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Love and Humiliation Are Inseparable in Acts of Desperation

Megan Nolan’s novel is a compulsive story of desire, subservience, and self-annihiliation.

Lynn Rothwell/Courtesy of Little, Brown, and Company

When Ari Aster’s breakup fantasia Midsommar was first released in 2019, many women I knew cited one of its earliest scenes as a particularly traumatizing moment—namely, a protracted argument between its grieving heroine, Dani, and its deadbeat antihero, Christian, that elegantly depicted the way men are sometimes capable of shifting, quietly and without effort, the dynamics of a couple’s disagreement. Dani, who has been bereaved in unthinkably violent circumstances, has just learned that Christian planned to take a month-long trip abroad without her knowledge, and although initially she demands answers, he disarms her by behaving as if she is acting like a crazy bitch. He falls silent and regards her with disdain, the tactic working as if it is an enchantment; we are aware that the pendulum is swinging.

Acts of Desperation
by Megan Nolan
Little Brown and Company, 288pp., $27.00

“Please, please, please,” she eventually whines, grabbing his arm as he declares that he is leaving. “I’m sorry. It’s fine. I think it’s great.” The scene unsettles in a very different way from the film’s later descent into psychedelic body horror, since it asks the viewer to recognize herself: Do I act like that? Do I sound like that? Do I beg like that? It is both reductive and ridiculous to say that Midsommar is a straightforward female empowerment movie, just as it is ridiculous and reductive to suggest that Amy Dunne in Gone Girl is an icon for ensuring that her useless, feckless husband is suspected of her murder. It is possible to argue that Midsommar is successful in its implication that a terrible relationship between a woman and a man is sometimes, if not always, its own version of a cult.

Because depictions of this kind of subtle conflict are not typical, they tend to lodge themselves, splinter-like, in the mind. A new, furious novel about a failed romance by the writer and essayist Megan Nolan, Acts of Desperation, appears set to haunt its readers in a similarly merciless and unrelenting fashion: It is frightening and feverish, compulsive and distressing, and as true-seeming a document of toxic and manipulative love as any published within memory. “There was no religion in my life after early childhood,” the unnamed narrator tells the reader, by way of an explanation, “and a great faith in love was what I had cultivated instead.” At a gallery opening, she meets a beautiful young critic who attracts her with his preternatural, zenlike stillness and “cruel” eyes. It is a coup de foudre, a sudden jolt; the two fall into a relationship, experience a brief and perfect period of love, and then begin to sabotage each other and themselves with an enthusiasm that is only made explicable by his unfortunate and heady combination of charisma and brutality and by her being nearly insane with desire. “Ciaran was that downy, darkening blonde of a baby just leaving its infancy,” she says. “He was not the first beautiful man I slept with, nor was he the first man I had obsessive feelings for, but he was the first man I worshipped.”

Because the narrator thinks of Ciaran as a god, and of love as her new religion, she accepts that he is omniscient, always right, even when he is moving in particularly mysterious ways. “I was crying and saying please over and over again,” she admits. The argument she is describing in this moment proves to be one of many in which he is undoubtedly both the villain and the instigator, and in which he ultimately gains supremacy through silence. “In moments like this one when I was unexpectedly confronted by my own need, my reaction was to deny—to hysterically deny—that it existed. Hence the wailing of sorrys and pleases, the desire to make him forget at once I had ever demanded anything of him.” Any reader who has met a man like Ciaran will not be surprised to learn that he is not placated by her subservience, but disgusted—in making a penitent of his devoted girlfriend, he has only served to reinforce his status as the one worth being adored.

Acts of Desperation is, in other words, that squirmy argument between the sexes from Midsommar spread over 250 elegantly written pages—a psychosexual thriller about the ecstasy and embarrassment of being a woman who has sex with, and who falls in love with, men. It has been compared to Sally Rooney’s Normal People numerous times in blurbs and in reviews by dint of its having been written by a millennial woman who is Irish, and because it is a novel about doomed, millennial love. The equivalence, I think, does not ring true: Where Normal People is exacting, cool, and dilatory, and minimalist in its style, Nolan’s book is nakedly emotional, passionate rather than dispassionate, and sometimes maximalist to the point of feeling reassuringly unfashionable. (“Love was the final consolation, would set ablaze the fields of my life in one go, leaving nothing behind,” its narrator sighs, before admitting that she is not unaware of how dramatic she is being: “Oh, don’t laugh at me for this, for being a woman who says this to you. I hear myself speak.”)

