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All The Feels: Megan Nolan's Acts of Desperation
Tara Joshi , March 13th, 2021 10:09

Acts of Desperation, the debut novel by Megan Nolan, holds up a searingly intense mirror, finds Tara Joshi

Megan Nolan (c) Lynn Rothwell

Famously, when describing Velvet Underground songs like ‘Heroin’, Lou Reed would point out he was neither advocating nor discouraging people with his lyrics. The intoxicating, troubling thrill of words and sounds on such tracks were just the facts, he would say, laid out vividly for the audience to take from them what they would and make up their own mind.

It’s something that feels pertinent somehow when reading Irish writer Megan Nolan’s novel, Acts of Desperation. There is no innate judgement or shame in the story she tells of an abrasive romantic love and a tangled relationship with self; just her protagonist’s knowing voice, and the sharp truths laid out as she tries to make sense of it all herself. At one point she asks someone, “Do you think it would be possible for anyone to love you if they could see every single thing you do?” – and as she shares her every base instinct or cloistered feeling through the novel, it doesn’t feel a stretch to say that she is asking that question of herself – and of the reader.

Over the past few years, Nolan has carved out space as an extraordinarily intimate essayist. In pieces for the Guardian, the Pool, the New York Times and more, she has considered her life with a delicate, exuberant frankness that can be both stunning, hilarious and bleak to behold. Perhaps as a result of social media and memes, “relatability” has become a lens through which younger critics (myself, just about, included) have largely viewed pop culture in the past decade or so, and certainly Nolan’s work has been a mirror of sorts to twenty-somethings trying to untangle appearance, sex, excess, loneliness and love.

Acts of Desperation is Nolan’s debut novel, and the anticipation surrounding it has felt electric, perhaps because of that perceived mirror. The story sees the protagonist, based in Dublin and then, later, in Athens, looking back on a relationship, examining what she was willing to compromise in order to have and hold romantic love on a devotional shrine, no matter how unhealthy the circumstances. As Nolan has said in interviews, the character’s behaviour is born out of not having or truly believing in the possibility of other options – and it is a truth which I think many of us have imbibed; that a great, fantasy love might save us from crap, mundane jobs, the dull thud of self-loathing and how relentlessly sad and frustrating life can be.

She drinks excessively, troublingly; routinely checks on her love interest’s ex’s social media; feels faint resent at a friend’s career success. Though we are viewing the peaks and troughs of the character’s relationship with the unwieldy, disconcerting Ciaran from its giddy genesis via draining fixation through to its horrible (perhaps somewhat heavy-handed) end and thoughtful aftermath, what is most central to the book is the character’s relationship with herself – a relationship that speaks to something wider.

Themes from Nolan’s essays are woven through the novel, hinting at the wider frameworks at play in the construct and self-perception of an individual woman. The narrator realises, for example, that we can know thinness and beauty as constructed falsities but still want to play into them. The character doesn’t quite fall into the confines of the thin-without-trying-to-be-thin, (white) waiflike heroine as a symbol for demure self-neglect, but instead ruminates on her past of disordered eating while tenderly making meals and trying to better understand her relationship with food and her size (something which I am pretty sure most women who grew up through the early 2000s at least are still reckoning with).

She also recognises how frustrating it is that we can understand and try to unlearn power dynamics yet still find ourselves subject to all the tropes of diminishing our own light and desire to accommodate terrible men; losing exhausting, grim wars of attrition even though we know boundaries and consent. With that said, Nolan is clever not to fall down a reductive “men are trash” trope, which might have been far easier – instead, we see men like Ciaran’s flaws and merits just as clearly as we see the protagonist’s. There is no real hero or villain, no real judgement on what takes place, just the story as it unreels, compelling, ugly and beautiful all at once.

But when I talk about the novel’s relatability, it’s not solely in terms of how familiar certain aspects might feel to anyone personally – I don’t get the impression that’s her exact aim in writing. Instead, I suspect Nolan’s work is relatable to such a vast array of people because she writes so intimately and candidly that it is impossible not to feel the narrator. Nolan has a gift for writing with clear, interior vulnerability – it’s as though we are burrowed right down into the protagonist’s person and wearing her skin, with small details like the faint smell of urine when she unzips a lover’s trousers, manic dreams of killing (or fucking) Ciaran’s ex, the urge to self-harm, or the thumping specificity of her hangovers all bringing us so deeply into the character that, while we might not agree with all her decisions or have ever experienced the kind of story she is writing about, we understand the choices being made and where they come from.

The flipside of Nolan’s vivid narration is that the characters beyond the protagonist and Ciaran can sometimes feel like ghosts in the periphery, difficult to grasp – though, given how the novel examines the absurd form of self-centeredness that pain and obsessive love often bring, it perhaps makes sense that her friends whom she clearly delights in become more and more like sketches and outlines that wade in and out of focus. The other central relationship is with her separated parents back in Waterford, notably her well-realised father, the value of whose opinion she holds in sweet and tender esteem throughout.

In fact, while much of the reception to the novel will focus on the darkness that runs through it, it’s worth mentioning the small, soft moments of pleasure too, as well as the wry sparks of humour. While there’s the abundant, more complicated joy that can be found in losing herself in someone else’s body or in endless bottles of wine, the protagonist also thrills in a special dress bought for a birthday, delicately applying and reapplying make-up and knowing she is being perceived, reading the weekend papers with coffee and a pastry, walking through town, going for a swim. The gentle shimmers of happiness and self-deprecation help to blanket the novel’s harsher moments, giving space to meditate on them.

And ultimately, Acts of Desperation does feel like a cathartic meditation of sorts. Nolan’s narrator rips and picks at the threads and scabs of desire, hedonism and self-worth, unafraid to lay bare her every thought in a quest to better understand herself through the lens of what happened with Ciaran. Her devotion to an idealised, religious romantic love leads us to questions such as: if we are seen in our flawed, grotesque entirety, could we ever truly be loved? Could we love ourselves for it? What comes after we stop putting romantic love on a pedestal and recognise it as, so often, a kind of delusion we mix with our desires?

Which takes me back to Lou Reed. Acts of Desperation is not a story with a guiding light or moral compass or conclusive happy ending; rather, it’s a statement of truth as Nolan’s protagonist sees it. As with ‘Heroin’, some of the audience might find this too much to bear, or just not understand it as a circumstance that feels at all feasible – but in this searing first novel, Nolan is holding up a fantastically intense mirror to her protagonist and letting us make up our own mind about whether or not we will look away.

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan is published by Jonathan Cape