by Eloise Hendy
Jonathan Cape 288pp ISBN 9781787332492 £14.99
It has always made sense to me that, as well as being the saint of love, Valentine is also the patron of bees and plague. Sometimes love is as sweet as nectar and sometimes it is like being impaled by a thousand burning needles. Sometimes falling in love feels like catching a disease.
I read Megan Nolan’s debut novel, Acts of Desperation, the weekend before Valentine’s Day and it made me queasy. I was filled with the nausea that rises when you catch sight of your reflection without warning; the unease of recognition. Reading Nolan’s book I was confronted with someone else who craves love like a sugar high, but experiences it as sickness.
At the start, the novel’s unnamed female protagonist seems mostly to reside on Valentine’s celebrated side, envisioning love as divine, a saintly state. ‘Being in love blesses you with a sort of grace,’ she says, likening the experience to that of being minded by an omniscient patriarch: ‘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.’
Instead of religion, she has cultivated ‘a great faith in love’, and, like anyone of great faith, she expects it to give her life meaning. ‘Love,’ she suggests, ‘sustains and validates the rotten moments you would otherwise be wasting while you practise being a person.’ This is love as transcendence and transformation, as beatification. ‘Love was the great consolation, would set ablaze the fields of my life in one go, leaving nothing behind,’ she proclaims. ‘I thought of it as the great leveller, as a force which would clean me and by its presence make me worthy of it.’
Yet, far from validating life’s ‘rotten moments’, the love at the centre of this ‘anti-romance’ is itself rotten. It’s a savage kind of love, which might set a life ablaze but offers no consolation, one that burns but cannot clean. A love that is, to use the voguish contemporary vocabulary, toxic. The man is cold and toxic, the woman is sad and toxic, their relationship is toxic. Instead of a love story, this is a story of emotional cruelty and addiction, of bees and plague. Nolan’s young woman gets stung, gets poisoned, gets feverish and weak and wretched. And, as with any addiction, the worse it gets the harder it is to quit.
And yes, to use more voguish vocabulary, I found it relatable. Of course I did — I am a young, cisgender, middle class, white woman with anxiety and a history of eating disorders, who drinks too much and too often falls for avoidant men. Nolan’s novel made me cry twice. It is, as the blurb quotes claim, ‘intense and honest’, ‘reflective’ and ‘raw’. But, it is not unique. Indeed, Acts of Desperation is a prime example of a particular and particularly acclaimed form of millennial art, which, as Rebecca Liu discussed in a piercing essay for Another Gaze, ‘revolves around an archetypical Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive.’
‘I’m sorry to say I have already finished Megan Nolan’s book and it was disgustingly identifiable,’ I messaged a friend minutes after turning the final page, ‘but also all that is wrong with publishing at the moment.’
Before its release Acts of Desperation was hyped in breathlessly predictable ways. Is Acts of Desperation the next Normal People? Loved Normal People? You’ll adore Megan Nolan’s debut book. Naoise Dolan and her novel Exciting Times received the same treatment last spring. Indeed, it has become something of a rite of passage for young female Irish writers to be held up against Sally Rooney, to be cast in her light. Despite potentially betraying lazy journalistic attitudes towards both gender and nationality — some pieces hover dangerously close to pronouncing you Irish girls are all the same — the framing is, from a publicity perspective, understandable. The ‘liked this try this’ sales model is tried and tested, and surely any association with Rooney’s near-mythic level of stardom will reflect a gleaming aura of success onto a debut novelist. Just think, the hype machine whispers, Paul Mescal could wear a chain in an adaptation of this too.
However, beyond sales cynicism, there is merit to the comparison with Rooney, even if, to my mind at least, it is Conversations with Friends that bears more of a striking similarity to Nolan and Dolan’s books than Normal People, given all three are claustrophobic first-person portraits of a self-obsessed-but-self-hating ‘Young Millennial Woman’. In these books there is certainly no other viewpoint, no Connell, to offer the reader an alternative, external vision of the female protagonist. Yet, whichever Rooney novel is held up for comparison, what is clear is that all of these novels’ women fit the ‘pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured’ mould.
