Connect with Adolescent
Close x white

Author Melissa Broder on "The Pisces" and purpose

Aug. 23, 2018
Avatar fullsizeoutput 1cb3.jpegdb9c1696 98fb 44e4 84a1 660393ec7e17

Melissa Broder is the kind of relatable that disturbs us a little bit. Or, as she says on her Twitter: “If I’m relatable, you’re fucked.” She’s an artist who tells us too much about ourselves, pokes at our most private, unpalatable spots, but somehow, dissonantly makes us laugh like hell and actually like her while she does it. Hers is a rare, terrifying, kind of voice. Her art doesn’t give us what we want to hear; it digs around in the unruliness of being a person. Of how—and really, there’s no better word—weird and inexplicable and disorienting personhood is with all its turbulence. 

Her Twitter, @sosadtoday, puts into words all the incongruities of depression and anxiety that most of us think we’re terribly alone in feeling. In brief vignettes she makes me snort with laughter but also in recognition, and her distaste for bullshit is heavenly. When it comes to mental illness, those who don’t experience it tend to tiptoe around the subject and grin awkwardly when we joke about our malfunctioning brains. Yet humor is a basically universal coping mechanism, and laughter can feel like exhaling. Humor can make the murk in our heads bearable, even, sometimes, funny. Melissa Broder is funny, sardonic, honest, devastatingly relatable, realness amplified through our screens, even in a handful of words. 

Beyond her Twitter, though—a tricky form of literature in itself, I think—is her writing. Her poetry and prose. Her writing stuns, slams us into ourselves, makes me feel that language can transcend its elusiveness, can express what feels inexpressible if a particular writer has their way with it. If Melissa Broder has her way with it.

In reading her first collection of essays, So Sad Today,  I had to slow myself down. I consumed the essays too quickly, but her words—it was like she had crawled into my brain and articulated its strangeness on paper. In very few words. These are the best writers: the ones that capture a feeling you’ve felt but had no name for, no way to share or communicate. Unafraid of picking at the “gross” stuff to unearth the truth, which is often the same thing. I love gross truths. 

Her debut novel The Pisces, just recently released, is narrated by Lucy, a 38-year-old woman working on her dissertation on Sappho in Phoenix, Arizona. She’s been “working” on the project for the past few years and finds herself stuck, tetherless, adrift and disappointed. Her (newly) ex-boyfriend fails to, in actuality, incite much passion or love in her but, from a distance, she longs for him and obsesses over his new girlfriend. In this haplessness she uproots herself to Venice Beach, California to house and dog-sit for her green-juicing, affluent yogi sister, and here joins a “love addicts” group, a ragtag collection of women all trying to figure themselves out, all equally flawed and complicated. Soon enough, Lucy meets a dashing merman named Theo, and that’s all I’ll say about the plot. Although truly, the writing itself is what glimmers, what magnetizes our devotion to the book. Meaning, spoilers would not spoil this novel. 

The Pisces leaves you sore from cringing because oh fuck do I recognize myself. The Pisces spills loose all of the lonely, heart-swelling juices we store up in ourselves and rarely even admit to our art, rarely even dare to look at closely. When we feel pathetic, too much, too human, too wanting. Too hungry for attention and desire and maybe not love, exactly, but a high, a sweet and elusive rush in our veins to insist life is worth continuing, because most of us cannot exactly find that in ourselves. The Pisces knows that. 

There’s also the thing about female likability. As Roxane Gay puts it, “In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don't follow this code become unlikable. Critics who fault a character's unlikability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.” And wow, are we uncomfortable with unlikable women. Perusing the Goodreads reviews, The Pisces receives mostly hardcore love and praise, but then there are those who fault Lucy’s “unlikability” as their issue with the novel. Lucy is “difficult” because she is a woman we culturally consider “past her expiration date,” at least in terms of desire, and yet pursues those desires anyway. She describes feelings of desperation, longing, need, emptiness, that we maybe don’t like to talk about. She talks about her body not merely as a sexualized object in relation to the male body. Lucy shows me that likability may be besides the point. Lucy engages us, makes us think, cringe, flush, sigh. Perhaps a character need not be likable but be full, alive, difficult, and someone we have to contemplate to understand. 

