The Pisces, Melissa Broder

Why is it that the words of female sexuality – and of female anatomy – are either rendered taboo or fetishised in our society ?

Vagina. Clitoris. Vulva. Menstruation.

Compared to “cock”, there is a different quality in these words. A frisson of shock and challenge.

And that is a frisson which Broder does not shy away from. At all. You will need to be able to accept that level of language – and why the heck shouldn’t we? – if you’re going to dive into The Pisces. A quick search of the ebook version of the novel shows that Broder uses the following words:

Vagina 21 uses
Pussy48 uses
Cunt2 uses
Vulva1 use
Tits5 uses
Breasts12 uses
Cock36 uses
Fuck136 uses (as both verb and modifier)

Our main character – our narrator, in whose voice we hear the vocabulary above – is Lucy who has come to Venice Beach, California to house-sit her sister’s house and dog whilst her sister is in Europe. Lucy had suffered and survived (barely) a number of traumas in Phoenix, Arizona: the failure of her relationship with the somewhat feckless Jamie; the stalling of her thesis on Sappho; a severe bout of depression; an overdose on tranquilisers.

Lucy’s response to the depression, having made the move to Venice, is two-fold: firstly to enrol in therapy, “a specialty group for women with depression, and sex and love issues”; and secondly to embark on a series of Tinder dates with meaningless sexual encounters. And, alongside this, she meets Theo, who she initially assumes to be a late-night swimmer and is quickly revealed to be a merman.

There seems to be a lot of water in this year’s Women’s Prize Longlist, and generally in literature and culture at the moment: the multitudinous nymphs in Circe; Thetis, Sea Goddess and mother of Achilles in The Silence of the Girls…. It does make some sense: my old (male) literature professors used to like to remind us that water and the ocean in particular was associated with the moon and therefore both menstruation and feminine divinity, Diana and Artemis. That immersion in the ocean was symbolic of the female orgasm.

So, a merman. Why not?

I suppose we should question how real Theo is: our narrator, by her own definition, is not exactly stable and potentially an unreliable narrator; no other character sees, recognises or interacts with him; and he is – well – a merman. How much of him is merely a projection from Lucy of her own fantasies and desires? As she says,

But what, then, was he? Was he really even anything? Mythical creatures were born and died all the time. They were born when we needed them and they died when we no longer saw them through the same eyes. In that way he wasn’t so special. How many had been born before him? How many died when a human vision, powerful but ultimately fragile, was effaced by time and dirt? He would be reborn when the next woman needed him. He would come to occupy another space again.

He is not a merman in the same vein as either of the mermaids in Imogen Hermes Gower’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock: no parlour trick or side show mockery; no ocean spirit. He is very much flesh and blood. And genitalia.

I touched his stomach. It was so smooth, not cut or built, but not roly-poly either. A little soft, full, but also firm. It was existing. He existed. His arm muscles felt stronger than his abdominal muscles and I wondered if this had something to do with the way he swam. He had no hair on his stomach or pubic hair sticking out up over the sash. I rubbed my hands in a circular motion over the front of the sash and felt his penis under there, strong, semi-hard, like a thick trunk. His balls felt weighty like peaches.
“Oh,” I said. “I wondered what you had.”
“Yes,” he said. “And an ass too. The tail starts below all that, not like human myths where the tail starts at the stomach.”

There is something androgynous about him too.

Once in a while, the scent of his bottom half would waft up and it smelled like a fish market—not exactly dead fish, the way my fish-tank emergency had smelled in my youth, but it smelled like blood, the ocean, shit, seaweed…a little like pussy, actually.
I felt almost as though his bottom half were some sort of pussy, although it was phallic in shape. Maybe because he was insecure about it, and I had always felt insecure about my pussy. Maybe it was because in seeing it, this part of him, the part he had concealed, I was, in a way, entering him.

Outside the mythological, Broder is not bad at social satire: Lucy’s dates were all described in very intimate and graphic detail, as were the preparations for them, including her trips to waxing salons and amateur enemas in preparation for anal sex. Her accounts of the therapy sessions mocked the other women there, mocked their commodification and fetishisation of their sexual encounters, but were also sympathetic to them.

But this novel is no celebration of female sexuality. Sex for Lucy – and the other women from her therapy – is dangerous, difficult and problematic. The (human) men were, fairly interchangeably unpleasant, unreliable and faithless, categorised as “douche bros”, “actor-type bros” and “surfer bros”. Perhaps not surprising considering that they were found through Tinder with the bio “Let’s make out in a dark alley.” The sex with them is uncomfortable, impractical and awkward. And yet Lucy is unable to resist them or Jamie, or Uber drivers, even after she meets Theo. And even Theo is – or may be – a route towards annihilation.

For me, this was a novel which did not quite hang together fully. Disparate parts which failed to make a whole. The social satire, the merman, the reflections of Sappho and on depression. They didn’t quite fit. And maybe, not being an expert in Sappho, I am missing something. However, I found Lucy to be not a terribly convincing or engaging narrator. She was passive and lacked agency. The narrative itself was, perhaps, bleak and the hints at redemption and healing towards the end were not quite enough for me. A strange mix of Bridget Jones’ Diary and Fleabag, but without the charm or wit of Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s creation.

If I were to suggest more engaging merman concepts, I might think about del Toro’s The Shape of Water, or even Aquaman!

I can understand why the Women’s Prize judges did not put it forward to the shortlist.

Ratings:

Overall: ⭐⭐⭐

Characters: ⭐⭐⭐

Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐

Language: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Date: 21st March 2019

Available: Amazon

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