A year into a global pandemic, when most of us are just trying to stay afloat – fighting against the ever-changing current state of play – swathing ourselves in comfort seems not just appealing, but a necessary medicine. Omit consuming anything that will invoke trauma, or just make us feel a little sadder. Why stoke the fire? Invite more sadness into our interior world?
I’ve asked myself this a lot the last few months. Though Megan Nolan’s gripping debut novel, Acts of Desperation, left me with a gnawing feeling. A powerful life lesson, really. That to be uncomfortable, to seek out hard truths – about ourselves, the relationships we become enveloped in, what we reveal once in the eye of the storm – is some kind of wonderful.
This is not an “easy read”. (The anti-romance PR strapline being your first clue). Whilst in the tornado of a toxic relationship, the unnamed female narrator spirals further and further into a kind of pregnant darkness. The writing is fearless and gut punching: here, you are confronted with the dark web of intimacy. Love, pain and pleasure are so closely entwined that it’s almost impossible to extrapolate which one is feeding the other.
Acts of Desperation is really an intense study of being hungry for sensations, even if the cost is your own sense of self. "He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. None of it mattered in the end; what he looked like, who he was, the things he would do to me. To make a beautiful man love and live with me had seemed – obviously, intuitively – the entire point of life."
Though it’s a deeply personal tale, it’s one that invites the reader to question their own model of romanticism. What choices have been made when gripped by a suffocating fear of being abandoned? How much of our perception of who we are is bound by the lens of lovers? It’s something that hits a nerve, for many of us. Often, we don’t want to believe it possible: that we role play(ed), that we adjust(ed) to appear more. Or less. It’s a pathologically accommodating exercise, surely? Auditioning for the role of you, rather than the alternative. Simply existing.
Even after acknowledging painful truisms – "I could no more magic him into loving me than I could an animal back to life" – this character is tormented by a need, an urgent need, to please. To live for someone. One scene, in particular, explores this desperation so powerfully, as she pleads with her love to “forget at once I ever demanded anything from him.” To see “how small I really was.”
"I said through my huddling and hiding that I was nothing. And I was happy to be nothing if nothing was what pleased him best. If nothing was the least trouble, then I would be it, and gladly. I would be completely blank and still if that is was what worked, or as loud as he needed me to be to take up his silences. I would be energetic and lively if he was bored, and when he tired of that, I would become as prosaic and dully useful as cutlery."
Nolan details the well of female desire with such force it can leave you gasping for breath. But after all this – the performances, the tears, the self-injury – comes a different kind of prayer. After years worshiping at the altar of other people’s passions, the narrator begins to understand that these performances are, ultimately, futile. That maybe there’s a different, better, path. "The comedian John Belushi once said, I give so much pleasure to so many people. Why can’t I get some pleasure for myself?"