The pisces A novel

Melissa Broder

Book - 2018

Bottoming out after a dramatic breakup, doctoral student Lucy accepts her sister's invitation to dog-sit at her home on Venice Beach for the summer, where she meets an eerily attractive swimmer whose Sirenic identity transforms her understanding of what real love looks like.

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FICTION/Broder, Melissa
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Romance fiction
Humorous fiction
New York : Hogarth [2018]
Main Author
Melissa Broder (author)
First edition
Physical Description
270 pages ; 22 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

THE PISCES, by Melissa Brodér. (Hogarth, $25.) In Broder's charmingly kooky debut novel, a depressed Ph.D. student chances upon her dream date - and he's half fish. Brodér approaches the great existential subjects as if they were a collection of bad habits. That's what makes her writing so funny, and so sad. KUDOS, by Rachel Cusk. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) As she did in the first two volumes of this spare, beautiful trilogy, Cusk illuminates her narrator's inner life via encounters with others. The novels describe in haunting detail what it's like to walk through the world, trailing ashes after your life goes up in flames. SHE HAS HER MOTHER'S LAUGH: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, by Carl Zimmer. (Dutton, $30.) Zimmer does a deep dive into the question of heredity, exploring everything from how genetic ancestry works to the thorny question of how race is defined, biologically. The book is Zimmer at his best: obliterating misconceptions about science in gentle prose. FRENEMIES: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else), by Ken Auletta. (Penguin Press, $30.) Advertising has lost its luster in recent decades - in part because of the dependency and competition between ad agencies and Silicon Valley, one of many "frenemy" relationships Auletta details. BAD BLOOD: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou. (Knopf, $27.95.) Elizabeth Holmes and her startup, Theranos, perpetrated one of the biggest scams in the history of Silicon Valley, raising millions for a medical device that never really existed. Carreyrou's account reads like a thriller. REPORTER: A Memoir, by Seymour M. Hersh. (Knopf, $27.95.) In Hersh's long, distinguished and controversial career he exposed brutality, deception, torture, illegal surveillance and much else. His memoir about knocking on doors in the middle of the night and reading documents upside down can be considered a master class in the craft of reporting. THE GIRL FROM KATHMANDU: Twelve Dead Men and a Woman's Quest for Justice, by Cam Simpson. (Harper/ HarperCollins, $27.99.) Simpson, an investigative reporter, retraces the journey of 12 laborers from their Nepal homes to their deaths by terrorists in Iraq while en route to an American military base. THE PERFECTIONISTS: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon (Harper/HarperCollins, $29.99.) This eclectic history celebrates feats of engineering while asking if imperfection might have a place. THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic, by Benjamin Carter Hett. (Holt, $30.) Hett's sensitive study of Germany's collapse into tyranny implies that Americans today should be vigilant. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web:

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 30, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Lucy just broke up with her longtime boyfriend her capricious suggestion and instant regret and her PhD thesis on Sappho is still far from done. And then there was the doughnut incident, as she refers to a near-death Ambien overdose. At her worried sister's urging, Lucy escapes her depressing situation in Phoenix to spend the summer in Venice Beach, caring for her sister's dog while she's away in Europe and begrudgingly attending support meetings for women with sex and love issues. One night, she meets a peculiarly ageless swimmer named Theo on the beach's rocky shore. A hunky surfer-looking dude from the waist up and, well, a different story below, he's soon her generous lover and all-consuming obsession. In a banner year for woman-falls-for-sea-creature stories (The Shape of Water, 2018) Lucy, a wry and lovable lost soul, tells a tale that's all her own. Did it take a mythological deformity to find a gorgeous man who was as needy as I was? In her first novel, essayist, poet, and Twitter-star Broder (So Sad Today, 2016; Last Sext, 2016) wraps timeless questions of existence those that gods and stars have been beseeched to answer for millennia in the weirdest, sexiest, and most appealing of modern packaging. Brilliant and delightful.--Bostrom, Annie Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The debut novel by poet and essayist Broder (So Sad Today) is an alternately ribald and poignant fantasy about a relationship between a despondent graduate student and a merman. Lucy, stalled out after years of trying to write a dissertation on Sappho and melting down after her boyfriend breaks up with her, heads out from her desert campus to the beaches of southern California, where she dogsits her sister's affable hound. Despite joining a sex and love addiction support group, whose members Broder depicts with affectionate sarcasm, Lucy hooks up with one wildly unsuitable man after another. Then, sitting on a rock at the beach and feeling borderline suicidal, she meets a sensitive hunk whose only drawback is that he sports a tail instead of legs. Temporarily, at least, they work out their differences, with Lucy transporting him at night to her beach house in a little red wagon. Broder evokes the details of bad sex in wincingly naturalistic detail, and even if the good sex is a little more soft-focus, it makes for a satisfying fantasy. Broder makes her merman a more complex and believable character than most romantic heroes; her novel is a consistently funny and enjoyable ride. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Essayist/poet Broder voiced her previous audiobooks So Sad Today and Last Sext, and she's the natural choice to narrate her first novel. She reads here with firm, measured precision, determined to keep moving forward steadily, as if she knows she's got a page-turner listeners won't be able to turn off. After breaking her ex-lover's nose and possibly attempting suicide with nine Ambien and too many donuts, Lucy leaves Phoenix (and her still-unfinished-after--almost-a-decade dissertation) for her sister's luxurious Venice Beach glass fortress. Paid to babysit Annika's diabetic foxhound (so Annika and her husband can wander Europe relatively guilt-free), Lucy has also reluctantly agreed to attend a "group-therapy program for sex and love addiction." After a few demeaning Tinder disasters, Lucy finds herself involved with someone she initially thought was a young surfer but who turns out to be an ancient merman. Enabled by a child's red wagon and dog tranquilizers, the affair turns epic-until it isn't. VERDICT Melding self-help, scathing social commentary, academic exposé, American privilege, fervent nods to the ancient Greeks, and-eye-poppingly graphic-erotica with a mythical creature, Broder will satisfy all curious voyeurs. ["A wild ride from a narrator whose sardonic outlook reveals profound truths about the nature of the self": LJ 3/15/18 review of the Hogarth: Crown hc.]-Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, -Washington, DC © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