I discussed The Pisces with Melissa not quite in Venice, but near enough, at a sun-washed cafe in West Hollywood. We spoke about a lot more than the novel: obsession, women’s bodies, Los Angeles weirdness, So Sad Today, Twitter, and, most intriguingly, the absence of shitting in literature. And more. Read below, and enjoy.

Sofia Sears: Where did the idea for The Pisces come from?

Melissa Broder: I was on Venice Beach. I was living there at the time. I was sitting on the beach and I had just finished writing So Sad Today, and I felt like I still wanted to explore those themes of sex and love as addictions, and I started writing poems again but I felt like I was sort of writing the same poems that I had been writing before, and so I was on the beach, reading this book by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, called The Professor and the Siren and it’s this beautiful sort of novella, about the story of this man’s love affair with a mermaid, but as told by a younger student of his, and I had never realized how much the siren or mer-character really embodies this type of lust-love that I was trying to explore. I never knew how dark it was. I never realized that, and so I was like, why is it always a mermaid and never a merman? And so the idea just sort of came to me. 

Sofia: Where did the title come from? 

Melissa: I didn’t know what my title was at first, but I knew Lucy was a Pisces, like I just had this vibe, and because she studied the classics, you know, astrology comes from Greece and there is a lot of mythology about all of the different astrological figures and also because Theo is maybe seen as half of her—maybe, maybe not—and because it’s the two fish, and that question of, well, do we need someone else to complete us, or are we ever full on our own, but like, does that even matter? I don’t even know if we’re whole when we’re with someone or without someone, but maybe that’s fine. 

Sofia: I thought it was really interesting, because I think a lot of people have looked at the ocean and compared it to “the void,” or as a metaphor for it. When I go to the beach, I’m consumed by all these weird, existential thoughts sometimes, and I’m wondering what you think it is about water and the ocean, or being near a beach, that has an effect [on] our emotions and how we grapple with things?

Melissa: You know, I had her come from the desert for a reason—Phoenix. It’s supposed to be like the “phoenix rising from the ashes,” but she’s just stuck there. I wanted her to come from a city with a Greek name, so, Phoenix. I think two things about the ocean: one is that we live in this age now where we feel like we know everything because of the Internet, like you go on [someone’s] profile on a dating site and you feel like you know everything about the person, and I don’t know if that’s true, if we actually do, but it can really feel that way. And so the ocean is just still this realm, where you go under and it’s totally mysterious. Yeah, and so we’re confronted with the fact right there that we don’t know everything. Also, I was at the beach on Thursday, and you know, going to the beach is, for me, I go in the ocean but I don’t go all the way up to my head. I’ve only done that once since I lived here, but when I sit by the ocean and just listen to it, it’s sort of like hitting “reset” on everything. In a way, I’ll then look at my life from a different context and think, “what was I obsessing about?” It’s kind of like this giant physical manifestation of how we don’t know everything.

Sofia: So Lucy is in that “love addicts” group, and it seems like with all of her Tinder/sexual encounters, she’s much more enamored with going after things, obsessing over things, but once she gets the thing, it loses its luster. I’m curious if you think that obsession can ever be fulfilling on its own or do you need the thing itself

Melissa: I think that “fulfilling” is an interesting word. I will say this: part of why I wrote the book is that I was really grappling with the question of why a love that is “healthy,” present, abundant—why that can feel not as real, to me, as a love that is largely a construction of my imagination, at a distance, perhaps not healthy… What is it about that love at a distance or that constant seeking—the act of wanting—that feels so real to me? I had to look at the way I define the word “real,” and for me, I think I’ve always defined the word, not in a conscious way—what felt real was something that got me high. Something that gave me a rush. To me, that’s real. In art, the love that art reflects to me, that’s valuable, is—it’s stimulating. Real equals stimulating. And so, I do think there are people who can go throughout their lives just seeking that longing and very often what I see is that they either keep feeling surprised or that the feeling keeps disappearing. They’re chasing the feeling; it’s not about a person. For myself, I’m totally addicted to that feeling and I love it, but I kept bottoming out on the pain that’s on the other side of it, so for myself, it’s not sustainable. But I’m sure that there are others who would prefer to live that way, and good for them...but I’m going to guess that they lack the awareness of what they’re doing, and think that each new person they meet really is—it’s really about the person. But now I think love is so much more about ourselves and less about the person. 

