Mermaid expert Megan Dunn reviews horny fish-fucking novel, The Pisces, which she celebrates as “funny, profane, nasty, disturbing and taboo-breaking”.
There are books that make you think and books that get you off. Melissa Broder’s first novel The Pisces does both. Never the twain shall meet, and when they do there might be rimming. Scratch that: anal. But sensitively, “I never imagined that anal sex could be loving. I never thought of it as an intimate act, one of trust, only a pornographic and brutal one,” thinks Lucy, the 38-year-old narrator of The Pisces. Explicit prose drives this primal, animalistic tale. The Pisces reboots classical siren mythology for existentialists surfing Tinder and in the process radicalises the shape of mermen. How does Broder do it? With a sash.
Let’s do the straight review first, then the hooptedoodle (because this mer-reviewer has her own mer-agenda). Voted one of the world’s 50 funniest people by Rolling Stone magazine, Broder is the force behind Last Sext, a collection of poetry, and the Twitter account @sosadtoday. Over six hundred thousand followers tune into her satirical tweets like ‘taste the depression’ and ‘my superpower is my mother only loved me conditionally.’ So Sad Today is now also a celebrated essay collection (recommended by Roxane Gay) and Broder writes a column of the same name for Vice, whose headquarters are in Venice Beach where The Pisces is set.
The novel begins, “I was no longer lonely but I was”. Lucy has just been dumped and is nine years into a floundering thesis about an Ancient Greek poet. Sappho was from the Island of Lesbos and her most complete work was The Ode to Aphrodite. Lucy is from Phoenix and can’t complete The Accentual Gap: Sappho’s Spaces as Essence. Her thesis is far-out, her funding about to be cut. So after punching her ex in the face, Lucy accepts an invite to dog-sit her sister’s foxhound, Dominic, in a million dollar glass house on Venice Beach.
It’s on the rocks – literally – that Lucy meets her merman, Theo, and the full-on fish-sex ensues. But that’s no plot reveal, because the merman is The Pisces marketing hook and it’s a good one. On the back of the book, beneath the hashtag, is the catchphrase, ‘Get wet.’ [Funnily enough Wet was the original title of the 1984 blockbuster Splash, featuring Daryl Hannah as mermaid Madison and Tom Hanks as her human lover.] Mermaids and sex have long been bedfellows and Broder has supplied a practical solution to the problem of the fish-tail. Theo wears a sash, beneath it: his penis and his balls, which feel “weighty like peaches.” He has an ass too.
“It’s not like human myths where the tail starts at the stomach,” Theo explains.
“Where did you get the sash?” Lucy asks.
The Pisces is funny, profane, nasty, disturbing and taboo-breaking. Early on, Lucy finds solace at The Mystic Journey Bookstore on Abbot Kinney Boulevard where she purchases a raw chunk of amethyst (for peace and stability) and an egg-coloured candle (for clearing and change). Next, she’s wheeling a kid’s wagon to the rocks to transport Theo back to the beach house for cosmic uninhibited cunnilingus – with her period. The hunky oceanic Theo, “I’m in sync with your vagina,” is an upgrade on Lucy’s human lovers. “I want you to take as long as you need,” he said. ‘Take the whole night. Take forever.”
The heteronormative mer-romance is almost as long as forever, though as Theo points out, “We aren’t like the way they are in The Odyssey. Homer slandered us.” The Odyssey dates to the 8th Century BC and Homer doesn’t physically describe the sirens, just their alluring voices which lead men to their deaths. By the way, when Lucy first meets Theo she thinks, “If this was death, then death was hot.” Dear reader, you’ve been warned.
Many reviews of The Pisces refer to its ‘queerness’ and ‘fierce feminism.’ Theo’s fins remind Lucy of the black bubblefish she owned as a teenager and his tail smells like vagina. Fishy? Goodreads is actually teeming with merman romances (titles range from Merciless to The Nymph King) but I wager most don’t feature a derisive PhD student riffing on Sappho’s gaps, in group therapy with a bunch of other love-stranded women, all hoping the existential void can be filled – preferably with cock. Lucy attends Dr Jude’s speciality group for women with depression, sex and love issues and thinks, “I hated the words they used inner child, self-care, intimacy, self-love. We were Americans, how much gentler could life be on us?” Touché. The Pisces is about an affair with a mythological creature but Lucy finds it’s the language and tropes of therapy that require her to suspend disbelief. Broder’s most tender-hearted prose is reserved for the novel’s fall-guy: Dominic, the foxhound.
“People don’t have sex with sea creatures unless the world has failed them,” writes Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker. Tolentino links The Pisces in an unofficial trilogy of recent love-stories between humans and aquatic creatures. The other candidates include Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water and Rachel Ingalls’ recently reissued novel Mrs Caliban. However, The Shape of Water and Mrs Caliban both feature buff aquatic humanoid gill-men (variations on the Creature from the Black Lagoon) who romance lonely women. Professor Philip Hayward is the author of Making A Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audiovisual Media. He claims the merman is marginalised because he is symbolically ‘unmanly.’ His fish tail, typically, precludes a shlong and in a patriarchal society that’s a problem. Hayward therefore proposes the ‘gillman’ as the mermaid’s on-screen counterpart in an aquatic ‘beauty and the beast’ duo. Hell, maybe he’s right?