The film critic Nicole Brenez once described Philippe Grandrieux’s 2002 film La Vie Nouvelle, with its raw style and frightening plot and reddish-purple, bruise-like palette, as having the air of something made “inside the human body, not only physiologically, but also in the sense of showing everything that dwells within us.” The same might be said of Acts of Desperation, which is tonally and thematically bodily and alive—hot as viscera, inward-looking, dark and soft. It is, in some ways, a book in which very little of much consequence occurs: A woman and her gorgeous, asshole boyfriend get together, break up, get together, and then break up for a second, final time, not having—as another glutton for romantic punishment once said—sufficiently hurt each other enough the first time round. In other ways, its subject could not be more staggering in its scope, its savage, internecine central relationship serving as a bleak reminder of the ways in which the sexes have been socialized to be at odds, even in romance. If it is trite to say that men and women come from different planets, it is harder to dispute that they are shaped by different experiences of the same imbalanced world.

Because Acts of Desperation is about erotic, agonizing longing, there is some conceptual crossover with Annie Ernaux’s recently translated autofictional novella, Simple Passion, in which Ernaux spends her days in service to her love of a mysterious, exotic married man. “I would try to leave the house as little as possible … forever fearing that he might call during my absence,” she writes, at the beginning of what ends up being a discomfiting account of self-erasure, self-imprisonment, and madness.

Ernaux’s lover, despite his lackluster attitude to every aspect of their trysts that is not sexual, occupies her every thought, her every moment. She is alive to the possibilities of conversation only when those she is speaking to make reference to a topic that might interest him; she watches television as a means of picturing him doing the same thing at the same time, a metaphysical approach to their affair that eventually sees her holidaying alone in Venice with the dubious intention of creating indelible, place-specific memories of her painful longing that she can revisit later at her leisure.

Like the central character in Nolan’s novel, who is so in love with the idea of love that it becomes an annihilating addiction, Ernaux’s behavior is compulsive and destructive. Unlike her, the version of Ernaux in Simple Passion is an outline, emptied to make further room for her fixation. Nolan’s heroine could not be more physical, nor more painfully aware of her own body: She is sometimes slim and sometimes chubby, sometimes beautiful and sometimes red with drunkenness, or plagued by rashes. Her experiences with disordered eating have not left her pale and delicate and winsome, only damaged, cognizant enough of the absurdity of caring as much as she does about her body to lament it, and aware in equal measure of the gendered inevitability of her obsession. Rarely has a novel so directly addressed the cognitive dissonance required to be an anorexic and a feminist at the same time, despite the fact being both is not particularly uncommon.

Readers based in Ireland or the U.K. may already have encountered versions of some passages from Acts of Desperation in the context of nonfiction, either in literary journals or in Nolan’s regular New Statesman column, the latter of which blends criticism with personal essay-writing, often punctured by extraordinarily poignant observations about love, or lust, or family. Certain lines—about catching a sudden glimpse of her adult, unstarving body in a window in her hometown and believing she has failed her anorexic teenage self, or about realizing how little cumulative time she has left with her father—I remembered wholesale from their earlier incarnations, their having imprinted on me by virtue of feeling painfully acute. “The feelings are real,” Nolan told an interviewer at The Irish Times last month, about the relationship between Ciaran and the book’s narrator, “but the events are not.”

Certainly, a frightening passion animates the novel, so that whether or not any of its ugliest or most degrading scenes are based in fact, what remains is a sensation of uncanny voyeurism, as if reading it were tantamount to having experienced something nearly catastrophic. There is no vanity in it, no self-aggrandizement and no self-mythologizing triumph. By the end, as in Ernaux’s book, the affair is finally over, the formerly lovesick woman changed forever by its course. (If it’s true that the dynamic at the center of the novel resembles that of the terrible argument in Midsommar, it is also true that its narrator gets to end the story in a similarly cleansing, furious blaze, the emotional answer to a gallon drum of kerosene.) This kind of love, like war or martyrdom, requires a willingness to sacrifice oneself. That Nolan’s heroine does so easily is sickening, but not exactly unrealistic; that she eventually decides to abandon the two-person cult of her relationship with Ciaran makes it easier to bear.

“What would I think about, now that I wasn’t thinking about love or sex?” she asks herself. It is—after a novel’s worth of bad decisions—a good question, one more comforting than those the reader has been asking herself for the previous 250 pages: Do I act like that? Do I sound like that? Do I beg like that?