In Broder's debut novel, a disaffected academic struggling with a breakup finds love in the arms of a merman.In the midst of writing a disingenuous dissertation about Sappho, Lucy surprises herself by breaking things off with her longtime boyfriend, Jamie, and spiraling into a depression. Thankfully, Lucy's sister leaves her Venice Beach house, "a contemporary glass fortress," for the summer and invites Lucy to level out, attend therapy, and dogsit. Predictably, Lucy is bad at each of these tasks. In group therapy, Lucy silently judges her fellow codependents, who "all blurred together into a multi-headed hydra of desperation," while plotting how she can get over Jamie by getting under someone else. And while she cares for her sister's dog, she's not responsible enough to handle his strict dietary and medical needs, either. When Lucy meets Theo, a mysterious swimmer who haunts Venice Beach by night, she thinks her luck in love might have finally turned around. But whatother than a tailmight Theo be hiding? And who is Lucy willing to neglect in order to find out? On the surface, this audacious novel from Broder (So Sad Today, 2016, etc.) is a frank exploration of desire, fantasy, and sex. But it dives deeper, too, seeking out uncomfortable topics and bringing them into the light: codependency, depression, suicidal ideation, and an existential fascination with the void each get their days in the sun. When we obsess about a breakup, or about all the sex that comes before a breakup, what are we actually obsessing over? "I didn't know if the universe actively taught lessons," Lucy thinks during her affair with Theo. "But if it did, the lesson was that I could not handle what I thought I could handle." Broder has created a voice at once intimate and sharp, familiar and ugly. Lucy dares you to recognize your thoughts, fantasies, and obsessions in her own even as she makes questionable choices in life and love. This isn't just a novel about navigating the dangers of codependency, but an attempt to learn how we all might love better in a culture that pushes even its strongest women to the brink of self-destruction.A fascinating tale of obsession and erotic redemption told with black humor and biting insight. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 I was no longer lonely but I was. I had Dominic, my sister's diabetic foxhound, who followed me from room to room, lumbering onto my lap, unaware of his bulk. I liked the smell of his meaty breath, which he didn't know was rancid. I liked the warmth of his fat belly, the primal way he crouched when he took a shit. It felt so intimate scooping his gigantic shits, the big hot bags of them. I thought, This is the proper use of my love, this is the man for me, this is the way. The beach house was a contemporary glass fortress, sparse enough to remind me nothing of my life back home. I could disappear in a good way: as if never having existed, unlike the way I felt I was disappearing all fall, winter, and spring in my hot, cluttered apartment in Phoenix, surrounded by reminders of myself and Jamie, suffocating in what was mine. There are good and bad ways of vanishing. I wanted no more belongings. On the second-­story deck of the beach house I escaped the hell of my own smelly bathrobe, wearing one of the silk kimonos my sister had left behind. I fell asleep out there every night, tipsy on white wine, under the Venice stars, with my feet tucked under Dominic's gut, belonging to nothing familiar. I felt no pressure to fall asleep, and so, after nine months of insomnia, I was finally able to drift off easily every night. Then at three a.m. I would wake gently and traipse to the bed with the Egyptian cotton sheets, kicking my legs all over them in celebration, rolling around and touching my own skin as though I were a stranger touching someone foreign, or cradling the big back of the dog to my front to die to the world for another eight hours. I might have even been happy. And yet, walking on Abbot Kinney Boulevard one night at the end of my first week there, passing the windows of the yuppie shops--­each their own white cube gallery--­I saw two people, a man and a woman, early twenties maybe, definitely on a first or second date, and I knew I still wasn't okay. They were discussing intently where they should go to eat and drink, as though it really mattered. He had an accent, German, I think, and was handsome and fuckable: hair close-­cropped and boyish, strong arms, an Adam's apple that protruded and made me think of sucking on it. The woman was, as the undergrads at the Arizona university where I worked as a librarian might say, a butterface. For nine years I had been at Southwest State in the dual lit and classics PhD program. Somehow, miraculously, despite having not yet turned in my thesis, they hadn't withdrawn my funding. In exchange for thirty hours of work per week in the library, I was housed in a below-­market-rent apartment off-­campus and received a yearly stipend of $33,000. I was supposed to be working on a book-­length project entitled "The Accentual Gap: Sappho's Spaces as Essence." This year, as a result of my tardiness, I'd been appointed a new advisory committee, comprised