Set in Dublin in the early 2010s, Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts Of Desperation explores the excruciating psychology of a toxic relationship. Read an exclusive extract below.
At the end of May I asked Ciaran to come with me to a reading at a gallery some friends of mine were doing. He had met some of them before, in passing, or had known them slightly from openings. This was the first time we were arriving together to an event and behaving as a couple publicly. To my mind, we spent so much time together already that we functionally were a couple, whether or not we were named as such.
Ciaran was tetchy and stony-faced from the beginning. He hadn’t wanted to come, but had already arranged to see me that evening, and had no good reason to cancel. As we stood around chatting to people, he said nothing, and gazed over our heads as though disturbed by some presence invisible to the rest of us.
I caught several people exchanging quick glances that seemed to note his strange behaviour. I had seen him be quiet in company before, but never completely rude. I was embarrassed, and talked louder and faster to compensate. I held his hand gently, and when the conversation arrived at a publication he sometimes worked for, I turned and directed a question to him. He nodded very slightly and continued to look away, dropping his hand out of mine and putting it in his pocket.
During the readings his face was fixed in an almost comically extreme expression of disdain. I kept my eyes forward and hoped nobody else would notice. Once it was over I took him by the sleeve and dragged him outside so we wouldn’t get trapped talking to anyone else.
‘What are you doing?’ he said, shaking me off.
‘Why are you being so rude?’
I hated myself for being near tears, but I was. I had been looking forward to going there with him, introducing him to people, being seen with my beautiful, interesting boyfriend.
‘That reading was shit.’
He shook his head, fumbling for tobacco in his bag. Glancing up at me, he saw that I was going to cry. He clocked the tears and caught my eye, jutting his jaw and pursing his mouth in an exaggerated gesture of disgust that I would come to know very well and hate completely.
‘Of course it was shit!’ I said. ‘It’s just a stupid reading. It’s what you do, you go to things your friends do to be supportive, and you pretend they’re good even if they’re not.’
‘These people aren’t my friends. Just because you and I sleep together, it doesn’t make them my friends.’
I didn’t know how to respond to this. ‘Sleeping together’ was the least generous reading of what had been going on between us and could only have been intended to hurt me. I lowered my head and let myself cry, aware of people I knew looking at me from the gallery porch and whispering to each other.
‘What?’ he said. ‘Did you want me to say I’m falling in love with you? Because I’m not.’
‘No,’ I said, and feeling that I had no more energy to do whatever we were doing, I turned and walked towards home.
It was the first time he had been cold in this way to me, although I had glimpsed his coldness before.
One evening in his kitchen we had been talking about the performance artist Chris Burden, who I knew of for having allowed himself to be shot in the shoulder for a film. Ciaran’s eyes lit up, and he said I ought to read about TV Hijack. He grabbed his phone and showed me a picture of a man standing behind a woman in a chair with his hand pressed to her throat. The backdrop was bright blue. She seemed to be struggling to escape the man’s grip.
Ciaran explained. This was one of Burden’s earlier works, born from his interest in television, more famously illustrated in his later work, TV Ads. The circumstances that led to Hijack were this: an art critic named Phyllis Lutjeans had asked Burden to do a piece on an arts and culture show she presented on local television. Several proposals Burden made were rejected by the station or Lutjeans, and he agreed instead to do an interview. He insisted that the interview be broadcast live.
When he arrived, Lutjeans began by asking him to talk about some of the actions he had proposed which were ultimately shut down. At this point, Burden stood behind her and held a knife to her throat. He threatened to kill her if the station stopped broadcasting. He then went on to detail what he had wanted to do, which was to force her to perform obscene acts live on air.
Lutjeans was unaware of Burden’s plans. Her alarm and humiliation were real.
I listened as Ciaran talked, and stared at the picture with growing unease.
‘She didn’t know?’ I asked. ‘He just pulled a knife on her?’
‘That’s beside the point,’ he said. ‘Anyway, she didn’t mind. She said so later.’
Reading about her afterwards, I found interviews in which she confirmed she was not complicit, was shocked and frightened, but defended the piece – it was simply Burden’s style.
I thought about this, about what the alternative was. I thought about Lutjeans being released from Burden’s grip and spinning to face him, searching his face, the second in which she had to decide whether to cry and scream at him, or to wink.
What would you choose? Either you can be famous for being a shrill prop in a great man’s work, a victim sacrificed to the gods of art, or you can nod along and applaud. You can have a seat at the big boys’ table for being such a good sport. So, go ahead: ha ha ha.
Extracted from Acts Of Desperation by Megan Nolan (£14.99, Jonathan Cape), out now
Photography: Lynn Rothwell