Desperate, it is probably a cliché now to note, has become one of the cruelest things you can call a woman. Bitch and slut and prude are widely acknowledged to be regressive, gauche, to reflect much more on the speaker than the object, and all of them — well, maybe not prude, which is both the least interesting and the one that sounds most like an antiquated milkshake flavor — have been subjected to relentless reclamation campaigns throughout the fourth wave feminism of the 2010s. But desperate can still cut deep. To be desperate is to want more than you deserve, more than you should feel entitled to expect. To be desperate is to admit that you are not an island: that you do not contain within yourself all the necessary ingredients for happiness and fulfilment. To be desperate is to need a man. To be desperate is also to want a man. Either, obviously, is embarrassing.
In Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation, a young unnamed woman meets a man, Ciaran, at a Dublin gallery opening, and promptly falls hopelessly in love with him. One of the boldest decisions in a novel full of them is how little time Nolan spends trying to convince us that this love has any meat to it: “When I look back,” the narrator acknowledges of their first date, “what I find most odd was how sedate the day with him had been… I was in love with him from the beginning, and there wasn’t a thing he or anybody else could do to change it.” Ciaran is tall and handsome and from Copenhagen, and that is enough, and we do not need to know more. We are the friends who hate her new boyfriend and we are along for the ride. Let she who has not lost her head over far less cast the first stone.
The story that follows is one of obsession, abnegation, and self-destruction: of a woman willing to accept crumbs of affection and whole feasts of cruelty in exchange for being part of the only narrative that has ever compelled her, that of Being in Love. If that sounds familiar — if you, smart, critical, not a misogynist but just really over feminism because it’s all girlboss bullshit now, are thinking something like “God, didn’t I Love Dick come out like 20 years ago?” — well, Nolan anticipates you.
Womanhood! It just goes on and on. Making the same mistakes, having the same insecurities. A chorus, a canon, a cause aching with the knowledge it is not as radical by itself as it once was. And at some point, inevitably, you have to deal with the whole rape thing. “I cannot speak about these things too soon because their names alone summon like a charm the disinterest of an enlightened reader,” Nolan writes within the first twenty pages. “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.”
Later, but not much later: “Being a victim is boring for everyone involved.”
The burden of this kind of narrative — not so culturally dominant as to be hailed as universal, but still well-trod enough in contemporary literature that one must disavow the idea of sisterhood to have any hope of being read as an individual — is well borne by Nolan. Throughout the novel, she deftly stages a conversation with her imagined reader, anticipating critique without denying her stakes. She is not apologetic, exactly, but she is always expressing disgust: with herself, with victimhood, with femaleness. “Am I ashamed of myself for saying this? Of course; somewhat; a little,” she writes. But, while sexual violence looms large, this isn’t a novel about rape any more than it’s a novel about love.
More than anything, perhaps, this is a story about living inside a body — about being a bleeding, fucking, eating, pissing creature with a metabolism that wants you to live — and the high price a woman will pay to try to eke some pleasure out of the experience. Even when everything around her turns pleasure into a trap. “People talk more and more about female desire nowadays, which we all agree is good, a step forward,” Nolan writes. “But I am amazed to hear critics upset at any hint that women’s desire may still be authored in some way by men.”
And the trap has many angles. Food and (especially) alcohol are just as central to the narrative as sex is, with the latter sometimes reading like as much of a cruel lover as Ciaran himself. “That night after meeting Ciaran I drank until I vomited and blood vessels beneath and above my eyes burst, and I traced them gently in the mirror, knowing they would be markers of a beginning,” Nolan writes. Love is indistinguishable from drunkenness, drunkenness indistinguishable from nourishment, food the first pleasure and the one that screws us all up to begin with.
When the narrator reflects on the disordered eating and burgeoning sexuality of her teenage years, she notes that “My body disgusted me when I was that age, but at the same time I was learning to love it — love it too much. I hated it but also worshipped it with an obscene devotion, because I knew what it was capable of inciting in myself and in others.” The tension between those extremes of worship and disgust is what propels the novel even when it veers towards claustrophobia. And the vividness of the narrator’s embodied desires, including for things she knows to be bad for her, is what makes her legible even as she self-destructs.
In contrast, Ciaran — a minimalist Scandinavian couch of a man, austere, beautiful, and uncomfortable to live with — never quite comes alive on the page. “He sought nothing from his surroundings,” the narrator thinks the first time she sees him. “Although he didn’t seem particularly happy, he seemed undeniably whole, as though his world was contained within himself.” He has anosmia and takes little pleasure in food. He does not much like to drink. He hates it when the narrator wants wine with dinner. He is controlling, withholding, callous. His utter lack of sensuality contributes to his villainy — because he does, inevitably, become a villain. When his violence erupts, it isn’t shocking. The willingness to cause pain seems linked to the perversity of hating pleasure.
At one point, late in the novel, the narrator recounts a collection of real-life news stories about violence. A man killed by a police officer as he tried to get back to the hostel where he lived; a woman killed by the wives of the men she sold sex to; an old woman beaten by the teenagers she thought she had befriended. “These stories hurt me so badly, but I’ve learned to react to that hurt by thinking of them again and again, forcing myself to replay the details over and over and over, until they are meaningless,” Nolan writes. “You grow cold, or you die yourself.”
Do you? For all her narrator’s angst about being submerged by “the canon of Women Who’ve Been Hurt,” there is something sharp and dark in this debut that ensures Megan Nolan stays afloat. The details of this narrative may be familiar, but they are far from meaningless. And they have lost none of their capacity to hurt.
In other words: I have not grown cold. Not to this story. Not in the hands of this writer.