Both Exciting Times and Acts of Desperation spin around young women who are embroiled in formative and, if not totally toxic then certainly problematic relationships with cold, withholding men and with their own self-worth. Like Frances and Marianne, both women are riddled with insecurities, have a disordered attitude to eating and thinness, and seem to believe themselves unloveable and unattractive, despite attracting a variety of people over the novels’ course. Perhaps most significantly, both are also written in a sharp, deadpan tone — one that relates experiences of suffering from a remove. These tortured millennial girls put themselves under a scalpel, studying how their emotions and obsessions move like a surgeon dissecting muscle. These novels aspire to the status of relationship post-mortems, romantic autopsies.
In both novels, the narrator quickly moves in with the man she is involved with, prompting self-conscious examinations of gendered power imbalances and domesticity. In both, the women cook, clean and fold clothes in an attempt to make themselves useful, like an indispensable household appliance. For Dolan’s protagonist, Ava, this domestic subservience is intimately connected to financial dependency, as she lives in her wealthy male partner’s flat rent-free. For Nolan’s, it is an affective transaction; both an exultation of her partner and a means of exacting dependency, of feeling needed.
‘I wanted more than anything to present him with the products of my labour,’ the narrator states, ‘for him to see how invested I was in maintaining our life.’ This domestic labour is, of course, also emotional work, as Nolan writes, ‘I was happy when I washed a jacket of his which stank, unbeknownst to him, of cigarettes and weed. I was happy — I smiled, I sang! — when I scrubbed the toilet on my knees.’ As love is imagined as a sacred state, so too domesticity is elevated to a kind of divine devotional work, as she says at first ‘it felt sexy and intimate and even profound.’ Her devotional work is penitent and sacrificial; virtue is to be forged through suffering, and negation. Desiring her partner, Ciaran, ‘to need me, without knowing that it was me that he needed at all,’ she recognises it is ‘easy to disappear beneath the incessant cycle of chores,’ and apparently welcomes just such a disappearance. As she is ‘happy’ scrubbing the toilet, she is ‘happy to be nothing if nothing was what pleased him best. If nothing was the least trouble, then I would be it, and gladly.’ She attempts to empty herself of needs, becoming a vessel for her partner’s. ‘And after all,’ she thinks, ‘what individual had I been before? What identity was there to erase . . . I disappeared with perfect peace.’
Yet, looking back, scalpel in hand, the narrator recognises the performance of these domestic acts as one of many acts of desperation. Her subservience is accompanied by starvation, cutting, and, eventually, adulterous sex — all of which are presented as paradoxical attempts to achieve both self-realisation and self-immolation. Nolan’s narrator has a tick of biting and ripping the skin from her fingers, of picking away at herself. And this is what the novel does too, obsessively going back to the site of damage, of digging into old wounds. Ultimately, more than cool, surgical dissection, this is a work of excoriation. While she aspires to detachment, she remains excessively, anxiously attached. ‘I envy women who are removed,’ she says, ‘I never really had that luxury.’ Instead, ‘I was always down in the dirt.’
In her essay, Liu focuses on Rooney’s Normal People, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, and Lena Dunham’s Girls, describing these ‘supposedly seminal generational works of art’ as ‘stories of anxiety-ridden glorious dirtbags’. Surely, even before the hype machine has finished spinning, Nolan’s Acts of Desperation should be added to that roster. ‘We are now supposedly in the era of the “unlikeable woman”,’ Liu writes, ‘which means that we celebrate that women too can be dirty, repulsive, mean, cruel, and flawed.’ If so, this era has long been burgeoning. Indeed, it is truly millennial, as its birth can arguably be traced back to the late 90s, and Chris Kraus’ 1997 book I Love Dick.
