by Ksenia Dugaeva
Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan (2021)
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart (1945)
In April 2012 in Dublin, we meet the unnamed narrator of Acts of Desperation at the same time as we meet Ciaran, the object of her affection and, later, obsession. His notable qualities include exceptional beauty and ‘immense stillness’; his peculiarities are such that she pities him immediately. Between the two primary spatial (Dublin and Athens) and temporal (2012–15 and 2019) settings, she takes us through the years of their courtship, their relationship, its breakdown, its resurrection and breakdown again. She tells us about her habits, which elide the borders of alcoholism and self-harm; about her obsession with him, her obsession with herself, her desire to save and then destroy the relationship, her compliance and her rebellion, and finally, about the inherent emptiness of her life which she is endeavouring to accept. The novel, though it begins with him, is not really about him at all.
Megan Nolan has described the initial shame she felt in writing personal, “feminine” essays; wanting to eradicate that shame, she found inspiration (and ‘permission’, her word) in Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle sextet. Previously, Nolan has written with grace and certainty about idolising beauty and wishing to be beautiful; with clarity about self-harming as a teenager; with unapologetic determination about the physical manifestations of her traumas and anxieties. Her sentences are often short and always clear — we do not have to hunt for meaning or impact.
This is also true of her writing in Acts of Desperation, which maintains the clarity of her essays and reviews. However, while reading Acts, I cannot stop thinking about the seething shame that seeps through the cracks, permeating the narrator’s whole being. It is evident from how she keeps Ciaran separate from her friends, knowing that they will not get along due to his coldness; how she calculates with impressive ease a ‘reasonable lie’ when he asks her how many people she had slept with; how she knows that her relationship ‘was strange and uneven and not reciprocal and that speaking about its reality would confuse and upset’ the people who loved her. This shame is revealed, paradoxically, through the shamelessness of her self-hatred. Her urge to ‘punish someone by not eating’ reappears unexpectedly when she finds out her boyfriend has been secretly in contact with his beautiful Danish ex-girlfriend: ‘I knew, of course, that they would never know that I was not eating, and even if they did, they would not know it was they who had caused it. That the pain was private made it better — I made them torture me, without their consent.’ Her pain — whether self-inflicted or caused by others — is ushered into crevices, hidden away from the watchful gaze of loved ones, concealed enough to be ignored by those who do not wish to see it.
In a segment set in Athens, in 2019, she offers a metatextual reflection on her own life and her decision to convey her story to the reader, a reflection in which we are hoping to find some softer sincerity, perhaps a genuine connection and to which we are certainly not entitled but would like to nurture.
‘I hate to write that, to put my facts in the hands of people who will sneer and feel annoyed by their tawdry debasement.’
This line appears more than halfway through Acts of Desperation yet does not fail to strike the reader to the very core. The narrator does not trust us. The narrator does not like us.
Having to grapple with that distrust is difficult. We want to be on her side, to understand and feel her pain, to identify with her experiences and to remember our own, to hold her hand in some maybe misguided symbol of sisterhood. But she is a staunch defender of her individuality, wanting to preserve a femininity that can only be her own. She is alone in her own little world, and though she reluctantly invites us in, we have to squeeze through the narrowly open door, hang up our own coats, and pour our own drinks.
Her narrative voice is engulfing, all-consuming. She is at once derisive and proud of her ‘huge, ridiculous ego — the belief that [she] could stop and start the world with [her] presence’. As a friend she would be unbearable but as a narrator, she is addictive. The novel moves through a series of fragments in a staccato structure. Despite the occasional spells of dialogue — glimpses into other perspectives — we are locked into her world and her opinions of it. We never know what awaits us in the next chapter — sometimes a continuation of the previous thread, at others an unexpected jump through time and space. We become increasingly aware of the existence of the bigger picture, but we are forced to piece it together through the gaps she leaves in her tightly spun web — a web compiled not from lies, but also not from objective truths that could hold water under scrutiny. The narrative is frighteningly commanding — we are to move along at her pace, we are not to go back and check the facts to see if they hold up. Approaching the end, one of her ex-boyfriends puts into words that which we have tentatively been thinking: ‘You always think your pain is the most painful. You always think it’s uniquely awful. … I’m not going to list all the things wrong with my life so you can take them in and then compare them to yourself.’
It is a little jarring to see her so clearly through the eyes of another, though this validates our impulse to form our own opinions of her as a character who simply exists within her fictional world, rather than as a narrator who orchestrates it. For as a narrator, she fights continually against this impulse in a frenzy to prove that she is not one-dimensional, rejecting the idea that she should be easily identified as one thing or another. She remains nameless, whilst the others are named, often according to their national identity. Her mother’s name was Keelin ‘until she met Stíofán … and then she abandoned the anglicised version for the properly Irish ‘Caoilfhaoinn’; Ciaran is half Irish, half Danish; Freja is Danish; there is also Noah, Lisa, Reuben, her father Thomas…Where does this leave the nameless voice connecting all these disparate, individual, recognisable strands?
