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    The one that got away

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    Poet and essayist Melissa Broder knows how to launch a metaphor and stick to it. On page three of her sardonically brooding debut novel, “The Pisces,” narrator Lucy confides that she has “a very complicated relationship with emptiness, blankness, nothingness. Sometimes I wanted only to fill it, frightened that if I didn’t it would eat me alive or kill me. But sometimes I longed for total annihilation in it.” Lucy is explaining her personal connection to the subject of her PhD thesis (blank spaces in Sappho’s poetry), but it doesn’t take 15 repetitions of the word nothingness for anyone who ever took an English lit class to get the point that the emptiness Lucy feels inside has a larger significance: “the nausea of not knowing why we are here or who we are,” she tells us six paragraphs later.

    It’s a relief when the existentialist rhetoric segues to a considerably earthier account of Lucy’s break-up with longtime boyfriend, Jamie, complete with bad make-up sex and self-flagellating fantasies about the better sex he’s having with her replacement. Lucy reacts to Jamie’s speedy recalibration with furious insecurity: She goes to his apartment and hits him in the face, then asks the cop dispatched by the outraged new girlfriend, “Would you say she’s better-looking than me?” Lucy is self-aware enough to mock her neuroses, but that doesn’t prevent her from sinking into a depression so crippling that her half-sister, Annika, insists that she come dog-sit for the summer at Annika’s swanky oceanfront home. In Venice Beach, Lucy has even worse sex with men she meets through Tinder, and there’s black humor in her exasperated commentary on these less than transcendent rendezvous. “I was [having sex] on a bathroom floor to ‘Tears in Heaven.’ Sorry, but no. What did it even mean to be alive?”

    Yes, the existential void is back, and we might feel more sympathy for Lucy if she weren’t so sure that her perception of it makes her superior to all those oblivious people who manage the chores of daily living at which she’s so proudly inept. Judged is a word she uses a lot, as in “I felt judged,” but most of the time Lucy is judging others in self-serving terms. “How had I ended up with these losers?” she wonders during her first session in group therapy “for women with depression, and sex and love issues.” Broder drops ample hints that Lucy is defensively distancing herself from weaknesses she shares, but that doesn’t make her sneers any less off-putting. When she finally develops some empathy for the rest of the group, she expresses it in fake communal deprecation: “What was wrong with us? There were women on the planet who so easily accepted their paths . . . whichever assembly-line man they were given.” Lucy and her sisters in therapy are incapable of such pathetic compromises.

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    The attractive man she meets on the beach who tells Lucy, “Nothingness is good,” is clearly the one for her. It’s odd that he won’t get out of the water, but unavailability turns her on. When Theo does emerge, precisely halfway through the novel, he turns out to be even more perfect: for a reason it would be unfair to reveal (though it’s pretty obvious from the title and jacket illustration), he’s not a longterm prospect. But he’s abjectly devoted, a great lover, and totally dependent on Lucy on land. At last, she has the upper hand without being bored. Over and over, Lucy tells us she only wants a man when he keeps his distance. “If he came closer, stayed too close for too long, the spell was broken for me . . . [And] what was love without the spell?” With Theo, she gets love and enchantment, until she discovers that “his need to be wanted by others was more ravenous than mine.”

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    The outcome of their waterside confrontation rings true. Lucy is too narcissistic to be truly self-destructive, and Theo proves to be one more male who disappoints her. After Lucy walks back from the beach, Broder tries hard to give her tentative hope for the future, but she’s drawn such a persuasive portrait of someone mired in a toxic blend of self-loathing and twisted self-regard that it’s hard to believe Lucy will ever find something outside herself to embrace — except that nothingness, back for two final bows in the last paragraph. Sharply observed and often bleakly funny, “The Pisces,” like its anti-heroine, is encased in a carefully constructed private universe that anyone with a broader perspective is likely to find stifling.

    THE PISCES

    By Melissa Broder

    Hogarth, 270 pp., $25

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    Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.