How does our knowledge of genre play into our expectations of a narrative? Imagine the same book under two different conditions. This is a novel in which the supernatural element doesn’t make itself known until halfway through. Add a “fantasy” tag on the back cover, and that delayed release might feel like effective management of narrative tension; have that tag be something more neutral, and the shift out of outright realism can feel more like a shock.
I once got into a heated debate concerning the speculative elements of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with someone who hadn’t expected them to be present, and who was frustrated by the novel’s shift into a more science fictional realm. Going back even further, there’s the Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk Till Dawn, which appears to be a tense crime drama until 75% of the way through, at which point it turns out to be a horror film featuring an abundance of vampires. And much of John Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents leaves the reader ambiguous as to whether a device constructed for traveling through time actually works. Clarity regarding genre elements can make some narratives click, even while others grow more obfuscated.
All of which is a very roundabout way of bringing us to Melissa Broder’s first novel, The Pisces. In its first half, it’s a bleakly funny story of its protagonist, Lucy, house- and dog-sitting for her sister in Los Angeles as she grapples with the aftereffects of a terrible breakup in Phoenix. She’s also working on a seemingly endless dissertation on the works of Sappho. All told, the ingredients are present for a story of relationships, bonds romantic and familial, and the evolving psychological well-being of its narrator. And this is territory Broder knows well—if you haven’t read her essay collection So Sad Today, you really should. But that’s also not quite where she’s headed with this story.
Lucy meets a young man named Theo, who she spots swimming at night. The two meet cute, banter wittily, develop an attraction. Eventually, Theo emerges from the water; turns out he’s a merman, and an amorous one at that. In describing Theo, Broder gives a good sense of his physicality; alternately, she believably writes a sexy merman who is believable as such, rather than as an absurdist punchline. Theo himself doesn’t say too much: there’s a little information given about undersea life and Theo’s life prior to meeting Lucy, but ultimately, that doesn’t matter all that much. This isn’t Theo’s story; it’s Lucy’s. And taking too much of a detour into the secret underwater society of mer-people or something similar would be a scratch on the record that is this story.
Alternately: for all that adding a human/merman tryst into this novel comes as a departure from what’s come before, the fact that this novel doesn’t double down on its paranormal elements is significant. In the novel’s first half, Lucy’s dating experiences (for good and for ill) take center stage. For all that Theo represents a break from this—he’s not on some undersea equivalent of Tinder, for instance—he’s also got flaws of his own, even as he’s also magnetic.
Lucy does occasionally use the word “fantasy” when describing him, and it would be easy to interpret these aspects of the book as, essentially, a point at which the subjective overtakes the objective. The fact that Lucy’s canine charge Dominic does react to Theo’s presence with frenzied barking seems designed to counteract this, though. A dog barking in the face of the uncanny is, perhaps, the one narrative element here that feels like a familiar trope from stories of the supernatural—as though Broder wanted one familiar beat for these scenes.
Still, Theo’s existence and presence in the narrative also links up neatly with Lucy’s field of study, which hearkens back to a time when the naturalistic and mythological could be found in closer proximity. A more contemporary author might make for a different sensibility, while here, the give-and-take between Eros and Thanatos is paramount. See also: the fact that this is a story of emotional rebirth in which the city of Phoenix figures prominently. In the end, The Pisces is a novel that eludes any form of easy classification, and it’s all the stronger for it.
The Pisces is available from Hogarth.