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Acts of Desperation
By Megan Nolan
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This "blistering anti-romance" (Catherine Lacey) paints a riveting, cathartic story about love addiction and what it does to us.Wouldn’t I do anything to reverse my loss, the absence of him?
In the first scene of this provocative gut-punch of a novel, our unnamed narrator meets a magnetic writer named Ciaran and falls, against her better judgment, completely in his power. After a brief, all-consuming romance he abruptly rejects her, sending her into a tailspin of jealous obsession and longing. If he ever comes back to her, she resolves to hang onto him and his love at all costs, even if it destroys her…
Part breathless confession, part lucid critique, Acts of Desperation renders a consciousness split between rebellion and submission, between escaping degradation and eroticizing it, between loving and being lovable. With unsettling, electric precision, Nolan dissects one of life’s most elusive mysteries: Why do we want what we want, and how do we want it?
Heralding the arrival of a stunning new literary talent, Acts of Desperation interrogates the nature of fantasy, desire, and power, challenging us to reckon honestly with our own insatiability.
"Hot as viscera." —The New Republic
The first time I saw him, I pitied him terribly.
I looked around to see where the drinks were, I was thirsty, and that’s when it began.
He was standing in the gallery by a sculpture, a grotesque thing. It was pink and seemed to approximate some version of a mutated human ear.
He was deep in conversation with someone and gestured towards it vehemently as he spoke. I realised that it wasn’t the first time I’d seen him.
I’d sat across from him once in the Rathmines Library and had been struck, then as now, by him being the most beautiful man I had ever seen. We had exchanged a long glance.
I had been with someone else then, and even if I hadn’t, I had never approached a man in my life, not like that. I thought about him afterwards, and assumed he must have been passing through. Nobody who was like that, who looked like that, lived in Dublin, or Ireland, I thought. Nobody so beautiful could live with us.
Now he stood not ten feet away from me and I took him in again.
Ciaran was that downy, darkening blond of a baby just leaving its infancy.
He had large grey eyes, a crooked Roman nose, and a perfect cherubic mouth burning neatly beneath. The mouth was implausibly rosy and twisted a little, as though petulant, or always about to laugh. He was very tall and had the bad posture of someone who became so tall early and tried to hide it.
His hands were fine and disproportionately large, even taking into account the long limbs they were attached to. His bones seemed somehow more delicate than anyone else’s. The features of his face were lovely too, but it was the way he was structured that made you lose your bearings first. The way his cheekbones were so high that they made his eyes cruel, the way his long fingers grasped purposefully at the air as he spoke, as though arranging decorations.
The thing to understand about Ciaran is not only that he was exceptionally beautiful, but that there was an immense stillness radiating from his body. The stillness was beneath every gesture, his glances, his laughs. He sought nothing from his surroundings.
In that kind of room, around art, where the person you are talking to is always looking over your shoulder for a curator, it was especially striking. Although he didn’t seem particularly happy, he seemed undeniably whole, as though his world was contained within himself.
Is it possible to love someone without knowing them, by sight?
How can I describe what happened to me without the word love?
I stood in that gallery and felt not only sexual attraction (which I was aware of, dimly, as background noise) but what I can only describe as grave and troubling pity.
By this I don’t mean that I felt myself to be above him. For almost our entire life together I would consider Ciaran to be better than me in both essential and superficial ways.
By pity, what I mean is that just by looking at him I felt an acute tenderness for his condition: his being human. In that moment the basic affection and sorrow I feel for any human person was intensified to such a degree I could not breathe.
Even now, even after all that took place between us, I still can feel how moved I am by him.
Ciaran was not the first beautiful man I slept with, or the first man I had obsessive feelings for, but he was the first man I worshipped. His body would become a site of prayer for me, a place where I could forget about my own living flesh and be only with his. It was a thing of total pleasure, total beauty.
Do you think I am unaware of calling his body a place, a thing? Do you think I am unaware of what it is to be a woman speaking this way about a man’s body? What do I know about the body of a man – and can any single one of them deserve or need a moment more of praise?
What must it feel like to be beautiful but also invisible whenever you choose to be? To be a beautiful man?
Ciaran caught my eye, smiled slightly and widened his – in remembrance, I hoped, of our prior meeting. I walked towards him and he broke off from his conversation and turned to me.
‘Ah, it’s you,’ he said, as though we had arranged to meet each other.
‘The very same,’ I said stupidly, and flushed with shame as I heard my voice as though from outside my head. It sounded very Irish and thick with forced joviality. Ciaran had an accent I couldn’t place.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Ciaran,’ he said, and then, as though having read my mind, ‘though it’s only my father who’s Irish – I’m Danish.’
I met his eyes then and my shame was overcome by the pleasure I could feel between us.
We smiled at each other shyly.
‘What do you make of the show?’
‘Oh, well,’ I said, trying to answer as quickly and glibly as possible, ‘it’s just a bunch of things in a certain room, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean much to me. I come for the drinks.’
He ignored the last part of what I had said, which was intended to lead us out of where we were to some place more comfortable for me.
‘Isn’t it our job to try to understand: why these objects, in this particular room?’ he asked.
I scanned his question for mockery, but he seemed to mean it innocently.
‘It’s just that with art I never feel on a sure footing. With other things, I have some knowledge I can discuss them in terms of. With this sort of thing, I could say anything at all about it. I have no frame of reference.’
He smiled at me again. There was something definitely sexual, almost gloating, in his eyes now.
‘Well, that’s just what I’ve always liked most about art.’ ‘Should we get a drink?’ I asked.
‘I’m leaving, and they’re out anyway – here, have mine.’ And he handed me his nearly full beer and picked up his bag. ‘Would you like to come for a walk with me tomorrow?’
Taking my dopey gaze as agreement, he wrote his phone number on a napkin and gave it to me.
‘Good,’ he said, and was gone.
At that time I lived in a bedsit in Ranelagh on street level, where I left the window open at night so I could climb back in if I had lost my keys, which I often had. The first night I moved in, I sat in my bed after unpacking and looked around at the ephemera and trinkets. They were drawings and notes from old lovers and friends, postcards, photographs, porcelain figures, antique ashtrays. I needed these things, fixed them as soon as I arrived somewhere new, but now I was alone they seemed foolish. They looked like props for a bad theatre production, trying to summon up a personality where there was none.
Living alone, I began to split apart from myself in a deeper and more grotesque way than ever before.
There was my public life, where I worked and went out dancing and drinking and was amusing and energetic in company; where I made eyes at men in bars and sometimes went home with them; where I told people that I loved living alone, and they believed it because of how happy I was.
I really was happy when I seemed happy. I am incapable of lying about my feelings, it’s only that the feelings have no coherence, are not continuous from one hour to the next.
And then there was the life I spent in my apartment trying to torture myself into submission and stillness. I could not be alone happily, and because I knew this was a sign of weakness, I forced myself to endure it for as long as I could before breaking, although I sometimes thought I would go mad.
Being with other people was, to me, the feeling of being realised. This was why I wanted to be in love. In love, you don’t need the minute-to-minute physical presence of the beloved to realise you. Love itself sustains and validates the rotten moments you would otherwise be wasting while you practise being a person, pacing back and forth in your shitty apartment, holding off till seven to open the wine.
Being in love blesses you with a sort of grace. A friend once told me he imagined his father or God watching him while he works, to help force productivity. Being in love was like that to me, a shield, a higher purpose, a promise to something outside of yourself.
That night I first met Ciaran I got as drunk as I’d ever been. There were two kinds of drunk I could get. The first was generally solitary and born not of a desire to be drunk but to pass time less miserably. It was slow, perhaps a glass of wine every half an hour or so, not too immoderate, although never less than a bottle, and characterised by a maudlin self-pity that would sometimes sour into violence.
The other kind of drunk I got was far more excessive and characterised by exuberant good spirits and a communal edge of mania; on these nights I would spend a huge amount of money I did not have, because – even more so than usual – time beyond the present seemed absolutely unreal, and the needs of the present were urgent.
The excess of these nights was never depressing as it was happening, it was a part of being young and having no commitments and no stability. You could tell these nights before they had started usually, some air of mischief in the room when we began to drink. We threw back the first drinks, greedily anticipating the coming looseness and hysteria. There were things we had expected to have by now that we did not have.
Sometimes on nights like these I would meet people different to me, people who came from money and lived in flats their parents had given to them as casually as the rest of us were given charm bracelets and book tokens for birthdays. One such guy, Rogers, a small, wiry person with a great Brideshead Revisited pouffe of teased blond hair quivering above his porcelain face, dropped out of university about the same time as I had. I bumped into him at a party a few months later and asked what he was doing. I was surprised to learn he was in a middleweight role at a big PR firm, seeing as we were both only nineteen and without qualifications. I was still scrabbling around for miserably paid retail and bar work.
When I asked him, in all innocence, how he had pulled off such a thing, he winked at me and said, ‘The Rogers name carries a lot of weight in this town!’ This was a repellent enough statement to hear by itself, but became enjoyably absurd when a mutual friend disclosed that the firm was in fact owned by his parents. The Rogers name carries a lot of weight in the Rogers family, I thought to myself with moreish resentment each time I saw him from then on.
I, like most of my friends, was a good drunk, by which I mean I could drink a lot, liked to drink, and wasn’t disagreeable once drunk.
My life was blighted by hangovers. I was hungover most mornings to some degree, and badly maybe twice a week. During bad ones, I missed whole days huddling in my bed, scrolling through my phone without pleasure or intent, locked into its repetition as a safeguard. I peered through the curtains at the 4 p.m. sun and thought it better to stay in until it got dark. I was badly afraid.
There was a questionnaire I took once to define one’s level of alcohol dependence. The final question, in the section that was supposed to mark out ‘final-stage alcoholics near to death’, was: ‘Do you often wake up terribly frightened after a drinking binge?’ And when I read that I thought, Terribly frightened is exactly how I would put it.
Terribly frightened. It summed up the somehow elderly sense of fear I had when I woke up in the mornings. It reminded me of cinematic depictions of old women teetering on the edge of dementia, whose husbands had died, and who couldn’t remember the details of their home; an aimless but total distress and bewilderment. I woke up terribly frightened all the time.
William Faulkner, in the end stages of his alcoholism, travelled to New York to visit friends and see some plays. After ten days of heavy drinking he disappeared. A friend went to his hotel to check on him and, after banging on the door and yelling out his name to no avail, insisted that hotel staff let him in. Bursting into the room, they found Faulkner, semi-conscious and moaning thickly on the bathroom floor.
A curious, fetid odour hung in the air. The windows were all open despite the sub-zero temperatures. In the night, Faulkner had got up to be sick and had fallen against a radiator pipe. He immediately lost consciousness and did not feel the pipe burn through the flesh of his back over the course of many hours. By the time he was discovered the burn had become third degree.
In the hospital, his physician, Dr Joe, was called, and asked him, ‘Why do you do it?’
Faulkner apparently jutted out his jaw and responded, ‘Because I like to!’
His publisher Bennett went to be with him.
‘Bill,’ he said, and I imagine him looking down at his hands, head shaking slightly, unable to meet his friend’s eyes, ‘why would you do this on your vacation?’
Faulkner bristled at this, pulled himself up in the bed to his full height.
‘Bennett,’ he said, ‘it was my vacation, after all.’
Why do you do it? Because I like to.
Meaning, not so much that I take pleasure in it, but: I choose it.
I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do what I would like to do, but instead do what I hate. What an unhappy man I am. Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death?
That night after meeting Ciaran I drank until I vomited and blood vessels beneath and above my eyes burst, and I traced them gently in the mirror, knowing they would be markers of a beginning.
Events that were objectively worse than what was to follow with Ciaran had taken place in my earlier adulthood, sordid checkpoints of the wounded woman. I cannot speak about these things too soon because their names alone summon like a charm the disinterest of an enlightened reader. Female suffering is cheap and is used cheaply by dishonest women who are looking only for attention – and of all our cardinal sins, seeking attention must surely be up there.
All the suffering I had so far endured before I met Ciaran, I had endured like a child. This is not to say the suffering was not severe, which it was, or that I did not understand it, which I did. But before Ciaran I still contemplated suffering as something with meaning. I understood even the most inexplicable of tragedies as being imbued with some as yet unknown purpose.
It was my feeling that there were lucky people and unlucky people, and I was a lucky person. Even in my worst depressions, I had always known this. My misery seemed to come from knowing I was not good enough to warrant the objectively lucky life I had been given.
I would not have thought so literally, or so religiously, as to say, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ or ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can bear’, but the feeling was not so different. It was the feeling that each human life has a narrative and a destiny. It was the feeling that misfortune, no matter how great, would eventually serve to lead each of us to our own particular and inevitable conclusion.
My understanding was that every action would lead me to where I ought to be ultimately, and where I ought to be was in love.
Love was the great consolation, would set ablaze the fields of my life in one go, leaving nothing behind. I thought of it as the great leveller, as a force which would clean me and by its presence make me worthy of it. There was no religion in my life after early childhood, and a great faith in love was what I had cultivated instead.
Oh, don’t laugh at me for this, for being a woman who says this to you. I hear myself speak.
I texted him in the morning and we agreed to meet at 2 p.m. outside the Natural History Museum. I showered in near-boiling water and spat blood into the sink when I brushed my teeth. I was badly hungover, but not ill, in the sweet spot before returning to full sobriety. I was glad to be so. Going through life hungover is an ordeal, but being without one is no picnic either. The fuzz and numbness of a hangover can carry you through a day without you noticing it too much; you’re too busy tending to aches and thirsts to pay much attention to anything else that might trouble you.
I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before and was jittery as I walked. I tried to remember his face, and found that the intensity of my crush would not allow me to. I could recall individual parts but when I tried to assemble them they floated in a shimmering mess. I laughed at this nervously and shook my head, filled with affection for myself. I love myself in love. I find my feelings fascinating and human, for once can sympathise with my own actions.
When I arrived, he was drifting about the lawns looking at hedges sheared into animal shapes. I went to him and put my hand on his elbow, felt it warm in the worn old rust-coloured cardigan he wore. I had noticed this at the opening, too – he dressed in clothes that, although elegant on his body, looked on the point of collapse. They weren’t merely distressed in a fashionable way but looked as though they had well and truly reached the end point of functioning as clothing. Instinctively I respected this: resourcefulness. My father told me once the trait he admires most in the world is resourcefulness, and since then I’ve looked out for it.
We hugged hello and I felt how slender he was beneath his soft worn layers. I sensed something slightly different from him than I had the night before. He was still powerfully calm, but there was a tension in his face. I wondered if he was nervous. My own nerves had mainly to do with the sobriety of what we were doing. All of my romantic affairs until then had begun while drunk, and most of them accidentally.
It was a bad location for a first date. We had to move around and focus our attention on things other than each other. We made observations about the exhibits between bouts of silence. We chatted enough to swap basic information in murmurs. I learned that he had moved permanently to Dublin a year ago, to spend time with his father who had become ill, but was doing better now. He had come from outside Copenhagen, where he wrote art criticism. Here he was trying to write his own essays, but his waged work was doing copy and reviews for a magazine.
The silences were making me unbearably anxious and I feared I would burst into laughter at any moment. Being in the museum wasn’t helping; it was a shabby, dark and beautiful old place where the exhibits were sometimes unintentionally hilarious. My friends and I would go there hungover sometimes and become pleasantly hysterical at the old and incompetent taxidermy. But Ciaran was walking between them all in apparent seriousness, and I felt foolish for being amused.
I looked over at him for as long as I could get away with while he inspected the butterflies. I wanted to be nearer. I approached and held his worn elbow and asked if he’d like to go and get something to eat.
Outside, after walking down the staircase in more silence, he turned to me and said, ‘Well. That was a very bad museum.’ And his seriousness made me laugh then, and he laughed with me.
We spent the rest of the day together and spoke more about our lives. He described the town he was from and said he hadn’t been sad to leave it. I told him about dropping out of university and the many odd jobs I had worked since then. I told him I wrote, too, in the way I always told people this: with the lowered pious eyes of a saint, looking away, worried and secretly a little hopeful they would want to ask me about it. This was not a justified worry when it came to most men and Ciaran was no different. He nodded briskly and moved the conversation on.
In the evening we walked along the quays and he left me to go and work in his studio. He kissed me, and then held my head in his hands, studying my face with fond satisfaction, and said we would see each other soon.
As we walked in opposite directions, I turned back to look at him over my shoulder and he did the same to me and I was filled with a soaring levity. We were both laughing, and I turned away from him and started to run – had to, the feeling was so strong. I ran and ran and I couldn’t stop laughing in amazement, thinking of how he kissed me, thinking that there was nobody else I wanted to kiss now.
When I look back, what I find most odd was how sedate the day with him had been. We had got along fine, had found each other agreeable, were obviously attracted to one another, but there was no moment of breakthrough in the conversation. The moment I had shared with others before him, when you feel all the pieces lining up as a rhythm takes hold, had not occurred.
I think even then in that first flush, running up the quays alongside the April sunset, I was aware of that. It didn’t matter to me how funny he was, or what he thought of me, or what books we had both read.
I was in love with him from the beginning, and there wasn’t a thing he or anybody else could do to change it.
Before Ciaran I tried some other men on for size. I was trying a lot of things. I had become a strange age. I was no longer the barely-legal-but-knowing teenager who had wielded such power over men. Nor was I anything like a self-possessed adult woman who might attract them by way of her autonomy.
People enjoyed me, because while I was attractive enough I was not intimidating. I was buoyant and good-natured and occasionally a little bit mean in an amusing way. I looked and fucked like a woman but could drink and take drugs and talk like a lad. I would bring some effete longlimbed DJ home with me and in the morning we could knock about town together without the awkward suggestion of romance or obligation.
We could have coffee, in our farcical fur coats, or a conspiratorial too-early beer, before going our separate ways, and then I would see them that same night at another club, with one of the girls who was more like a real girl to them, girls who were tall and willowy and part-time modelling while they studied fine art. I think that I wanted more than anything to be real like those girls, but I didn’t know how to be, didn’t know any other way to be close to these boys except for partying with them. 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.
My life as a party girl dwindled away. I slept with too many people’s boyfriends, got sick in too many front rooms. I stopped being enjoyably fun and became only frantically fun, and then felt too old for it all anyway.
I fell into the habit of being only with much older men. Not knowing what to do with myself, it was simple to stumble into their lives. Whether I was truly beautiful, exceptional, interesting mattered less with them. I was still very young in the grand scheme of things, if not young enough to be a nightlife novelty any longer. I was young enough to be compelling to them by virtue only of my youth, standing in as a monument to whatever things they felt they no longer had access to.
I met one such man at a book launch not long before I would meet Ciaran. He was an editor at a small independent poetry press, American. He wore funny thick glasses and sweater vests and had a honking, obliviously loud speaking voice, which was what made me notice him first. He was talking to a friend throughout the book launch’s tedious speeches, with so little care for his surroundings that it made me laugh. His friend replied in whispers and tried to shush him but the editor didn’t seem to notice and went on broadcasting his flat Californian drawl. He caught my eye and grinned at me, and we drank together for the rest of the night.
It was sort of amazing seeing men who weren’t particularly attractive but who believed, more or less correctly, that they could have and do whatever they wanted. I was always calculating with scientific precision the relative beauty of the people I wanted to be with, and would steer clear of the ones who exceeded me too greatly. But then you’d see guys like this one trundling around the world, reaching out, cheerily thoughtless, for whatever shiny thing passed. They didn’t feel the need to strike an equitable bargain, they just advanced towards you, grinning a little sheepishly maybe, and their entitlement was so alien and enviable that it was something like charming.
‘I have a sort of girlfriend,’ he gasped into my mouth after he had pushed me against a wall.
‘Okay,’ I said in response, then rolled my eyes and kissed him again.
When he took me to his house for the first time some weeks later I immediately lost the upper hand it had felt as though I had. He was rich. It was a huge two-bedroom apartment in Merrion Square, everything in soft-brushed fabrics and beige tones. A small sleepy corgi named Dots blinked up at us from the sofa. Being young and beautiful felt like a lot sometimes, felt like it translated to real-world power, but money shat all over it every time.
He took me to bed, where I was uncharacteristically shy. The grandeur of the house felt oppressive, my cheap high-street lingerie crude. Eventually he undressed me fully and laid me out on the bed, kneeling over me and patiently removing my hands each time they returned to protect my most embarrassing parts. He did this until I stopped trying to cover myself and lay there still beneath his gaze. He looked so happy, taking me in. He touched each part of me, and kissed my forehead gently.
‘I’ve wanted this for a long time,’ he said. ‘Since I first saw you.’
‘Me too,’ I said back, but I knew that I didn’t mean it. I hadn’t wanted to sleep with him. I had wanted never to sleep with him, had wanted us to keep talking, to wake up to his messages, to be amused by one another. I wanted our chaste coffee dates to go on and on, for there to be no end to these things, and this, the sex, was the end, I knew.
It felt good in a way, because he was so excited and I was pleased to make him so, but I was filled with sadness at each new thing he did to me. Every thing he did was another ending. When we had done all the things there were to do, he passed out and I clung to his reassuringly solid, soft stomach – paternal, so different to the indie waifs – and cried.
Longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize
Glamour’s Best Books of March
Entertainment Weekly’s Must-Read Books of March
TIME Best Books of the Year
Bustle’s Most Anticipated Debuts
Goodreads Most Anticipated Debuts
LitHub’s Most Anticipated Books of the Year
The Millions’ Most Anticipated Books of the Year
The Observer’s Best Debut Novelists of 2021
Chicago Public Library Best Books of the Year—`
“Megan Nolan is a huge literary talent, and her first novel, Acts of Desperation, is a love story like no other. The writing is intense and honest, with a rare access to real life, but it is also reflective and full of insights, and with this combination the novel manages to separate the idea of love and the experience of it, and take the reader to the place where it comes into being.”
—KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD
- “Megan Nolan writes with piercing vulnerability and precision. Her debut novel, Acts of Desperation is a blistering anti-romance about the seductive destruction of trying to find self-worth in the gaze of another.”—CATHERINE LACEY, author of PEW and THE ANSWERS
"I devoured this book, my heart trilling with equal parts terror and exhilaration. It is an emotional thriller, a portrait of obsession—its pleasures and powerlessness, its inevitable corruption not only of integrity, but even selfhood. Nolan's prose is cool and liquid, her content perfectly scorching. I loved this taut and torturous ode to the parts of us that persist, even as we are wrecked by love."
—MELISSA FEBOS, author of ABANDON ME and WHIP SMART
“Nolan’s raw and uncannily insightful writing glimmers in a way that will shed new light onto wounds both healed and open — and possibly save some other nameless woman the suffering. She tells the truth about obsession and drains it of all allure.”
—NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“Wrenching…a chronicle of a sinister, deeply imbalanced and unsettlingly familiar romantic relationship…Nolan’s writing gleams with dark precision. Her narrator’s piercing, almost perverse self-awareness makes the action both more sad and more urgent…The decision to hold in suspicion the very form she is enacting is what makes the book refreshing and complex. What Acts of Desperation illuminates best is the chasm, sadly still enormous, between feminist politics and personal predicaments of love, sex and romance. The novel is a powerful counterweight to the notion that young women today are free to define themselves apart from men…It is satisfying to see a young female narrator wrest control of the story of her debasement, to show both its specificity and its utter sameness, her victimhood and her complicity.”
—LOS ANGELES TIMES
“Nolan spins romantic obsession into literary gold…It’s no surprise that Megan Nolan’s ACTS OF DESPERATION is already being called the next Normal People…Nolan, a more bruising writer than Rooney, is also a braver one in many ways—or one with the courage, at least, to let her characters be ugly in a way that Normal rarely does….If Nolan as a novelist weren’t so deeply smart and self-aware, you might want to shake her wounded protagonist out of it. Instead there’s just the sharp kick of recognition—and sympathy.”