The penis is still sacrosanct in mainstream media. In Del Toro’s PG-rated fantasy The Shape of Water the aquatic creature in captivity – called the “Asset” – makes love to his rescuer, Elisa, the mute cleaner, played by actress Sally Hawkins. However, the “Asset’s” asset is only ever implied. In one scene, Hawkin’s character cups her hands, then opens them like a book, miming to her girlfriend, how the creature’s penis emerges – presumably – from his groin. But the Internet abhors a vacuum, so a sex toy maker named XenoCatArtifacts promptly created a dildo of the Asset’s penis titled ‘The Jewel of the Amazon.’ (in the film, the Asset originates from the Amazon). Ere and her partner Ink, the artists behind XenoCatArtifacts, first produced 20 copies of the limited edition silicon dildo with “ruffled gill-like ridges” and a wave shape. ‘The Jewel of the Amazon’ sold out of their Etsy shop in two days. And – winner takes all – they made another limited run of the Asset’s dildo for the Oscar season.
Broder’s radical move in The Pisces is to give her merman a fishtail and a cock. The raunch below Theo’s paunch is essential to the novel’s success. “I wasn’t going to not go there with the fish-sex,” Broder told the New York Times in their profile about her. Wise. Broder dictated The Pisces three paragraphs at a time to Siri and is now adapting the novel into a screenplay for Lionsgate Pictures. However, the recently rumoured Splash reboot with Channing Tatum tipped to star as a merman, has been canned (nothing stashed beneath the sash?). But in a climate wracked global village reeling from toxic masculinity and the #MeToo movement, perhaps the time for the merman is now?
Medievalist and historian, Professor Sarah Peverley from the University of Liverpool, is the author of two upcoming books on the cultural history of mermaids. I emailed her and asked what she thought of The Pisces. She liked it – a lot. “The queering of merfolk is an area that Broder taps into by making some of Theo’s characteristics and descriptions feminine. This too has a long and complex history but Broder’s one of the first to do it in a big way in contemporary literature.” But what does it all mean? If anyone knows it’s going to be Peverely. She is of the pre-eminent scholars on mermaids and I’ve been emailing her for ages asking curious mer-questions. She writes, “Merfolk in general tend to represent agency, freedom to choose a different kind of life, free from the patriarchally dominated life on land. The ocean has always been connected with women. We are water and watery, so romancing mermen is about privileging the agency to choose, something women have historically been denied.”
The world is having a mer-moment. Mermaids are everywhere, in merchandise, online and in LA. I’m caught up in the hooptedoodle as I’m writing a book about professional mermaids and mermen. I recently Ubered to The Mystic Journey Bookshop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard,in Venice Beach to interview the founder of The Best Mermaid Channel Ever. “What do you need?” Mermaid Abby asked, when we met amongst the miscellaneous crystals. Her clear blue eyes were new age yet also on to it. “Food.” We walked out on to Abbot Kinney, and stood at the lights among the bums, the Boho chic and the millionaires Broder described so well in The Pisces. “There’s still traces of my community here,” Abby told me. “Before Google and the tech start-ups moved in.” After lunch, we visited the house of a local artist and underwater photographer, Rodger Klein. In his basement, the rectangular windows gazed into his deep blue pool as though it was a stage. On an open studio night, Abby once swam around the pool in her tail for an audience of Google employees.
Later Abby took me to Venice Beach but I didn’t meet any mermen on the rocks. Just as well. It was the end of my two-week American research trip and I kept posting the Blowfish emoji on my Instagram page. I’m puffed out with tales. I’ve interviewed mermaids, mermen, mer-photographers, tailmakers, a triton, special effects artists, mer-academics, scientists, and aquaticats. I’ve met the most famous mermaid in the world. I’ve swum in The Wreck Bar in Fort Lauderdale and touched the airbrush that painted Daryl Hannah’s tail in Splash.
As The Pisces draws to its conclusion, Broder’s narrator Lucy discovers her thesis on Sappho has been reinvigorated. The problem? It has also turned into fiction. Lucy’s final task is to decide what kind of story she is in. And will it end on the rocks?
I understood her dilemma. I looked out at the swells of the Pacific, spotted with black neoprene, the surfers as slick as seals, riding wave after wave towards a row of impossibly tall Palm Trees, crazy Sideshow Bobs, throwing shade over the sand. I walked along the pier after Mermaid Abby and the rollercoaster in Santa Monica loop-de-looped in the faroff haze, above us a full moon glimmered in the sky like a low-key spotlight. On the other side of that wan dial, the land of the long white cloud was in darkness and my daughter was asleep dreaming but hopefully not about mermaids. The problem? My story is true.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Bloomsbury Circus $33) is available at Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.