Acts of Desperation Is a Novel About How We’re Made to Feel Powerless

Megan Nolan's debut novel, Acts of Desperation, centers on a young woman trapped in a toxic relationship with her violent boyfriend. It's also a book deeply pervaded by class — and how a social order built on domination makes us feel we have no power to free ourselves.

Megan Nolan (Stuart Simpson / Penguin)

In The Cost of Living, the second installment of her Living Autobiography, Deborah Levy describes a conversation she witnessed in a bar on Colombia’s Caribbean coast between a young English woman and an older American man. The woman is relating how she had diced with death while scuba diving, but the story was also, Levy says, about “some sort of undisclosed hurt.” When the woman pauses to confirm if the man is following the allegory, her companion says: “You talk a lot, don’t you?”

“It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character,” Levy says. “She had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with the usual rituals.” Megan Nolan’s debut novel, Acts of Desperation, is overrun with its narrator’s — and its author’s — consciousness of unsettling this same boundary. “I cannot speak about these things too soon because their names alone summon like a charm the disinterest of an enlightened reader,” she observes. “Female suffering is cheap and is used cheaply by dishonest women who are looking for attention — and of all our cardinal sins, seeking attention must surely be up there.” The dual meaning of “disinterest” is key, here: Nolan is concerned — though perhaps sardonically — not only about her audience switching off, but also about them adopting a standpoint of detached neutrality when sitting in judgement.

Born in Waterford, Ireland, Nolan dropped out of university in Dublin. She worked in service-sector jobs before being able to support herself on income from writing. And as well as the self-consciousness of her voice, this feeds into a class consciousness, too. Acts of Desperation is peppered with small realizations of the ubiquity of class’s definitive nature: nepotism in the job market, the unspoken rules of living, and material constraints which the wealthy have simply never noticed.

Her novel, narrated by an unnamed woman, is the story of this woman’s relationship with Ciaran, a man so beautiful she assumes he is “passing through” when she sees him in Dublin’s Rathmines Library. “Nobody so beautiful could live with us,” the narrator asserts definitively. From the beginning, or perhaps in hindsight, there are warnings of his character before he has uttered a sentence in the very things the narrator finds attractive: his “cruel” eyes, the “immense stillness radiating from his body.” Though the narrative is retrospective, self-conscious, and peppered with reflections from a future wiser self, we live every moment in the present — even when the action flashes forward to Athens in 2019, where the narrator has come in the wake of her eventual breakup.

As Nolan attends to the smallest physical details of their bodies and their surroundings, we can see the impact of her hero — and now fan — Karl Ove Knausgård. In a glowing blurb for this book’s dust jacket, Knausgård argues that Acts of Desperation “manages to separate the idea of love and the experience of it.” Swap “love” for “death” and he could be describing A Death in the Family, the first instalment of his own epic series, My Struggle. In both books, the profound can only be accessed through the mundane — for author, protagonist, and reader alike.

After a few dates, she and Ciaran are a thing, though quite what kind of thing is not established. He is cruel to her and mean to her friends. To complicate matters further, his possessive qualities are what she appreciates most of all. So, when Ciaran is revealed to be still in love with Freja, his ex, the impact is devastating. Nolan’s narrator becomes obsessed —with Ciaran and Freja as individuals, and with the couple status she knows her own relationship will never attain.

This is a novel that does not shy away from the grim realities of sexual violence — and more specifically, the fact that male violence is endemic, and that the vast majority of rapists are known to their victims. In the best book about John Keats published at the poet’s bicentenary this year, Anahid Nersessian reads “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as a poem about “an image of a rape about to take place,” enabled by the complicity of the crowd:

The urn’s picture is cramped and concurrent; everybody here comes from one little town. This is one place, one moment, stuck fast forever. If the urn is a freeze-frame of things that never come to pass, it is also a memorial to what never seems to end.

Nolan’s narrative contrastingly shifts across time and space, but sexual violence is a constant presence in the society she depicts: coming to pass, and yet still never seeming to end. And, as in Nersessian’s reading of Keats’s ode, it is not only an individual crime but a facet of state and societal violence. As she processes her own hurt, Nolan’s narrator also thinks of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, a passerby who kept repeating “I’m just trying to go home” as he was killed by the metropolitan police outside the G20 summit in London in 2009. “I imagined his life, his alcoholism, his life in that hostel, his just trying to get home.” She thinks of a prostitute in a rural Waterford village, murdered by the wives of her clients, and of a gay Christian man scammed and poisoned by a churchwarden who claimed to be in love with him. Like Nersessian, whose book on Keats is a searing invective against modern capitalism, in favor of a just and sustainable planet, Nolan deploys individual suffering as a weapon in the fight against collective injustice.

Prior to the publication of her novel, Nolan was best known as a columnist for the New Statesman, writing first-person essays about love, hurt, and injustice. Like Jenny Diski (whose writing style is contrastingly sparse), Nolan escapes what she calls the “first-person industrial complex” through recognizing that the status of fiction or nonfiction should not define a work. “Facts, no matter how accurate, are not only incapable of accounting for the essential truth of a life, but can actually undermine that truth,” she wrote last year.

The shadow of performance — and, in particular, melodrama in the vein of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder — is there to see in Nolan’s work too. As the narrator dines at a fancy French restaurant with Ciaran, ahead of going home for Christmas, we are caught up in a whirlwind of sentimental romance. He gives her a “delicate antique amber brooch,” which “seemed to radiate heat, to throb, like a living thing.” She is “still holding it when we reached Waterford three hours later, and the approaching lights of my home city made me cry as they did every time I arrived upon them.” We are still holding it, too, so much so that the bus journey and its conclusion takes us by beautiful surprise.

But while melodrama is normally considered to overwhelm the emotions at the expense of characterization, Nolan — freed from the constraints of stage and screen — does the opposite. Like Ibsen, she attends to the meanings and consequences of the smallest physical and bodily details. When she describes “the way [Ciaran’s] long fingers grasped purposefully at the air as he spoke, as though arranging decorations,” she calls to mind a Scandi noir flashback scene in which we witness the sheer radiance of the future killer.

And like so many of Ibsen’s characters, Nolan’s protagonist is occupied by the construction of her life and world. After one falls in love, she observes, “there is infrastructure to be dealt with, dams and bridges and town halls to be planned. . . . One wrong move and the whole thing could collapse before you have even finished construction.” Collapse it does, but the thread of hindsight running through Nolan’s novel grants her protagonist one thing denied in The Master Builder, Ghosts, and A Doll’s House: survival.