Acts of Desperation, the debut novel by the Irish writer Megan Nolan, explores a familiar sort of debilitating love affair. Its protagonist is a modern woman who, in full possession of herself, seeks to yield that self completely to a man. The unnamed twentysomething narrator meets Ciaran, a beautiful, emotionally unavailable art critic, at a gallery event in Dublin. The novel gives a retrospective account of their mutually destructive relationship.
“Before Ciaran,” the narrator says, “I tried some other men on for size. I was trying a lot of things.” She is well-liked in the artistic social scene she frequents in Dublin because she is “attractive enough” but “not intimidating.” She is unashamed of her desire to have sex with many people, though how the sex itself feels, and whether they are the right people to have it with, are other matters, ones she appraises unsentimentally. The narrator is “filled with ecstatic confusion” when Ciaran treats her with disinterest during sex, intoxicated by the feeling that she could be “anyone, or no one,” that she is “something to be emptied into or out.” To win him over, she constructs around him a life of baroque, frictionless domesticity, for which she pays herself through an uninspiring office job (Ciaran appears both broke and miserly). She does this for her own pleasure, but also to take away “his ability to live without me easily.”
Their relationship has the kind of intensity that obliterates. Yet, the narrator professes, events “objectively worse” have already occurred to her in earlier adulthood. She is loath to tell us about them, “because their names alone summon like a charm the disinterest of an enlightened reader.” The experience of nonconsensual sex does not make her feel connected to a sisterhood of women. “I can’t,” she says, “and don’t much want, to make myself understood.” Despite the narrator’s reluctance to align herself with other women, the novel asks questions that have long occupied feminists: When it comes to sex and desire, is there a moral position women should take? What would it look like for desire to be truly free?
The narrator of Acts of Desperation consciously pursues a man through subservience and seeks to wear away at his contempt through the weaponization of weakness. Nolan squares her character’s predicament with contemporary feminist debates by emphasizing her protagonist’s sense of self-awareness and control—the power and deliberation she exercises in choosing to submit. It is a striking experiment with mixed results, as the material it draws from is perhaps bound to be in life.
Biographically, the narrator bears much similarity to her creator. The book is set partly in Waterford, the Irish port city where Nolan is from. The remainder unfolds in Dublin and Athens, places that Nolan has lived and reflected on in her journalism, which appears in venues like The New Statesman, The Guardian, and The New York Times. Now a resident of London, Nolan’s personal essays have gained a kind of cult readership in the UK. Her subjects range from the profound meaning she has found in one-night stands to her youthful idolization of physical beauty. A review in 2019 of Laura Sims’s novel Looker expressed relief and appreciation for Sims’s exploration of the potential toxicity of the female gaze. “While I am always eager to stand in solidarity in the abstract,” Nolan wrote, “I am troubled by some of my relationships to individual women in reality.” “One of my worst qualities,” she observed then, “is the way I look at other women,” because it “has always been about resource scarcity”—a scarcity that, over time, she had only become more certain truly exists. This is “not just…internalised misogyny” but “has a poison all its own.” Elsewhere, Nolan articulates the same dilemma the philosopher Amia Srinivasan explored in her recent book The Right to Sex: How do we accept the sometimes troubling dimensions of our sexual desires, while being willing to interrogate their resemblance to structural injustices?
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As Nolan once was, the narrator of Acts of Desperation is a university dropout stringing together poorly paid jobs. She is trying not to let the chasm get too wide between her exterior life of uninhibited drinking and partying and her private life in her apartment, where she forces herself to be alone because she considers her intolerance of solitude “a sign of weakness.” That is, until she meets Ciaran. She lives to be in love; it is her self-professed religion. “I find my feelings fascinating and human, for once can sympathise with my own actions.” The hermetic world of her feelings for Ciaran are the near-exclusive focus of the book. The novel takes these feelings seriously at the same time that it is aware how readers may regard them as trivial. The narrator courts disdain in more ways than one—first with Ciaran, then with us. Her suffering in love, she tells us, is unimportant, and also her own fault. “There are those of you,” she says, “who will find my willing debasement embarrassing.” But perhaps we ought not take that at face value. Those in pain are not always seeking pity; those who admit guilt are not always asking forgiveness. The narrator does not need our sympathy. But Acts of Desperation suggests that we dismiss her suffering at some risk of dismissing our own.
Sometimes the choice we are offered in life is not whether to experience abjection, but how we respond to it, and perhaps even select its form. Reclaiming abjection through such choices can be powerful, but unsurprisingly it has its limits. Nolan has written of the profound impact on her work of reading Karl Ove Knausgård (who has returned the praise: Acts of Desperation carries his endorsement hailing the young writer as a “huge literary talent”). When she encountered the first volume of My Struggle, Nolan had recently begun writing essays, which she hoped had literary merit but feared were “cripplingly, humiliatingly feminine in their subject matter.” Nolan continues: “I was struggling towards something, an avoidance of villains and heroes, victors and losers, and a rejection of the idea that female pain was pretty or somehow inherently virtuous. I had the feeling that there was something there worth striving toward, but the embarrassment and, yes, the shame, was holding me back.”
