Megan Nolan’s much-anticipated debut novel following a woman’s toxic infatuation with a ‘beautiful and cold’ writer is both deeply affecting and honest
So, what’s all the fuss about Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation? It’s been pegged as one to watch since it was acquired by Jonathan Cape in 2019, and has received high praise from the likes of Marian Keyes, David Nicholls, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Pandora Sykes and many others. Of course, authors are wont to be nice to other authors, so we might also consider a recent tweet from Naas bookshop Barker and Jones claiming Acts of Desperation is its bestselling book by a mile. In a country where dazzling debuts are as common as rain, it says something that everyone wants to get their hands on this one.
Of course, Nolan’s reputation as a writer precedes her. The 30-year-old has spent many years carving out a niche in the essay form and has written on topics from Brexit to beauty to abortion, everywhere from The New York Times to The Guardian to Medium (an open publishing platform where writers share work). She is known for her intensely personal and illuminating style, and these days writes a fortnightly column for The New Statesman.
So, does the much-anticipated debut live up to its reputation?
In some ways, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Acts of Desperation. Beautiful, troubled boy meets insecure, clever girl in Dublin anti-romance. To describe it in a nutshell gives it away. It is at once everything that’s in vogue right now and everything that’s open to ridicule. This reviewer has previously expressed exasperation with the relentlessly introspective and self-aware protagonists that seem to proliferate these days, and in some ways, you could count this one among them.
There is a certain degree of narcissism in the self-effacing inner voice. She is constantly saying things like: “I was not without value, but the value I held was not the kind I wanted to hold, and I did not know how to exchange it.” It would be easy to underestimate this novel; to see this narcissistic voice as a flaw, instead of what it is: a device. It would also be easy to perceive its subject matter as indulgent and pathetic, rather than what it turns out to be: daring.
In the words of our unnamed narrator: “Don’t laugh at me for this, for being a woman who says this to you. I hear myself speak.” Yes, I loved this book.
The timeline moves from April 2012 to September 2014, the lifespan of an intense relationship between our narrator and a man who gets a name eight paragraphs in, Ciaran. Ciaran is a writer, whose “waged work” is doing copy and reviews for a magazine. Our narrator writes too, but only confesses to such indulgence, “with the lowered pious eyes of a saint, looking away, worried and secretly a little hopeful that they [will] want to ask me about it”.
Ciaran does not ask about it. That he is not a decent person is clear from the start. In a conventional romance, the central questions might be: will they/won’t they? But here, it is always clear they won’t, and the interesting questions are: why do they go there in the first place? Why do they carry on?
An early anecdote about William Faulkner gives a hint. Our narrator recounts how once, after 10 day s of heavy drinking, Faulkner was found semi-conscious and moaning on the bathroom floor. He had got up in the night to be sick, fallen against a radiator pipe and lost consciousness. The pipe burned through his flesh and he felt nothing. “Why do you do it?” his physician asked, afterwards. “Because I like to.” Faulkner replied. Our narrator reflects on this. “Why do you do it? Because I like to. Meaning, not so much that I take pleasure in it, but: I choose it.”
Addiction, in other words. The book is a close and relentless portrait of addiction, and of the addict’s complicity in her own undoing. The question the narrator seems to be asking throughout, is: what is the alternative to this addiction of love? Who am I without it? She longs for, as she so beautifully puts it, “a life where you knew what to do when you woke up”.
She carves selfhood around Ciaran, a man who seems “undeniably whole, as though his world was contained within himself”. But neither is in fact whole. He is beautiful and cold, and utterly objectified throughout, with his “large grey eyes” and “perfect cherubic mouth”. He is an ideal, she a vacuum that cleaves to this ideal.
Essayistic interjections from our narrator in 2019, in Greece, frame the narrative. “It is boring for me to present myself through experiences which are instrumentalised constantly as narrative devices in soap operas and tabloids,” she reminds us. The book constantly acknowledges what it is complicit in; what it can’t but be complicit in, in order to exist. If you think you’ve entered “the canon of Women Who’ve Been Hurt”, you’d be right. Here it stands and holds its nerve.
Back to that word: pathetic. Yes, this is a pathetic story. It’s the story of a woman who leans into the most shameful aspects of her being, not performatively, but humbly. The confidence of the voice is balanced by vulnerability. This is the trick to Nolan’s writing in general. It triumphs because it takes a risk: wades into embarrassing, mushy terrain and doesn’t let up.
There is an almost imperceptible bend in the way the story is told. As we read, we find ourselves hurtling towards an ending that is surprising, satisfying, subversive. But even without this ending, the book is deeply affecting. Nolan is someone who could write about “my first tooth” and make it seem emotionally taut. Acts of Desperation is, to employ those overused adjectives: honest, brave, open. It didn’t impress me. It moved me.
Fiction: Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
Jonathan Cape, 288 pages, hardcover €13.99; e-book £9.99