In Love with a Merman: The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Melissa Broder is a poet and essayist, and her first novel, The Pisces, is the best new book I’ve read this year.

I flew through this brilliant, witty, harrowing, and occasionally satiric novel.  The narrator, Lucy, a Sappho scholar, falls in love with a merman, but this is no charming fairy tale:  it is a myth about sex, power, and masochism.  At the beginning, 38-year-old Lucy has moved from Arizona to  Venice, CA, to house-sit for her sister.  Having broken up with her smart, once sexy (now plump) boyfriend, a documentary maker, Lucy is devastated.

She has wry, if dejected, insights into her life in Arizona, where she had it semi-together for a while.  For nine years she worked at a university library and collected a yearly $25,000 stipend to write a doctoral thesis on Sappho.  But the committee has given her a September deadline, and her future is tenuous.  She hasn’t worked very hard on the thesis, which she says is garbage:  a reading of the “vast number of erasures in Sappho’s work as intentional,” even though “they were created by the passage of time and dirt since 600 BCE.”

Her interest in the gaps in Sappho reflects the frightening emptiness of her own life.

I, myself, had a very complicated relationship with emptiness, blankness, nothingness. Sometimes I wanted only to fill it, frightened that if I didn’t it would eat me alive or kill me. But sometimes I longed for total annihilation in it—a beautiful, silent erasure. A desire to be vanished. And so I was most guilty of all in projecting an agenda. I knew it, which was why I had not really pressed ahead. I wasn’t sure if my advisory committee knew it. But I was about to be cut off and I figured that a shitty book was probably better than no book at all. So I continued to trudge, not wanting to quit and get a “real” job, not really knowing what I could do anyway.

Will she start a new life in Venice? Lucy loves the sea and her sister’s dog but hates the rich tourists and the gentrification.  Her only human contact is with the eccentric, obsessive women in her therapy group.  Then she begins to date men she meets through online dating services.   In preparation for one date, she has her pubic hair waxed, which results in burned and reddened labia; then she spends $450 on lingerie.  When she shows up at the hotel wearing a trenchcoat over her lingerie, her date doesn’t even rent a room.  Lucy submits to him in a very unsexy scene in one of the hotel’s luxurious restrooms.  And though she feels sore and raw afterwards, she wonders why  he doesn’t text her?  And she contracts a urinary tract infection.

Broder is often satiric, but it is harrowing to see Lucy fall into sexual addiction.  She goes where no sane woman should, or, in my opinion, would go.  When she meets Theo, a merman, we hope for the best, and she does begin to write creatively about Sappho, far more perceptively than she had in her academic thesis.  But is it healthy to date a sea creature?

She asks Theo if mermen are really sirens. He says,

“…I mean, we aren’t like the Siren myths and stuff. It’s not like we are trying to kill humans or keep them imprisoned on an island. We aren’t like the way they are in The Odyssey. Homer slandered us. But we do live a long, long time. Youthfully. Hundreds of years. We spend most of them looking like we are in our late teens and early twenties. I think it’s the saltwater. It preserves us in some way.”

It’s witty, but I kept thinking, Lucy, watch out!  And she doesn’t completely lose it, though she goes very, very far.

I have one general criticism of this and a few other  literary novels I’ve read by young women in the two years:  the heroines are so passive and powerless, so incapable of making a life for themselves.  I’ll make a wild generalization and say that this is not the case in popular fiction or  historical novels.  Most recently, I’ve admired Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., a novel about a woman poet during the Russian Revolution.

Like Broder’s brilliant novel, Emma Kline’s The Girls and Natasha Stagg’s Surveys portray a lost generation of wispy women who are passive and powerless, ready to submit to any men.  May I recommend a good dose of Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest (the Children of Violence series) or Gail Godwin’s Jane Clifford (The Odd Woman) before they write their next books?

And I will end this post with a fragment of a poem by Sappho, my translation of Poem 34.

The stars around the beautiful moon
hide their radiant form
when the full moon brightly shines
on the earth.

N.B.  Many translations of this poem end with the phrase”with silver,” but the word “silver” does not occur in the Greek text I used.

4 thoughts on “In Love with a Merman: The Pisces by Melissa Broder

  1. Totally in agreement with you about the passive heroines. Where are the feisty women of the past? I want to give some of these soppy youngsters a shake and tell them to get on with it…. (but then I am curmudgeonly old bat….)

    • This is such a beautifully-written book, but something is going on either in this century or in the literary culture. (And I hope it is the literary culture.)

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