The Pisces, Melissa Broder’s debut novel, is a beautiful exploration of modern love. But it’s more than that—Broder’s debut, told from the perspective of a young woman named Lucy, is hilarious and, at times, totally fantastical.
Containing a merman, crystals, and a cast of eccentric characters, it is one of the most original books of the year.
Broder, author of the essay collection So Sad Today, has also written four poetry collections. She writes for VICE, Lenny Letter, and Elle.com. Via email, Broder and I discussed The Pisces, dogs, and the illusion of love.
The Rumpus: I consider myself a slow reader, but I read The Pisces in a day. I was so captivated by the brilliance and the strangeness of it all. Where did you come up with the concept?
Melissa Broder: After I finished writing So Sad Today, I still felt compelled to explore the intersection between love and addiction—the appeal of a fantasy love that might destroy you. Writers often write about the same things their whole lives, and I don’t know if I will ever be done parsing this. I was on the beach in Venice reading a gorgeous book called The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa when I realized that nothing embodies this paradox like the relationship between mermaid and human. How many men in literature have walked into the ocean and drowned in pursuit of that Sirenic nectar? But why is it always a man and a mermaid? What if it was a woman and a merman? And what if it happened now? The story just kind of came to me whole, right there on the beach.
Rumpus: As you were working on the novel and family members and friends would ask about it, how did they respond when you mentioned the inclusion of a merman?
Broder: They’ve dealt with having a poet in the family for years. No one was shocked.
Rumpus: Has writing a novel that includes a merman (and crystals and horoscopes) opened you up to stories from readers about their own supernatural experiences?
Broder: People open up to me, because they sense that I’m simpatico. The truth is I have a love-cynicism relationship with New Age culture. I studied astrology when I went through a breakup at nineteen, as a way to manipulate the universe into bringing me more love. Later, I gave up astrology, because I decided that I no longer wanted to “reason” with the universe and it’s better to surrender to the mystery. But I write horoscopes for Lenny Letter, I never forget a sign, and won’t have sex with an Aries. So, like a lapsed Catholic who still quietly believes in hell, it’s in me.
The main difference is that in my twenties I was always looking outside myself for “the answer.” I would believe any psychic, tarot reader, mystic. But I’ve come to realize over the years that not only is there not one “answer,” but that anyone who claims to have the one answer is suspect. We have what we need inside us already, it’s just a question of uncovering it, of remembering who we are again and again. So this is how I approach astrology. When I write horoscopes, I’d like to think that I am simply helping people remember.
Rumpus: Lucy is a bold character, especially when it comes to talking about her body—its functions, its needs, its desires. Was it difficult for you to write a character with this level of frankness?
Broder: Not at all. I like to write about the primal universalities: eating, fucking, death, and shitting. I feel like there should be more shitting in books! I always wonder why there isn’t. Shitting is something everyone does. The way a character shits can tell you a lot about them.
Rumpus: The supporting characters are a mix of odd personalities. Adam and Garrett, the Tinder bros, are really troubled people—like really, really troubled people. Chickenhorse, Claire, Sara, Brianne, and the other women from the support group have a number of issues. Annika is obsessed with her dog. Jamie has zero direction. And Theo, well, he’s a merman.
Why did you choose to populate your novel with so many strong personalities?
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
– Philip Larkin
Also, I think it’s totally normal to be obsessed with your dog.
Rumpus: Lucy struggles with obvious anxiety and depression. At one point early on, she admits to having a “very complicated relationship with emptiness, blankness, nothingness.” Readers who are familiar with your previous writing, and especially with So Sad Today, your recent collection of essays, will know that you don’t shy away from talking about your experiences with these feelings. I’m curious if writing a novel with a protagonist like Lucy was cathartic.
Broder: I’m grateful for the ability to alchemize the terror, doom, and powerlessness of mental illness into a narrative that I control. When everything feels decontextualized, bottomless, I remember that I can do this and it’s a floor, a ceiling, and a frame. It’s a great gift.
Rumpus: You look at many important topics throughout The Pisces. I think the way you approach addiction is really affecting, but, even more than addiction, at least in my reading, I noticed a strong advocacy for individuals to find some way to achieve a kind of internalized self-fulfillment. What do you hope readers take away most from your novel?
Broder: I hope they laugh. I hope they get turned on. And for those who need it, I hope they find that the medicine can work in spite of how gross it may taste and how annoying the bearers of it may be—and in spite of ourselves.
Rumpus: My favorite line is near the end. It’s during a time when Lucy is thinking of going back to Jamie. Lucy thinks, “The heart contains multitudes. We all need someone in our lives, because ultimately, humans are weak.” Could you elaborate?
Broder: Ah, in this passage, Lucy is using the beautiful and true sentiment that we contain multitudes to rationalize making a bad decision. She is saying that not everything is so black and white as a love that will be good for us vs. an obsession that will hurt us. Further, she is justifying her need to use others to fill the holes within herself, and the repercussions of that action, with the sentiment that most people do this. But this is like an alcoholic saying, “Well, most people drink with impunity.” Such is the joy of having a human mind! We can utilize what is true in one context to totally delude ourselves in another.
Rumpus: Can we talk about Dominic the diabetic foxhound? He’s so loving toward Lucy. Of all of the novel’s characters, Dominic seems to be the most purely motivated. Animals really are better than us, aren’t they?
Broder: I have Pickle, my rescue mutt, who is no Dominic, let me tell you. You know those dogs who are just grateful just to have been rescued? Who intuit when you are hurting and comfort you? That’s not my Pickle. My Pickle is from the streets, but he’s a prince. He’s a royal street rat. It’s his bed, his house, his world. And he’s the great love of my life.
Rumpus: So, which is better: real love or fantasy love?
Broder: Real love is a pain in the ass! It’s responsibility. It’s often a verb, rather than a feeling. It does not always feel like my favorite works of art tell me love is supposed to feel like. It lacks the narcotic effect of the first high. And yet, it has its rewards.