Melissa Broder’s The Pisces: The Fisherman and His Soul It Is Not

At the core of Melissa Broder’s still all too scant body of work (primarily the essay collection, So Sad Today) is a constant obsession with the human need to fill holes. Whether that translates to a woman literally filling her vag hole with as many dicks as possible or, well, no, that’s really Lucy’s–the “protagonist” of The Pisces–only bread and butter, her sole means toward potentially achieving some brief form of satisfaction. Much like the “persona” Broder took on in So Sad Today, Lucy is a sex and love addict (or “affection” addict, if you will), engaging in the type of high-risk behavior that finds her dosing domestic animals with tranquilizers for the sanctity of a fuck and banging Uber drivers for the sake of feeling ephemerally desired.

In point of fact, it’s difficult to separate the woman in the essay collection from the woman in The Pisces. And even the cover illustration is a mirror of Broder’s aesthetic–a glamorized version how she sees herself. So yes, though it is always something of a challenge to separate the writer from the character, in the case of Melissa vs. Lucy, it is an especial hurdle. As Broder in the Lucy incarnation explains it, “Maybe [the ocean and I] were on the same side, comprised of the same things, water mostly, also mystery. The ocean swallowed things up–boats, people–but it didn’t look outside itself for fulfillment. It could take whatever skimmed its surface or it could leave it. In its depths already lived a whole world of who-knows-what. It was self-sustaining. I should be like that. It made me wonder what was inside of me.”

And maybe the fisherman in Oscar Wilde’s classic tragedy of a short story, “The Fisherman and His Soul,” was wont to fill that same void inside of himself by any means necessary, hence his willingness to get rid of the very thing that the local priest informs him is of the most value of all, an exchange involving the fisherman demanding, “And as for my soul, what doth my soul profit me, if it stand between me and the thing that I love?” and the priest tersely responding, “The love of the body is vile….and vile and evil are the pagan things God suffers to wander through His world.”

Alas, the mermaid will not accept the fisherman into her life while he still has a soul, initially, like the sea Broder describes, able to take it or leave it in terms of the fisherman. With Wilde’s deft prose narrating, “But the Mermaid shook her head. ‘Thou hast a human soul,’ she answered. ‘If only thou would’st send away thy soul, then could I love thee,'” it’s as though the little mermaid herself has a hole that needs to be filled with regard to getting a man to prove just how far he’ll go to show his love. A pure torture to the fisherman, smitten as he is, indeed. Similarly, Theo, the merman that Lucy initially thinks is just a highly devoted surfer/swimmer dude in Venice Beach, insists upon his love giving up all earthly things and never returning in order to join him under the sea. Granted, it’s not asking her to give up her soul–it’s actually worse (or better, depending on how you look at it), for she must die to be under the water with him, in a turn of events that leads her to see that he might be even more sociopathic/a seeker of putting stops in the holes of his ego than she is.

At the outset, Lucy is the one overly interested in Theo amid all the so-called “dates” she tells him about as a means to make him jealous. Over the course of their regular chats by the rocks, she tells him of her encounters with other men that, “Each [is] its own little death.” He returns, “Funny… You’re like a little death…you’re gloomy yet charming. I like it.” In the reverse gender roles, Lucy is the man in the fisherman/mermaid scenario who “held her tightly to him, and would not suffer her to depart.” But of course she must be subtle about it, and even when she does have him in her clutches, pulling him up to her sister’s house in a wagon in a scene that would be totally commonplace in Venice, she has to make sure he knows she has “other options,” chiefly going back to Arizona at the end of the summer as she’s only petsitting her half-sister’s foxhound, Dominic, with the caveat that she seeks group therapy for her addiction to affection. Unable to resist the cush life and a chance to flee from a relationship she ended up being the rejected party in, Lucy does attend the group, what she bills as a “multi-headed hydra of desperation.” But its better than focusing too much on her unfinished thesis about Sappho, specifically the, yes, again, holes in her work, which Lucy feels should be interpreted as intentional. Of course, this is impossible to prove in going on anything other than a “hunch” or a “feeling,” the latter of which Lucy is all about.

In both the fisherman and Lucy’s case, there is the argument that no human can fall in love with a “creature,” an “animal” unless society–the world–has somehow made it clear there is no place for them within conventional parameters (The Shape of Water, of course, being the most recent example of this). That the creatures of the sea are somehow viewed as “monsters,” “accursed” (as the priest calls the “Sea-folk”) to bring any human they touch down with them in ways both literal and metaphorical only adds to the fatalism of this otherworldly form of love.