She began her own novel after reading A Man in Love, the second volume of My Struggle, in which Knausgård depicts both the euphoria of falling in love with his second wife and the eventual cooling of that feeling. Nolan has also said in interviews that she drew inspiration for the narrator’s experiences from learning in her 20s not to invest her sense of worth exclusively in romantic relationships. By the end of Acts of Desperation, with some distance, the narrator can see how damaging this kind of attitude has been—but, crucially, she still has admiration for that earlier self. This is a large part of what makes the novel so compelling. It retains, or perhaps conjures in hindsight, a reverence for its protagonist’s will to self-abasement as “steely and pure.”
At several points, the narrator has sex with men who repel her, whom she allows to wear her down with persistence. She feels better, not worse, after she lets them cajole (if not outright coerce) her into bed. “When I sleep with men I don’t like,” she reflects, “men who irritate or scare or disgust me…I make myself as bad as they are. I drag myself down to their level by allowing them to have what they want. Having sex with them degrades me, my reluctance and eventual capitulation degrade me. Once I have been degraded I am really no better than they are.” This is not a feeling that panics her; in fact, it seems to soothe her. That may not be ideal. But at certain stages of life, in the unequal world we do live in, Nolan contends there might be power for women in the controlled capacity to feel pathetic.
There is something about the narrator’s attitude that feels useful, a different way to address the genuine pleasures that get mixed up in the things that oppress and demean us. It is a relief to be given other ways to feel about the sex we didn’t want to have and the sex we want but shouldn’t—ways beyond self-pity or self-flagellation. But like any form of uncompromising vision, it comes with a cost, and it demands the kind of hardness that so often conceals the opposite.
Tediousness is the supreme accusation the narrator can level: That something often considered ugly or frightening or degrading “bores” her is the novel’s recurring refrain. Sometimes this feels exhilarating, even radically freeing. At others it is not entirely believable. “Mediating your own victimhood,” the narrator tells us, is
just part of being a woman. Using it or denying it, hating it or loving it, and all of these at once. Being a victim is boring for everyone involved. It is boring for me to present myself through experiences which are instrumentalised constantly as narrative devices in soap operas and tabloids. Is this why I am so ashamed of talking about certain events, or of finding them interesting? This is part of the horror of being hurt generically. Your experiences are so common that they become impossible to speak about in an interesting way.
Is she bored, or is she ashamed? Using it or denying it, or all of these at once?
We could discount the narrator’s unhappiness. She invites us to, and often does so herself. “Oh, don’t laugh at me for this, for being a woman who says this to you,” she declares as she confesses her devotion to romantic love: “I hear myself speak.” Already she has told us that “female suffering is cheap and is used cheaply by dishonest women who are looking only for attention—and of all our cardinal sins, seeking attention must surely be up there.” But as an assertion, it jars. Where does this idea originate? “Soap operas and tabloids,” for one; the online personal-essay economy of the 2010s, perhaps. But Acts of Desperation professes to be literary fiction. The history of depictions of women in literature has been mixed, to say the least. But from the plays of ancient Greece to the contemporary novel, if we eliminated literature concerned with female suffering, it is not clear that we would have very much left at all.
Are there other meanings to the narrator’s performance of meekness? Possibly it is not deference, but a challenge. Possibly it is daring us not to notice the novel’s insistent case that what is often sidelined as “humiliatingly feminine” belongs to the stream of universal human suffering. After Ciaran leaves the narrator for the first time, in between bouts of what feels to her like potentially unendurable misery, she recounts her teenage eating disorder, how at 15 she “stopped eating and…became popular.” Coursing with the thrill of her new relation to her body and the validation of other girls, the narrator planned for weeks the outfit she would wear to a school dance. But the dance was a disappointment. Scrupulously making herself into an image, it turned out, did not then manifest the fantasy to which the image belonged.
There is nothing easier to dismiss as frivolous than the ardent longing of a teenage girl to be thin, to make her life into a television show by fixing her significant force of will first and foremost on herself. But this story is placed directly adjacent to the image of the nursing home in which her great-grandmother lived and died. In childhood, the narrator sometimes accompanied her father on visits there, though it was a place “as repulsive and frightening” as you could predict it would be to a child. The narrator always left feeling the failure of an aspiration to be, and to do, something good. Her father is the person who loves and understands her best in the world; she fears his loss deeply, particularly when she feels unsure of who she is herself.
The narrator’s iron-willed discipline over her teenage diet and her adult drive to be annihilated by drinking or sex are the same. They are the hope of losing yourself in something bigger, and thereby exercising temporary command over what we cannot control and will inevitably destroy us. Being a woman who loves unsuitable men is simply a conduit. On one of her dispiriting childhood visits to the nursing home, the narrator recalls, she saw a garden rose “so powerfully pink, with drops of dew clinging…that tears came to my eyes and all I could feel for one brief moment was the pure potential of life.” But then, she tells us, “I remembered where I was and who I had just seen, and knew again that the image I so longed to perceive meant nothing, was nothing.”