Sofia: Especially as a woman, you’re taught that once you find “the man,” you’re going to be happy and complete, and that everything is empty is going to fill itself, magically. I really like the book because it says “No, that’s not really exactly what happens.

Melissa: I think that’s a really important point. In my own experience, I’ve found—I went to [an] all-girls school for thirteen years [that] wasn’t Catholic school, it was like, feminist school—but my mom was very obsessed with me having a boyfriend, having a social life, and she put a lot of emphasis on looks and stuff. So I remember the day after my wedding, feeling, as I said in So Sad Today, well, now what’s my purpose? The act of obtaining… I didn’t have a fairytale fantasy that once I was married… for me, it was always about the getting, the obtaining. But still, I was disappointed, because I was like… “Oh, is that all there is?” I think some people can be disappointed by marriage because they expect that they’re going to feel complete because that’s what they’re told and then they go “Wait a minute.” For others, it’s like, “Oh my god, what now? What do I do with that whole life purpose of trying to get people to love me?”

Sofia: Changing topics, I wanted to ask you about Dominic, Lucy’s sister’s dog. There was this whole evolution of how she would treat him. She had such overwhelming feelings that came from her relationship with this dog. I’m curious as to why you chose an animal, because it seems like that was the most important creature in her life.

Melissa: I have a dog, who I’m in love with, who has definitely saved my life. My dog, Pickle, though is… he’s no Dominic. Pickle is demanding. I unconditionally love him, but Pickle does not give unconditional love back. I mean, he’s the best. He’s a rescue dog. I know that he loves, but there’s a part of him that’s like, I could’ve maybe done better. He’s a street rat, but he’s a prince. For me, Dominic represented real love, whatever we can call “real” love. A love that is present, but requires a lot of responsibility, and showing up, and is warm and beautiful but isn’t always as sexy and exciting. And it’s like, can those two [loves] coexist? I think what happens is...that sort of fantasy love can eclipse the sort of real love. It’s hard for the two of them to coexist, which is why Dominic hates Theo. 

Sofia: I wish this wasn’t even a question I have to ask, I wish it was more universal throughout literature, but how Lucy talks about and describes her body… is so frank and unadorned, which is so refreshing for me, because women’s bodies in literature are, especially when written about by men, so aestheticized and made into this thing that we cannot actually talk about. There’s no dirtiness or filth that we can talk about. 

Melissa: Totally.

Sofia: So I was reading your book and thinking...why is this so surprising to me? This is how I think about my body—like, it shouldn’t be weird to describe your period. I think there’s this strange norm where we refuse to talk about it in literature because we kind of think it’s ruining the sanctity of language, of highbrow, “real literature.”

Melissa: I haven’t had as many conscious thoughts about the absence of that in other things, and more just like about the necessity of [its presence] in my own. It probably is the absence of that in other places [that made me feell] the need for it, why I felt so strongly like this is going to be in there. I’m always baffled by, like, why is there not more shitting in books? Everybody poops. There is something in the way a person approaches using the bathroom that tells you a lot about a character, in the same way [that] a person approaches food, what they eat, tells you a lot about the character. It’s something we all have to do. There’s a little bit of me that feels rebellious—not like, “Ooh, I’m gonna scare everybody with the poops!”—but just like, it’s been omitted, so it’s gonna be here. In terms of women’s bodies, for me, in writing about sexuality, it’s my own sort of discomfort and confusion and desire to sanitize. All those things are such a big part of my sex life and the way I experience sex, so how can that not be in there? 

