Toward the end of Melissa Broder’s page-turner of a novel “The Pisces,” the protagonist, Lucy, a 38-year-old woman at a rough crossroads in her life, receives a bit of advice from her group therapy leader: “The question that you might want to ask yourself, isn’t so much what is love,” she says. “But is it really love I’m looking for?”
This could be the governing principle of the book as well. “The Pisces” is many things: a jaunt in a fabulous voice, a culture critique of Los Angeles, an explicit tour of all kinds of sex (both really good and really bad), but possibly most of all, it is a persuasive excavation into what might drive Lucy’s compulsion for a certain kind of connection.
The book begins with Lucy’s breakup with her long-term boyfriend. She is tired of him and bored of the relationship, but after she provokes the split, she immediately starts to crave him like a drug. She is working in Phoenix, stuck on her dissertation about the spaces unspoken in Sappho’s poems. When her sister offers the respite of dogsitting at her fancy Venice Beach house while she and her husband leave for a summer abroad, Lucy packs up and heads west.
The novel largely focuses on this time in California, with Broder’s sharp eye focused first on the absurdity of Los Angeles consumerism, then moving closer into Lucy’s own actions and thoughts. After some brutally unsatisfying dates and fairly scathing observations of the women in her group therapy, she meets a sensitive swimmer named Theo on the beach in Venice near some rocks, and they begin a passionate love affair complicated by the fact that he is part fish.
As Lucy falls deeper into either love or addiction, the reader watches the world around her both crumble and build itself back up again. Seeing Lucy battle with herself is at times cringeworthy, but that is because it is also insistently honest. Broder’s voice has a funny, frank Amy Schumer feel to it, injected with moments of a Lydia Davis-type abstraction that can turn the existence of a woman walking by in skimpy silk shorts into a meditation on meaninglessness. These are often the strongest moves of the novel’s voice: from the minor keen observation into the resonant theoretical.
At other times, though, we are so centered in Lucy’s head that the outside world drifts too far away. Brief digressions into Greek myth provide a helpful counterpoint, but some of the consequences of Lucy’s experiences are skipped over. This is partly a real reflection of her personal vortex and partly a less-developed aspect of the book. That said, the intensity of Lucy’s point of view is often richly satisfying, and the sex refreshingly human — involving bladder infections, stains and foibles on both female and male sides, while also describing with more wide-eyed prose the transcendent physical connection between Lucy and Theo.
Although the bulk of the story line is the string of these fraught love affairs, rumbling underneath is also a discussion of the nature of nothingness, and what it means to be a bit “death-ish,” as the intuitive Theo calls Lucy. To be a bit “death-ish” is to be aware of possible purposelessness and to try to learn to bear it instead of filling it up with all manner of things. While out peering into stores, Lucy wonders, “Could you get any more Sisyphean than a pair of socks emblazed with sushi rolls?” Though Lucy herself shops at a crystal shop, she is as irritated by any whiff of New Age-iness as she is susceptible to it, and the book slides between a yearning for some kind of solution — whatever kind, an amethyst, sure! — and a pointed critique of a Southern California vapidity and, finally, a sober assessment of how we manage that knowledge of nothingness and still live some kind of life.
For an author who has primarily written poetry and nonfiction, and who is clearly comfortable with a confessional voice, Broder uses the fantastical elements to complicate and deepen her novel. The climactic conclusion works because of its strangeness, because of its imaginative reach and implications. Although some of Lucy’s psychological discoveries along the way may feel a bit indistinct, other insights ring strong and true, and the ending carries the emotional weight of the book because it is borne from the world Broder has created.
This is why the group therapist’s advice feels so apt. By the end, the character and Broder acknowledge something else is going on. There is plenty of lively sex and humor here for readers to relish, but trade Eros for Thanatos for the book’s center — and depth.
Aimee Bender is the author, most recently, of “The Color Master.”
By Melissa Broder
Hogarth. 270 pp. $25