The Greatest Love is To Die in Feeling: On "The Pisces" by Melissa Broder

I'm still trying to get my old reading groove back, which was, for better or for worse, altered permanently by law school. I'm only recently easing my way back into my old habits of enjoying sentences, taking my time, and not feeling like highlighting everything in preparation for a recitation or an exam. Reading a new book with the purpose of writing a review about it - instead of being quizzed on it - hopefully readjusts my lenses.

(Photo credit: D Magazine)

An admission: for my first novel of the year, I chose The Pisces by Melissa Broder because I'm a Scorpio, and all astrology charts say that's my match. That's it. I had no idea what it was about, I didn't read any reviews, I didn't even realize it was from the same author as So Sad Today.

...until a little while later, when I came across this line:

I don’t know that we are ever really okay in life, but there are times when we feel closer to it, when we don’t remember what it feels like to suffer.

Broder knows melancholia; she nails that "less afraid of dying than actually living" feeling perfectly. This book, in a nutshell, is a story of an academic, Lucy, trying to cope with a break-up and eventually falling in love with a merman. Yep. The conceit is almost too insane, too science fiction-y to be taken seriously. But the narrative takes us on such a fascinating tale of sadness, obsession, and redemption - it's too painfully honest to dismiss.

Who was I if I wasn't trying to make someone love me?

When Lucy comes to terms with the aftermath of her breakup, she is rightfully depressed, needy, and judgmental. She tries to dive into her scholarly work but also finds a way to escape it. Eventually, she flies halfway across the country where the road leads her out to sea. But only after she comes across a string of losers, all of whom she gets to fuck - delightfully so, at times - but who never fully extinguish the gaping feeling of unworthiness inside her. And then comes Theo, emerging from the waves like a perfect marble statue. He's real, and offers her everything she needs: great cunnilingus and a complete understanding of her loneliness.

At the core of the novel is Lucy's unfinished dissertation on Sappho and her lyrical poems. Her central thesis is that the missing pieces in Sappho's work are intentional: they were erased for a purpose. She herself admits that it's shaky at best; but she's already spent years on the work, so she keeps at it. Which, as we eventually learn, is how she deals with a lot of things in her life: trying to make something out of nothing. Trying to find meaning amidst the emptiness.

I had been mistrustful of love, of anything, really, that came too easily, as though it were fool’s gold and could one day disappear. I had spent so much time creating friction for myself: not only in whom I chose to love but in the work I did. I’d made my thesis impossibly hard- harder than it needed to be, ensuring that I might never complete it. Somehow it always felt safer psychologically to do that. But where had it gotten me?

At first, the idea of Theo being this ideal, immaculate merman was problematic for me. Given how obviously depressed Lucy was, having someone this perfect would only lead to destruction. But as the story played out, it became clear that he had to be flawless in order to fully unpack Lucy's contempt for herself. The relief he gives her - intoxicating and overwhelming, yes, but it was (or so it seemed) truly unconditional. "I wanted to create that feeling and live in it for as long as I could," she says of her feelings for Theo. And eventually she learns that this feeling of being worshipped, of being adored - it truly empowered her, even until the bitter end.

Falling in love with a Siren meant certain death, but perhaps this was the greatest love: to die in feeling. This was the greatest annihilation—the highest purpose—the Sirens themselves are not evil. They were simply giving human beings the greatest gift they could possibly give them, to die intoxicated by love and lust. What better way to die?

(As an aside, this novel also has a perfectly apt and poetic description of a climax:
This was pure sound. It was as though his mouth emitting pure nature. His mouth was like a shell that you could put to your ear. Or maybe we were nature together? Were we shells or were we animals? Or one shell and one animal? No, we were two fish swimming in circles around each other, playful and spared of memory, unaware that we had ever been born and that we would ever die. We were connected now not only with all of human history—all the human lovers of the past—but with animal history as well. I’d been having sex for years. I’d had it hundreds, maybe thousands of times, but it was like I finally understood what sex was. There were only so many things in our lives that connected us to all of our ancestors, to all of humanity and to the animals. Poetry was one thing that bridged generations. But this was a big thing. This encompassed every species. Otherwise what was there? There was birth and death. There was eating food, drinking fluid, pissing and taking shits. There was this.
A serving of that, please.)

Throughout the novel, Lucy is forced to navigate through her bewildering thoughts, fantasies, and obsessions even as she makes questionable choices in life and love. She learns the dangers of navigating codependency, as she struggles to reconcile wanting to be strong and being driven to self-destruction because of it.

The Pisces embraces being sad, and being unashamed of it. Or at least being fully aware, and learning how to live with having that nothingness pervade your being. It doesn't mean you are not capable of love. On some days, that emptiness may feel easy to dismiss, more definite and persisting on others. But it’s just there. And that isn't to say you cannot love with that gaping hole. I actually think the novel says the opposite: to love is to love. And that purity is not lost in the black hole of our uncertainty, our sadness, our melancholy. We have to come to terms with our own flawed carcasses - and eventually, other people’s flawed carcasses - somehow trusting that such failings will never be insurmountable when love arrives. And believing that believing itself is a battle already won.

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