Sofia: All of the feelings you describe—[to] really simplify it—of emptiness and loneliness, of feeling hollow… do you think that the supernatural is needed to express that? Often those feelings are difficult to express to other people, especially in terms of mental illness, like, you can’t translate it to other people. It can actually feel like something supernatural. What encouraged you to use the supernatural? 

Melissa: Coming from a poetry background, I have a pretty strong belief and the experience that sometimes the symbol of a thing or the metaphor of a thing can translate more into the truth or capture the essence of a state of being more than the actual reality, you know? There [are] archetypes for a reason, and I think they’re very powerful, because feelings are very universal, but nouns tend to change with the times. I think there are these archetypal images that can convey a feeling or experience better than detailing the actual situation, or detailing an earthly thing. So I also think that we can give human beings supernatural powers. People have asked me if Theo is real, and to me, that’s for everyone (to decide)...up to the reader… One thing I always say is [that] he’s as real as anyone we’re romantically obsessed with. How real is anyone we’re ever romantically obsessed with?

Sofia: So, this is your first novel. I’m curious how this writing process differed for you from [those of your] personal essays and poetry, which feel like they have more room for uncertainty... I’m curious how you grappled with the difference in the genre. 

Melissa: That’s why I think it’s a really good thing I have editors, because at one point, my editor was like, “Yeah, we can have one scene with her washing her butt, getting ready for anal sex, we don’t need three.” For me, it’s like...I feel very comfortable in the worlds of tone and theme and symbol and voice, but the world of plot…I’m like, “Ah, that’s so annoying!” All those ligaments. Like, in a poem, every word counts, every word is very important. If there’s chaff, the chaff’s gotta go. Ideally in a book there’s no chaff either, but there are going to be scenes that are more integral and some scenes—you need them to get to the next place. That was what was very strange for me. 

Sofia: To talk about your Twitter, since you’ve put yourself and your name into the public sphere and it’s not anonymous anymore, I’m curious if that’s changed your connection with your own mental health. When you’re anonymous, it’s probably a lot different than if you’re openly saying these things. 

Melissa: I think that my own neuroses and anxieties now just include the Twitter itself too. So it’s just my own tendency to feel like I’m not enough—or to feel like I’m too much. I loved being anonymous because I could tweet as much as I want, and now people know it’s me tweeting. So it’s just like the shame I feel in life—now, I [just] have another place to feel that. Or like my tendency to seek escape through dopamine—like, Twitter’s just another addiction. The way we are in the world has a tendency to consume or flavor all that we do and the way we see it. I will say that you would think that having this Twitter account out for a while and also having the book out—So Sad Today—for a while, that like, if I were doing a reading or I were doing an interview, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m going to have a panic attack,” I would give myself carte blanche just to—because no one’s going to think it’s weird, it would almost be expected, but I haven’t given myself that carte blanche. It’s almost like the reason why the Twitter started anonymously and was anonymous for years was—I really feel in my own life I hold myself to really intense, perfectionist standards and I’m really afraid of judgement, and I had to be anonymous to express some of these things. So even though the Twitter has my name [on] it now, I still don’t feel like I, as a human being, feel any more comfortable allowing myself those “imperfections” in real life.

Sofia: Last question. It often feels that to people outside of the literary universe, stories that aren’t overtly political don’t matter, like the self or the internal don’t matter, and that can be really—

Melissa: Fucking annoying.

Sofia: Yeah. And you’re like, no, it does because we’re all, fundamentally, people—we cannot just survive on news, on journalism. So why do you think fiction matters, why talking and writing about the the self matters?

Melissa: I can only say why it matters to me. I think that if I don’t connect with people, whether it’s artists or friends, about things that are not time-sensitive and things that are universal and really deep within me, then I’m gonna, like, shrivel up and die. I think there’s a lot—not all—of the news cycle… it’s a soap opera. It’s all monetized, and there is a vested interest in keeping us engaged in that story, so I’m like, why is this other story any less important?

You can buy The Pisces here and find more of Broder’s work here. She lives in LA and is currently working on two novels. 

Italics added for emphasis. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.