As I was racing through Acts of Desperation, I could not stop thinking about another novel (though, this label is applied loosely) narrated by another unnamed woman, also obsessively in love with a distant man and addicted to her own pain. Elizabeth Smart’s chronicle of her passionate and tragic love affair with poet George Barker, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), is more lyrical than Acts; its narrative meanders between metaphors and similes, making the reader feel the agony, the confusion, and the bliss of falling and being in love through its artful, poetic prose. Reading both is like being plunged into a lake — while Nolan’s is refreshingly and bitingly cold, Smart’s is turbulent and sweltering. The narrator of By Grand Central Station roams free in her love but is simultaneously stifled by it; the impression throughout is that she is at once trying to find her way out, while deliberately trapping herself within. In an attempt to pull herself together, she proclaims: ‘No, there is no defence for love, and tears will only increase the crime. Be reasonable. Be usual. You’re a clever girl. You’ve got brains. Get busy and make something of yourself.’ But it is only a fleeting moment of emotional sobriety, before love engulfs her again: ‘Let me lie on the cold stones! Let me lift weights too heavy for me! Let me cry More! to pain, with a white face shaking through fire, with whips of endurance, with cords of the invulnerable ascetic, into the badge of the possible saint!’ By Grand Central Station is clever, its prose full of biblical allusions (much like its title, a reworking of the opening line of a psalm) and their strong associations; its twists and turns are as captivating as that which simmers underneath.
One thing is clear — the narrator fashions her identity from her own pain; the same can be said of Acts of Desperation. ‘The pain was unbearable, but I did not want it to end: it had operatic grandeur’, says Smart’s protagonist; ‘I had suffered, and I had made the suffering into something I could consider good. I made it so that suffering was a kind of work’, echoes Nolan’s narrator. Woven through both narratives is this specific kind of pain, a pain that both narrators pretend is unique to them, but one that unites them tightly. Whether driven to it by the circumstances of their love or the callousness of their lover, there is a sense that both women seek out this suffering to make it the crown jewel of their personalities. This is not a judgement but a fact — for the women here, and especially in Acts of Desperation, suffering is an integral part of existence. It feels as though we are partaking in her ritualistic self-loathing, at times justified and at other gratuitous. Nolan has stated previously that she wanted to put forward ‘a rejection of the idea that female pain was pretty or somehow inherently virtuous’ — in that, she has succeeded. And yet, even though the narrator’s suffering is not romanticised, it does become almost synonymous with her own faceless self. ‘I was the woman. I had suffered. I was there’, she states. Who? Why? Where? I find the proximity of womanhood and suffering disconcerting; is female suffering a universal experience? Is this the role of ‘Woman’? To inflict pain upon oneself? To suffer?
In both texts the preoccupation with womanhood extends beyond their own selves — both are captivated by ‘the other woman’. By Grand Central Station opens immediately with ‘her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers … Her eyes shower me with their innocence and surprise’, the narrator professes, continuing to return to this ‘she’, with admiration, jealousy, and pity in equal parts. Throughout the text, there is an underlying sense of comparison — of these two women directly, as well as the types of love they share with the same man. Is one more valid than the other? It is almost as if the narrator is trying to justify her emotion and her situation through this juxtaposition. In Acts of Desperation, this process of comparison is even more dramatic, with both women grappling with each other’s image perceived through the gaze of their shared man. Nolan’s narrator dedicates entire Friday evenings to her greedy perusal of Freja’s social media presence; she guesses that this was reciprocated: ‘Because I knew that Freja looked at me too, I also looked at myself. I reviewed photos going back years and years. I tried to see myself as she saw me. I deleted the unflattering ones as I went, hot with the knowledge she had probably seen them already. As I looked at myself I pushed myself into her mind, the same way I pushed myself into Ciaran’s when we passed girls on the street I thought he wanted to fuck.’ Her identity is gradually developed through the gaze of this other woman, altered out of perverse necessity; Freja exists only as a foil to the narrator, mimicking her mania. It is as though they are reduced to their pursuit of each other and remain unfortunate mirrors of each other. Their unifying experience, it seems, is their relationship with Ciaran, and the jealousy they feel towards one another as a result.
The revelation that comes towards the end of the novel is one we have been anticipating throughout — the narrator was raped. The rape is mentioned throughout and then presented starkly; she is not apologetic for this pain, nor is it something she shies away from. If anything, she confronts it despite herself, in an effort to prove that she can take it in her stride. This experience is not an answer to the problem of her identity; she is not marked derisively as a ‘rape victim’ nor is she treated as such. Perhaps this is due to her own opinion of such a label and the disdain she feels towards others who are characterised by it: ‘I feel no common understanding grow between myself and other women who have been hurt in the same ways that I have, no thread of sisterhood connecting our experiences. The inherent tenderness of the person (me) who is raped, their assumed softness, pliancy disgusts me — the femaleness of that disgusts me. Am I ashamed of myself for this? Of course; somewhat; a little.’ Accepting the traumatic event as fact, she rejects the implications behind it, along with any possible bond of sympathy; again, she considers herself as alone and unique in the pain of her experience. Let it be known that she is not a fragile figurine to be watched over, like other women. Whatever shame she might feel dwindles rapidly; my guess is that she is ashamed of not being ashamed at all. In the immediate aftermath of the rape, she is decisive and detached — without doing so explicitly, she is telling us not to pity her.
The reader gathers her personality from a series of fragments, factoids, anecdotes, examples of behaviour, opinions about other people. What of the negative space surrounding all that? Surprisingly, it is the reason everything is held together — we are trying to find out what is missing, only for her to reveal that she herself does not know. She tears through life and through the narrative with brazen familiarity, putting forward a façade to keep herself apart from others — the victims, the sufferers, the weak, the organised, the sensible, the faithful, the caring. I can imagine many readers hating her; I did, at first. But she is not there to be to be hated, or to be loved; she is neither a villain nor a hero. Nolan’s confident writing makes sure of that — and there is still so much beneath the surface.
KSENIA DUGAEVA reads French at St Peter’s College. She is a world-famous poker player and a compulsive liar.
Art by Charlotte Bunney