of both the classics and English department chairpersons, and I was no longer flying under the radar. In March, I had met with them at a Panera Bread, where they delivered the news over paninis--­Napa almond chicken salad for the English chair in her coffee-­stained Easter sweater and tuna salad for the classics chair, his nose swollen with rosacea--­that I was to have a full draft completed by the fall semester or my funding would be pulled and I would be out. So far, this had not made me hustle any faster. It wasn't that I no longer felt impassioned by Sappho. I did, or sort of did, as much as you can feel impassioned by anyone you have lived with for nine years. But it had dawned on me around year six that the thesis of my thesis, its whole raison d'être, was faulty. In fact, it was not just faulty. It was total bullshit. But I didn't know how to fix it. So I'd just been riding it out. The book operated under the notion that scholars always assumed a first-­person speaker when reading Sappho's poetry. Scholars were kind of assholes and they actually hated mystery--­they detested any inability to fill in the blanks. They were victims, like the rest of us, of the way their brains worked: trying to compartmentalize every fragment of information into a pattern. They wanted the world to make sense. Who didn't? So when reading Sappho's work, they took details that they already knew, or thought they knew, of Sappho's life, and used them to fill in the blanks. But they did so erroneously, like a psychologist who, after learning three extraneous things about a person's childhood, believes they know the whole person. My book presented the argument that one should read the vast number of erasures in Sappho's work as intentional. True, Sappho had not included these herself. They were created by the passage of time and dirt since 600 BCE. Most of her work was actually missing, with only 650 lines of 10,000 surviving. But I argued that to reimagine these blanks as created by Sappho herself was far less of a co-­option than filling in the gaps with what little we know of her life, creating our own meanings for them out of a desire to make history our own, and above all, projecting a first-­person speaker upon them. I felt that the only way we would cease projecting was if the blanks were read as intentional text themselves. Forget whether she was a lesbian, preferred younger men, was hypersexual, bisexual, or had multiple male lovers. If we were going to ascribe meaning, let's do it with what was there rather than what was not there. Unfortunately this was a total garbage proposition. 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. Most of my time in public was spent in the library, amidst the undergrads, and that was where I had heard them use the words butterface and brown bagger. They used these words to describe women of attractive body and unattractive face, and this woman on Abbot Kinney was, in my opinion, definitely one. I moved quickly behind her to observe her further. Her visage, when she turned her head to talk to the man, was hard and pronounced, with a jutting nose and chin, but she had good hair and a hot body to save her. She wore a pair of tiny navy silk shorts from which the very bottom of her ass cheeks protruded ever so slightly. You almost felt compelled to touch them. Everything she said was filtered through her own awareness of how good her ass looked, the words she spoke merely an afterthought compared to the glory at the bottom of those shorts. She was almost like a vehicle for shorts and an ass. She sort of danced a little down the sidewalk and flicked her hair. He was no better. He asked stupid questions--­"So how long have you lived here?" and "Do you like it?"--­but every question was a chance to put his own hotness into action. Why were they even bothering to speak? Who had time for all of this? Why weren't they just fucking, right there, out in the open? The entire performance was merely a vessel for something else. It was nothingness. Sure, compared to the greater nothingness--­the void, the lack of explicit meaning in life, the fact that none of us knows what is going on here--­it was at least something. Their engagement in this dance of elevating a stupid restaurant to high levels of importance, discussing kombucha, making the fleeting matter, the shorts: all of these were a fuck-­you to emptiness. Or perhaps these details were symptomatic of their ignorance of nothingness. Was nothingness so imperceptible to them that these things could matter? Could anyone be totally ignorant of the void? Didn't all of us have an awareness of it, a brush with it--­perhaps only once or twice, like at a funeral for someone very close to you, when you walked out of the funeral home and it stopped making sense for just a blip that you existed. Or perhaps a bad mushroom trip where one's fellow trippers looked like plastic. Could there be people on this Earth who never stopped for a moment, not once, to say: What is everything? Whether these were those people or not, I knew that in this moment neither of them was asking that question. If they had tasted the nausea of not knowing why we are here or who we are, or if they had