A work of autotheory revolving around a woman’s one-sided extramarital infatuation, told mainly through letters from ‘Chris Kraus’ to ‘Dick’, the book is a work of excoriation par excellence. At its heart is a self-proclaimed ‘female loser’; analysing her own abjection, Kraus portrays herself as an unsuccessful dirtbag and unlikeable woman. Dismissed as contemptible gossip upon its original publication (one reviewer notoriously described it as ‘not so much written as secreted’), the frenzied discourse that followed the book’s 2012 re-release laid the groundwork for what Liu describes as the ‘hyperbole-drenched marketing cycle fetes’ now familiar in publishing. It was ‘blistering’, it was ‘radical’, it was ‘the most important book about men and women written in the last century’. Tavi Gevinson loved it, Alexa Chung loved it, Lena Dunham loved it, blurbed it, then gave a copy to Lorde, who posted it on Instagram. If, in 2016, the New Yorker could still describe Kraus’ narrator as ‘one of few female comic losers in literature’, by 2021 this seems absurd. Surely, both comic and tragic ‘female losers’ have never been so successful.
In one of the letters to Dick, Chris states ‘you think it’s personal and private; my neurosis . . . I think our story is performative philosophy.’ Indeed, Kraus describes her particular brand of confessional writing as ‘lonely girl phenomenology’. The popular autotheoretical work of Kate Zambreno, Olivia Laing, Sheila Heti and Maggie Nelson can be understood in this same vein. These authors’ writing also largely revolves around sadness, loneliness, abjection and failure — all of which is typically read as a radical, inherently feminist form of self-disclosure. In all their work, emotion and embodied experience is understood as the primary material for generating theory. They dissect their suffering; they pick away at themselves; the personal becomes performative philosophy.
Then there is Audrey Wollen’s ‘Sad Girl Theory’. Blossoming into internet fame at the same time I Love Dick flooded Instagram feeds, Wollen’s theoretical stance pivots around the belief that a woman's sadness is a form of rebellion from patriarchal society's expectation that they be happy all the time (‘I was happy when I washed a jacket of his which stank’; ‘I was happy — I smiled, I sang! - when I scrubbed the toilet on my knees.’) Instead, Wollen and her acolytes aimed to bear witness to the suffering of girls and women; to acknowledge their pain and ‘imbue their experience with a different, more expansive and structural meaning’. Chris Kraus has said that she loves Wollen’s work, and suggested that she sees ‘a real similarity in our projects’. And certainly, as Kraus’ championing of the ‘female loser’ can be seen as a challenge to postfeminism’s culture of perfectibility, Wollen’s ‘Sad Girl Theory’ appears to counter the compulsory positivity of girlboss feminism: I’m not a boss, I’m a mess. I’m sad, I’m lonely, I’m in the dirt. ‘What if we could re-frame any girl that killed herself, starved herself, was unhappy,’ Wollen asks, ‘as an activist?’
Yet, despite this rallying cry to elevate women’s suffering to the status of resistance — to ‘celebrate that women too can be dirty, repulsive, mean, cruel, and flawed’ — it is hard to shake the distinct members-club vibe of this prominent cultural set. Suggesting, as its blurb does, that I Love Dick has ‘fans as diverse as Lena Dunham, Sheila Heti, Kim Gordon, Leslie Jamison, Zoe Pilger, Tavi Gevinson and Alexa Chung’, does not in fact make this group ‘diverse’. Just as a faith in love as divine cannot stop a relationship being toxic and degrading, so too proclaiming to ‘universalize the “personal”’ (it’s not neurosis, it’s philosophy), cannot stop a discourse being exclusionary. Why are so many of the contemporary sad girls, lonely girls, and unlikeable women conventionally attractive, young, and white? Why are the cultural products which have received the most desperate hype and acclaim in the last ten years all obsessed with white women’s capacity for suffering, and their attendant capacity to dissect that suffering?