Possibly the fisherman had had one too many hollow dates on land, hence his susceptibility to the mermaid’s beauty–and, of course, her voice–and his ceaseless attempts to get rid of his soul by any means necessary, even trying to sell it at the market to the merchants who balk, “Of what use is a man’s soul to us? It is not worth a clipped piece of silver. Sell us thy body for a slave, and we will clothe thee in sea-purple, and put a ring upon thy finger, and make thee the minion of the great Queen. But talk not of the soul, for to us it is nought, nor has it any value for our service.”

Confused as to how the priest can say it is the most valuable thing of all yet the merchants can say it is worth nothing, the fisherman is in a similar place as Lucy, who can’t seem to get an answer out of anything about what love is (if only Forrest Gump could have jumped into the narrative to tell her). He nonetheless turns to a witch to seek the answer of how to get rid of the increasingly dead weight that is his soul. When she informs him that all he must do is cut his shadow off with a knife (typically Wildeian in whimsy), he is quick to follow the instructions, sending his soul alone into the world without a heart, though the soul begs him to give him one. But he insists he needs it for his love, the mermaid. Crestfallen, the soul still offers to meet him on the rocks once each year in case he has need of him, to which the fisherman essentially laughs at, asking what need he could possibly have of a soul when he has his love. If Lucy herself weren’t damned to the century where a more overt form of selfishness reigns supreme (for there is something at least romantically selfless about the fisherman’s commitment to the mermaid over his own soul), she might be inclined to refuse her soul just as vehemently. But even despite the constant rejection from his own “master,” the soul returns each year, at one point offering, “‘Suffer me to enter into thee, and none will be as wise as thou.’ But the young fisherman laughed. ‘Love is better than Wisdom,’ he cried, ‘and the little mermaid loves me.’ ‘Nay, but there is nothing better than Wisdom,’ said the Soul. ‘Love is better,’ answered the young Fisherman, and he plunged into the deep, and the Soul went weeping away over the marshes.”

This now unfortunately outmoded notion–which Sappho herself was a strong proponent of–that nothing could be better, of more value than true love is what Lucy herself initially believes until she slowly makes the necessary literary character arc of coming to grips with the idea that maybe love isn’t the answer to everything, as she once seemed to firmly believe. Toward the end of The Pisces, she questions, “Who knew what love was exactly? I still didn’t have it figured out. I remembered what Dr. Jude had said. The question is not what is love, but is it really love I’m looking for?”

This, of course, is after she plays the Sappho game of dramatics in trying to win her love back from the sea. Just as the fisherman slept night and day on the rocks of the ocean where his love dwelled and might see him, so, too, does Lucy, though not for two whole years as the fisherman does, “buil[ding] himself a house of wattles, and abod[ing] there for the space of a year. And every morning he called to the mermaid, and every noon he called to her again and at nighttime he spake her name. Yet never did she rise out of the sea to meet him, nor in any place of the sea could he find her, though he sought for her in the caves and in the green water, in the pools of the tide and in the wells that are at the bottom of the deep.” Lucy faces a similar problem with Theo, though he comes out of the water much sooner to show her that he believes in her need and desperation for him, stating that he only decided to reveal himself once more after he could see that she had truly hit rock bottom and had nothing left to lose in the mortal world. So romantic–like yeah baby, you’ve finally run out of options so now I have to be the one.

The fisherman’s soul, which was the only reason the fisherman was tempted to come out of the water when the soul preyed on the fisherman’s apparently latent foot fetishism by talking of a girl with beautiful feet who adores dancing, curses himself for being tempted by a soul turned evil (and at the fault of the fisherman, who allowed him to wander the earth without a heart, therefore turn mercenary in his mercilessness). But even after everything–losing the girl, doing the evil bidding of his soul, etc.–the fisherman still maintains, “Love is better than wisdom, and more precious than riches, and fairer than the feet of the daughters of men. The fires cannot destroy it, nor can the waters quench it.”

Wilde (and the extension of himself–the fisherman) was a man all for surrendering your body and literally your soul to a cause that would appear increasingly antiquated. Broder, it would seem by the end of The Pisces, is a bit more of a pragmatist about love, and how it’s not so much about the other person, as it is you–how the other person can make you feel (or not feel) about yourself. So no, you likely won’t see her dying in poverty amid some shitty Parisian accommodations.

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  1. […] a man of appetites, seeking to fill the void that no amount of love could fill (sounds a bit like The Pisces, actually). Maybe this is one of the many mistakes Bohemian Rhapsody makes about its portrayal of […]

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