not, now they were willfully and successfully ignoring it. Or maybe they were just stupid. Oh, the sweet gift of stupidity. I envied them. But really, I knew that everything came down to her shorts. All of the answers were in that ass line--­the reduction of all fear, all unknown, all nothingness, eclipsed by the ass line. It was holding its own in all of this. It was just existing as though living was easy. The ass line didn't really have to do anything, but it was running the whole show. All dialogue began and ended at that ass line. The direction of their evening, their dialogue, and in a way, the universe ended there. I hated them. I hated their ease with everything. I hated their lack of loneliness, their sense of time stretching out languidly like something to be toyed with, as though it were never going to get too late tonight or in their lives. I didn't know who I resented more: the man or the woman. Chapter 2 I have always felt that it would be good to be a man. Not only have I always wanted to have my own dick--­just to walk around feeling that weight between my legs, that power--­but I have longed to escape the time pressures that my body has put on me. I hated the German man on Abbot Kinney for having that, no time pressure. I hated the woman too, for being so young, for having so much time left to be hot and maybe someday have a baby. I had never wanted a baby. I never felt the desire so many women describe that suddenly hits them. Having just turned thirty-­eight, I had been waiting and waiting for that desire to overtake me, but it didn't. So I always looked on it casually, like something mildly distasteful: a piece of onion I would prefer not to put on my plate. But I loved having the option of having a baby if I still wanted one. I liked having the future ahead of me. People say that youth is wasted on the young and I agree in so many respects that it was wasted on me, but in one way I had appreciated it. I always had a sense of my privilege with time. Part of my casualness with the question of having children was that I sensed how lucky I was that I could one day have the choice if I wanted. I liked that that day was very far off. The distance felt luxurious. I had secretly judged women who regretted never having children and were now no longer of the age at which they could have them. I judged them, perhaps, because I feared becoming them. But now at thirty-­eight, my time was beginning to run out. I still didn't want a child. I didn't know what I would do with a child if I had one. But I missed having that open space before me in which to decide. And if that ass-­cheeks woman had been paying attention to me, I knew she would have judged me as I had judged others my age. She might have also judged me for being unmarried. When Jamie and I first met, I told him that marriage was an archaic declaration of ownership and it wasn't for me. He said "good," because it wasn't his thing either. But four years into the relationship I wanted desperately for Jamie to ask me to marry him, if only because he wouldn't. I'd never been a jewelry person, but something inside me longed for that ring. Outwardly I shit-­talked blood diamonds, while quietly I studied other women's rings, learning the names of the various diamond cuts: cushion, emerald, princess. I swore that married women used their left hands more than their right when they spoke, gestured, or wiped a stray hair out of their eyes, just to rub it in. They seemed to be saying, Look, someone wants me this much. I have safely made it to the other shore. But what would I have even done as a married person? What would I have done with Jamie in my space or me in his? Choosing Jamie to love for so many years was perhaps more of a symbol of my own fear of intimacy than it was of his. He was intoxicating when we first met: a geologist, 6'2", handsome in an L.L.Bean travel vest sort of way, golden brown and unshaven with sandy-­brown hair, ten years my senior. He made me feel like a special little pea. Through his work in the desert with the university, he had received a grant from the American Geological Fund to make documentaries on the national parks. He always directed and edited the docs himself, and the grant gave him the power to travel, be free, and always be producing. Even though the documentaries aired at two a.m. on limited cable channels, he could never be accused of failing. "I'm more with the scientists than the artists," he said. But he had the allure of an artist. In our earlier years together I traveled to see him on location often. I spent my holiday breaks in an Airstream at Acadia National Park, Glacier, Yosemite. He would go on shoots all day and I would go out exploring, bringing back little souvenirs. He loved hearing what I had seen, correcting my landscape terminology. My favorites were the lakes and oceans, the rivers and waterfalls, like nothing we had in the desert. The rushing water, and traveling in general, made me feel like my life was moving forward, in spite of my flagging thesis. I identified myself with his work. It felt adventurous. Excerpted from The Pisces: A Novel by Melissa Broder All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.