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5 July 2022

The purpose of sex

Lillian Fishman’s bold and searching debut novel, Acts of Service, questions the meaning of desire and introduces a major new voice in fiction.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

“Most of my fantasies are of/making someone else come” sang Bill Callahan in the Smog song, “To Be of Use”. The song’s narrator wants a kind of redemption that’s close to oblivion; to be of “some hard, simple, undeniable use” even if it is as an inanimate object: “… like a horseshoe/Or like a corkscrew”.

Lillian Fishman’s startlingly accomplished debut expresses a similar desire for purpose – and a surge of relief when it arrives. “I like that you seem to know just what to do with me,” the narrator, Eve, tells her lover, Nathan, after sex, in the presence of Nathan’s other lover, Olivia. Acts of Service is, among other things, one of the best novels I have read about what you are supposed to want sexually – and what you really want.

Eve is a 28-year-old barista from Brooklyn in a long-term relationship with Romi, a paediatrician. In the opening pages, Eve contemplates her naked body with the feeling that, relationship notwithstanding, it is not being put to its best use. She was probably meant to have sex “with some wild number of people”.

“The purpose of my life at large remained mysterious, but I had come round to the idea that my purpose as a body was simple,” she announces. She had thought she was a lesbian; she had thought men didn’t really exist for her “except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles”. However, Eve has an abiding fantasy about being in a line-up of naked girls scrutinised by a man who eventually picks her. Here, perhaps, lies a balm for the “civic uselessness” she feels in her dead-end job and directionless evenings watching TV. “I wanted to find my way into rooms where people would look at my body and say: I see what you have there. I know what to do with it.”

[See also: How TS Eliot found happiness]

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The story begins when Eve posts nude pictures of herself on an online message board, catching the attention of a young artist called Olivia. The two women meet for a drink and Eve discovers that Olivia is not acting alone but on behalf of Nathan, a tall, wealthy man in his thirties, who looks after a private family investment office in Manhattan. Olivia, who is opaque as her black tights and as rigid as her Oxford brogues, is in love with Nathan. Nathan is also her boss. And yet however unequal the dynamic with Olivia is – and however much she fears becoming their “toy” – Eve is fascinated by the way Nathan and Olivia cater to each other’s pleasures, unbothered by the role that manipulation and coercion play in their relationship. Nathan also perceives Eve’s unarticulated need to be used: “You were made to be f***ed. That’s what it is,” he tells her.

Acts of Service may sound like a hipster Fifty Shades of Grey, yet it is one of the most searching and enthralling novels about human attraction and connection that I’ve read in many years. Part erotic Bildungsroman, part melancholy comedy of manners, it arrives with quiet confidence and a fully formed bank of ideas about intimacy, sexual ethics and contemporary mores that Fishman could go on exploring for years to come. The 28-year-old author, who was mentored by Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer, certainly deserves to be spoken about with the same enthusiasm as Sally Rooney – though she thinks very differently about moral responsibility and her writing about sex is much less coy.

Eve discovers she enjoys observing and having others observe her own “animal bawdiness” in a threesome. She doesn’t need to disguise herself as a “loveable girl”. “I did not need to pretend to be modest.” And she is sincere in her fear of “squandering her body”. Sex, as she sees it, is a kind of oracle – “a truth-teller just waiting to find me out”. She chooses not to shy away from the frightening reality – however unfeminine or socially unacceptable – of what it can reveal about her.

Fishman writes about sex in a way that is both beautiful and blunt. “I was too fearful of the world to go out and get f***ed, too plagued by hang-ups, memories of shitty girlfriends, fears of violence,” Eve confesses on the first page. “I was like a spinster full of anxieties and repressions, charged with chaperoning a young girl who could not fathom the injustice of the arrangement.”

That dual image conjures Jane Austen, whose novels are invoked throughout the book. Olivia is reading Mansfield Park when Eve first meets her, setting up a parallel between Olivia and Nathan and Mary and Henry Crawford, the vivacious, amoral siblings who so nearly tempt little Fanny Price away from her beloved but dull cousin, Edmund Bertram. Indeed, like Edmund, Eve’s girlfriend Romi is “uncompromising” in her sincerity and steadfastness; when Eve tries on Romi’s scrubs, she finds herself “transformed into a purposeful object”. As well as Austen, Acts of Service evokes Alan Hollinghurst in its elegance and vigilance, and Edith Wharton in its social dynamics. Lurking in the shadows, too, is Mary Gaitskill, who also explores transgressive intimacies in a way that militates against easy answers, especially in the age of #MeToo condemnations.

[See also: The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: liberal feminism under attack]

Fishman’s descriptions of sex are vivid and moving, lit by insight and rapture. Describing the moment Eve realises that she and Nathan and Olivia have “escalated in tandem”, Fishman writes: “I wondered if this was the heart of what I had always looked for – multiplicity, communion, a desire richer and larger than any singular desire, each of our wants absorbing the others and growing into a new kind of animal, ravenous and herculean. My own desire was blameless, swallowed up by the scene.” What’s impressive is not just Fishman’s responsiveness to the body’s urges in and of themselves, it’s the way she uses them to ask wider questions about purpose, ageing, fidelity, individualism and narcissism. Eve struggles to understand how her attraction to Nathan (whom we see slapping Olivia and dismissing the need for safe words in sex) can coexist with her “political commitment to lesbianism”, which when she first arrived in New York City, “rose in my life like a faith”.

She has no religious background and has grown up in a society that emphasises individuality and freedom – and yet the absence of obligation has not freed her generation. She and her peers “found ourselves believing in complexity” most of all, which ends up creating paralysis. This may be why she is drawn towards certainty, whether it’s the apparent nobility of Romi or the intoxicating power play offered by Nathan. She simultaneously resists a clear purpose in her career while yearning for a guiding principle, exhausted by her doubts and constant questioning of her own decisions.

“Had anyone intuited my needs or met them as Nathan had?” Eve asks herself. “With him I was able to admit the extent of my doubts, the side of me that hated him and relished my own hatred as evidence of something discerning and noble. It was comforting to say that I loved what Nathan provided me, and not the man himself. But wasn’t that the nature of all love? Gratitude, for how we had been made to feel?”

Acts of Service is ultimately a book filled with love, pain and celebration. There are no comforting conclusions. But as Eve says: “We love what disturbs us if it chooses us and tells us how we matter.”

Acts of Service
Lillian Fishman
Europa Editions, 224pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson