Like her main character, Megan Nolan feels bad. Bad that she couldn’t have offered a “cheerier” book, perhaps, to the masses–but most especially bad for those in her hometown of Waterford, Ireland, which also cameos in what, for some, might be an all too recognizable tale. Aptly called Acts of Desperation. A title, in fact, that makes one marvel at how no author ever thought to use it before.
For who among us can’t say that their entire life has been one endless series of acts of desperation? And, as we’ve been told by Henry David Thoreau, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The “anti-heroine” (because all “unsympathetic” heroines have to be billed as “anti”) of this first person account does not express her desperation “quietly,” so much as through drunken benders and crying outbursts of neediness. So perhaps no one deserved the title until now. Until a character like this came along. We never catch her name. It is Ciaran’s we hear over and over again. The live-in boyfriend who ends up reigning over her entire existence. But before we get to him, let us address that aforementioned “feeling bad” sentiment on Nolan’s part. In a half-interview, half-review sort of article from The Guardian, it was pointed out that Nolan was mildly horrified by the prospect of Waterford residents reading her book because, “As soon as they heard that I was writing this book, and was having the book published, you know, everyone is so nice about it. And they’ll say, ‘I can’t wait to get it, and we’re going to have such a party when you get back.’ And then I just think: ‘Oh my God, they’re all going to buy it and be really moved that they’re buying it and then they’ll get home and have to read that.’”
But fuck ’em, you know? Art shouldn’t be “pretty,” or worse, “palatable.” Shouldn’t do its best to make the inherent nihilism of life–especially life in one’s twenties in a big city–as unmessy and unbleak as possible. Nolan, mercifully (or unmercifully, depending on how you look at it), does not do any such thing. She holds nothing back about her protagonist’s grotesquerie, which might come across as glamorous to someone younger, someone only just embarking upon their twenties who sees nothing but “a story” in nights out and brutal sex encounters with men you realize were even more unattractive than you remembered when you wake up in the morning. Isn’t that what a woman’s twenties is supposed to be all about? So the myth would like us to believe. And then, before you know it, you’ve become a caricature of that myth.
Our narrator gets right to the point about how far out of control her alcoholism has gotten early on in the saga as she describes, “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 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…” But that was sort of the goal, wasn’t it? To forget everything from the night before as a kind of “salve” for one’s bad behavior. You can’t truly be held responsible for that which you don’t remember doing. Well, unless you’re Kaley Cuoco in The Flight Attendant.
Nolan herself looks back on those “salad days” (an ironic term here) in Dublin and also has to admit/wonder, “When I think back to when I moved to Dublin at eighteen, the way that I drank was crazy. And everyone who I knew did it, you know, and it was totally normalised, really hard-core problem drinking for everyone involved. I don’t know whether that’s to do with Dublin, or the period of my life.” Likely a combination. And maybe such a strong Irish history rooted into the landscape also forces ex-twentysomethings of New York to occasionally find themselves having the same revelation as Nolan after their own “blackout decade.”
The story begins in April 2012, otherwise known as: the year both once thought to mark the end of the world and, not so coincidentally, part of a period called the millennial heyday. The narrator takes advantage of that heyday (and the feeling of everything somehow about to end that Britney Spears spurred with a song released the year prior called “Till The World Ends”). Maybe millennials enjoyed buying into the lore of the Mayan calendar because it meant they would never have to face their future. A future they were obviously so right to believe would be utterly grim. For the narrator, it isn’t just a “last days of disco” reasoning that compels her to engage in such reckless behavior indicative of someone who does not see themselves as worthy of care. It’s also a matter of genuinely believing that she could fill herself up with the love of a man. Especially if it was a love hard-won. Ciaran’s coldness–more than merely because he’s Danish–attracts the narrator as much as his looks. If she can wear him down, get him to fall for her, then she’ll finally feel “complete.” Or at least not so empty all the time. Ciaran himself “seemed undeniably whole, as though his world was contained within himself.”
Thus, when Ciaran’s comportment continues to grow escalatingly worse, she takes pause to explain that the reason she stuck around was because, “It was as though I had been struck by a belt for years, and suddenly my flesh was replaced with something else, something inanimate. The pain was still going on, but it was no longer happening to me, it was happening to a statue.” As someone who self-mutilates, to boot, she can’t help but “get off” slightly on the pain. It gives her that rush that reminds her she’s still alive, not entirely numb.
It is said that you don’t cheat on the one you’re with unless they’ve dissatisfied you in some way. More than just sexually, it can mean they don’t treat you as you ought to be. So you seek out other people to extract the affections you’re not getting “at home.” This is how the philandering starts for our narrator, initiated by a rendezvous with an old boyfriend–her first “proper” one. Reuben, a bit older and more attractive than her (just like Ciaran), is all too eager to meet up. And soon, seeing him again reminds her of her roots. Of the constant sadness and angst she began “cultivating” as a teen. But like many who “try on” a personality, they soon realize it’s become their full-on identity before they can do much to go back and change it. Accordingly, the narrator remembers of her adolescence, “I was wallowing in the glamor of my sadness. I read an article in Vogue about that time which said something like: ‘This seasons’ looks lean toward Gothic drapery, knee socks and heavy eyeliner, showing something that every teenage girl knows: that sadness can be a kind of beauty.'” Or, as Billy Corgan once phrased it, “I’m in love with my sadness.”
Part of what contributes to it in the present is that Ciaran has freely admitted to still being in love with his ex, Freja, back in Scandiland. The fact that she cheated on him throughout their long-term relationship is yet another reason he seems to have contempt for women in general and our narrator in particular, a “puerile girl” he sees as “sloppy” every time she drinks even a mere bottle of wine (and come on, in one’s youth, drinking a bottle to yourself isn’t something so “outrageous”–ask anyone in “the big city”). Maybe it’s around this time that she starts looking more fondly back on her time with Reuben, the relationship she chose to blow up because it was always her nature to self-sabotage, to look for reasons out of a healthy dynamic and stray toward a malady-ridden one. Like the kind wherein she makes herself into a neo-50s housewife who cooks all of Ciaran’s meals but also serves as the financial provider to further ensure he’ll never have cause to abandon her.
It’s only to be expected that doing all that would cause her to implode, to flee into the arms of another (/many). And after sleeping with Reuben while still living with Ciaran, she ruminates (from her perch in 2019 Athens), “Strange to know you’ll never again be with the kind of person who made you love first, their imprint inescapable. There are just a few portals backward, if you don’t plan to become predatory–the boys you loved back then, grown now, but the teenager still visible within, to you at least. With them and only them, you can feel yourself as rapt and opened up and simple as you once were… Nobody who loves me from now will ever know, really know, really believe, that I was a beautiful child once.”
Such is one of the many despairing aspects of life we all try our best to push aside in order to keep functioning. To try, as willfully as we can, not to notice we’re aging and then maybe we’ll never have to admit death is on the horizon. To this end, our narrator devotes a section to talking about the “small news items” that address the likes of Ian Tomlinson or some old woman who opened her home to a group of young children that eventually grew into cruel adolescents that turned on her. The narrator explains of these proverbial lives of quiet desperation, “These stories hurt me so badly, but I’ve learned to react to that hurt by thinking of them again and again, forcing myself to replay the details over and over again, until they are meaningless. You grow cold, or you die yourself.”
Of her childhood dream to “make a book” (a euphemistic way to say “be a writer,” for those who have the proper amount of jadedness about it), she remarks, “That was a long time ago, of course, and now it seemed borderline incomprehensible to me that someone could dedicate so much time and effort to a thing without a known outcome. Life was so pointless, so opaque and shifting, that I could only think about immediate feelings. Immediacy was all I had.” Hence, the fondness for the immediate effects of alcohol, the instant gratification of getting blissfully plastered.
A “habit” she tries her best to quell for Ciaran when she treats their relationship like an idol to be worshipped and deferred to–never wanting to offend him or invoke his ire. But eventually, she finds ways around his vigilance, learning to, as so many women have, split her personality in two: one to accommodate Ciaran, and one to accommodate herself. Her need to tolerate Ciaran’s verbal and emotional abuse–contort it into some definition of love–is all part of the inherent self-loathing she can’t seem to shake. She’s been indoctrinated with these sentiments from such an early age that she has trouble knowing how to be otherwise. Which is why, “The chiding and the shaping of me, the backhanded compliments and barbed advice. The constant knowledge that I would never, ever be what he wanted. The pleasure wasn’t often pleasure; it was release from pain. It was binding yourself and feeling good when the bandages came off, it was cutting a hole in your leg so you could feel it heal. I had suffered, and I had made suffering into something I could consider good. I made it so that suffering was a kind of work.”
It’s also work to keep drinking, to keep waking up every morning and wondering where she is or what she did this time. To actively take a sick pleasure in the slower form of self-harm that comes with this behavior. In many regards, her character is quite similar to another girl who goes to Dublin in search of “adventure,” Aisling O’Dowd (Seána Kerslake) in Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope.
The best way she can explain (to those who just haven’t “been there”) with regard to “debasing herself” in the form of drunkenly and promiscuously fucking the men she meets in the late hours of the night is, “When I sleep with men I don’t like, men who irritate or scare or disgust me, because it is easier to do so, I make myself as bad as they are. I drag myself down to their level by allowing them to have what they want. Having sex with them degrades me. Once I have been degraded I am really no better than they are. The men themselves are rendered more bearable to me. I hate them less afterwards, because I’ve made myself as pathetic as they are.” But maybe, there comes a time, eventually, when a girl can no longer endure being pathetic, and she has to finally say enough is enough. Even to the person she told herself repeatedly she loved as part of a means to perpetuate her self-hate.
When the final cataclysmic event leads to her and Ciaran’s violent breakup, our narrator knows it’s time to get away, ergo her speaking to us from Athens 2019 after surviving 2012-2014 in Dublin. Unfortunately, she makes the mistake of believing a male friend can come visit her without it turning sexual–on his part. It’s during this portion that the narrator gives insight to one of the biggest continuously tolerated “microaggressions” on the part of the male species. She decries,
I thought, not for the first time, that wheedling of the sort he had employed should be forbidden in men. It was already so near to impossible to say no to a man, so difficult to accept the possibility of being hurt or disliked or shouted at. It takes so much out of you to make yourself say no, when you have been taught to say yes, to be accommodating, to make men happy. Once you’ve said no, a man wheedling feels unbearable. Even if he does it politely, or gently, it overrides the clearly expressed intention. It says: Your choice does not really matter. What I desire matters, and I don’t want to feel bad for forcing you into it. So perhaps you ought to reconsider? Wheedling is cowardly, and violent. When you change someone’s no to yes by wheedling, you have stolen from them what does not belong to you.
But in this final instance of acquiescence, our narrator reaches her ultimate moment of clarity, and so, too, do we. That after years spent capitulating and hoping if she just did that or did this, some outside force would love her, she finds the job is entirely up to her–and that it must be done in isolation (before corona made such a concept chic). Because, in the end, Alice Deejay was always right: better off alone (in Greece).