncertain until so close to the final page! Also, the establishment of Dominic on page one as an infinitely patient giver of love, and an infinitely worthy receiver of it, makes his fate particularly intellectually satisfying (although very sad) – it becomes clear that he’s symbolic of everything Lucy has thrown away in pursuit of people who don’t deserve her.

      • Yes, same. I had really enjoyed the ride either way but it’s one of those books where the ending really was a make it or break it situation. Completely agree about the dog – certain passages were emotionally challenging to read but it was worth it for the intellectual satisfaction in how that dovetailed with Lucy’s emotional journey (and I get irrationally annoyed at the amount of reviewers who cite this as the reason they disliked the book tbh).

  2. Excellent review. I’ve been on the fence about this for a long time, because the premise didn’t jump out at me, but the novel sounds really smart and clever. Enjoyed reading your analysis!

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