“Nolan makes this novel of the thin line between romantic obsession and abuse so readable and relatable you’ll tear through it as if it’s a beach read.”
“Megan Nolan’s absorbing debut novel traces…the messy motivations that twist infatuation into obsession — rendering a sharp psychological portrait of a narrator thoroughly transformed by desire.”
- "Please believe the hype...I was transfixed with admiration and visceral horror…Nolan’s headlong, fearless prose feels like salt wind on cracked lips. You wince and you thrill.”—THE SUNDAY TIMES
“Frightening and feverish, compulsive and distressing, and as true-seeming a document of toxic and manipulative love as any published within memory…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… Bodily and alive—hot as viscera, inward-looking, dark and soft…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.”
—THE NEW REPUBLIC
- “Acts of Desperation is not simply a portrait of a relationship that descends briskly into the coercive and abusive; it is also an exploration of early adult life, of lostness and excess, of alienation and complicity… This is why Acts of Desperation is so resonant; its bad relationships, the over-drinking and the unsatisfactory jobs are symptoms of a deeper sense of distress, a feeling of being out of kilter with the world…Nolan’s subject matter chimes with a frank exploration of interiority and pain that is hardly uncommon in fiction, but it is strikingly singular.”—THE GUARDIAN
“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…Nolan deploys individual suffering as a weapon in the fight against collective injustice…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.”
“Remarkable…This mesmerizes from the first page.”
—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (Starred Review)
“Acts of Desperation charts the obsession of an unnamed narrator…with forensic focus and biting honesty.”
—THE OBSERVER, 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2021
“Ruthlessly peels back the ego to expose the soul’s most discomfiting corners… Acts of Desperation submerges you in her interior life with Knausgaardian intensity…Her rejection of cliché and a savage honesty bordering on masochism recall writers such as Elena Ferrante and Jenny Diski…Nolan’s portrait of a relationship warped by obsession and low self-worth excavates our private hearts.”—THE EVENING STANDARD
“Nolan, a young Irish writer known for her unsparing essays on subjects such as abortion, joins the likes of Sally Rooney and Raven Leilani with this tempestuous, Dublin-set debut about a hard-drinking millennial whose hunger for validation leads her into a torrid relationship with a jealous writer… Impossible not to devour, it's an unsettling book that leaves you chewing queasily on its knotty, gristly core, despite the narrative's redemptive framing as an act of purgative retrospection.”
—THE DAILY MAIL
“A bracing and poignant story of a young woman’s awakening; the writing is lucid and devastatingly accurate...With her narrator’s whipsmart tone, low self-esteem issues and penchant for sexual debasement, Nolan will likely be compared to contemporary writers such as Sally Rooney, Kristen Roupenian and Ottessa Moshfegh. While these comparisons certainly hold, in Acts of Desperation there is a sweeter sense of openness to the world, despite its many problems. The wry social commentary is there, but it’s from the perspective of a character who hasn’t yet withdrawn from the world she critiques.”
—THE IRISH TIMES
“Nolan’s electric debut probes the gray area between affection and obsession.”
- “[Nolan] divulges the many complexities and contradictions of female desire.”—Debanjana Das, BUZZFEED
“A tour de force chronicling the many paradoxes of female desire… Nolan hasn’t assigned any names to her narrator as she is one of us: a self that eroticizes her own humiliation to survive patriarchy, and that every woman carries.”
- "Nolan’s unwillingness to spare her protagonist or the reader is a gamble that pays off. It’s a rigorous study of a gross but key piece of the human condition, nestled in the set dressing of precise, excellent prose."—Sara Shahzad, Boston Globe
- "Acts of Desperation is an unsparing novel about the troubling dimensions of our sexual desire."—Yen Pham, The Nation
- On Sale
- Mar 9, 2021
- Page Count
- 7 pages
- Little, Brown and Company