This is partly why I found myself feeling queasy recognising myself in Megan Nolan’s novel — because I find myself, or versions of myself, all over the place. Relatability is a bad rubric for criticism, but, when it is emphasised repeatedly in ‘hyperbole-drenched’ marketing campaigns for works of art that centre around emotional pain and degradation, it should make us question whose suffering we are meant to sympathise with. Who ‘we’ supposedly are. This is also why this is not a criticism of Nolan’s novel specifically, which is sharp, intelligent and exacting on the conditions of love addiction and emotional abuse. But, white women’s pain has always been afforded a legitimacy not bestowed upon marginalised communities, and personally I am tired of society’s toxic obsession with white girls crying, cutting and starving themselves, and it being hailed as philosophy, activism, or art. Personally, I think the prevalence of the tortured white girl in contemporary culture, and the attendant celebratory cycle around each iteration of her, suggests that culture is made for and by girls like me, that the sadness and suffering of girls like me is what makes girls like me valuable, interesting and worthy of attention. That my white-girl pain should not just be seen but celebrated. That it can transform into a juicy book deal, a successful TV series, or, ideally, both. The trauma of a pretty, young white girl is lucrative. The hype machine is used to spinning white women’s tears into gold.
Ostensibly, the self-destructive sad girl trope claims to use suffering as a tool for resistance and political agency, but all too often it in fact perpetuates an exclusionary white girlhood, which uses emotional pain to mask material privilege. Chris Kraus may proclaim herself a ‘female loser’, but really she’s a landlord. That’s certainly ‘unlikeable’, and certainly not radical. Bearing witness to the suffering of women might be one thing, but bearing witness to the ‘suffering’ of a property manager who’s been profiting off the back of a clutch of Albuquerque properties for over a decade is another. Olivia Laing bought a sprawling Suffolk house replete with walled garden because her Cambridge property simply had ‘no room for fruit trees’. Audrey Wollen’s parents are film theorist Peter Wollen and writer, critic and co-director of the CalArts Program in Art, Leslie Dick. Phoebe Waller-Bridge descends from titled nobility on both sides of her family. These women are set up for success. So why in the works that they create, do they insist on portraying themselves, or versions of themselves, as sad, dirty failures?
‘Neurosis,’ Liu writes, is ‘often framed as a sign of powerlessness,’ but, she suggests, it ‘can also be a sign of the opposite. To demand someone enter into and entertain your anxious mind-palace and reckon with your complicated and endlessly fascinating individuality can be an act of power.’ This is the issue for contemporary female dirtbags: claiming neurosis as philosophy can be an act of empowerment, or entitlement, depending on your proximity to power, your ability to win its ear.
Writing about Elizabeth Wurtzel in The White Review, Philippa Snow suggests that, ‘like so many pretty, white and narcissistic girls, she finds it impossible to contextualise her suffering.’ In More, Now, Again, Wurtzel notes that in rehab ‘they even have a term for the syndrome’: ‘it is called terminal uniqueness . . . [addicts] all think we’re special. But the problem is . . . I actually am special.’ In Acts of Desperation, Nolan’s love-addict and borderline alcoholic narrator is called out for something similar, when an ex-boyfriend tells her ‘you always think your pain is the most painful. You always think it’s uniquely awful.’ Her response is to go blank, and to turn the charge to her advantage: ‘I stared back at him mutely (even then aware of how my face became prettier in vacancy, even then parting my lips and sweetly widening my eyes in surprise).’ She doesn’t need to defend herself; her silence and sugary, girlish attractiveness is enough. While he may gently chide her for her self-interested behaviour — ‘you’ve barely asked about me. You have no idea what’s going on in my life. You never really have’ — he doesn’t begrudge her it. Instead, the story she spins of her pain, twinned with her pretty vacancy, wins her his affections. ‘I don’t know how you get away with it,’ he says, smiling, before she kisses him.