There are good reasons why love triangles appear so often in literary plots. Triangles are inherently unstable. They force characters to make choices through constant negotiation and compromise. As far as triangles go, the one in Lillian Fishman’s debut novel Acts of Service is a perfectly messy inquiry into the nature of power and desire.
Much of the novel feels like a philosophical inquisition into how to live thanks to Eve, the twenty something narrator living in Brooklyn who renegotiates her ideals about feminism, capitalism, and sex after posting nude selfies online. When Eve’s selfies get Olivia’s attention, the two meet for a drink. Olivia discloses that she’s acting on behalf of Nathan, her boyfriend who would very much like to see them both. Eve considers the offer, keeping it a secret from her girlfriend Romi. Their relationship is full of supportive gestures (a shared umbrella, a granola bar thoughtfully placed in Eve’s bag on her way to work) even if their sex feels more like another gesture of appreciation than an expression of desire.
Rather than build up to the first meeting with Nathan, the story presses on into a near future where Eve joins the couple regularly in Nathan’s luxury apartment. The messy power dynamics leave plenty of room for alternating feelings of empathy and disgust. Olivia will do anything to please Nathan. Nathan enjoys a power over Olivia and Eve that comes with his role as host. His opulent apartment provides a perfect stage for their performative nights together. His coaxing feels coercive at times. The attraction complicates everything Eve has come to trust in her queerness. “Over the previous decade I had talked myself all the way from an attraction to women into a political commitment to lesbianism.”
Eve sees Olivia and Nathan’s life together as “the life I felt I was owed given all the concessions I was making to heterosexuality and capitalism and the monstrous city – a life of adventure, romance, beauty, and pleasure.” Eve’s unapologetic self-seduction drives her narration of what she wants, what she thinks she wants, and what she thinks she should want from herself and her relationships. For Eve, sex isn’t an escape or a mask to hide behind though. According to her, it’s an oracle, “A truth-teller just waiting to find me out.”
In one of Eve’s recurring fantasies, a nondescript man chooses her from a lineup of naked women. For her, the appeal is less about the man than about being chosen from the crowd. It’s a high ideal of exceptionalism that propels Eve toward unlocking something in herself that Romi just isn’t getting at.
The games that Nathan and Olivia invent challenge Eve’s sense of self along with her commitment to ideals of vanity. Though sex may be a convincing vehicle for liberation and self discovery, she finds it inadequate as a philosophy. A roommate sums up Eve’s conflict with a single question from a sex addiction questionnaire, Does your pursuit of sex or sexual fantasy conflict with your moral standards or interfere with your spiritual journey? Yes/No. As she struggles to accept the effect Nathan has on her, Eve’s line of questioning serves as its own kind of answer, “if you just know what to do with me, isn’t that just misogyny, in both of us? That I want that, to be fucked by you like that? Me and Olivia?”
Even in the most corporeal scenes, dialog animates the psychic dynamism between these characters. Physical action between bodies isn’t to be trusted at face value any more than Nathan’s habit of ashing cigarettes into wine glasses. Like a well crafted stage play, every gesture is loaded with meaning.The way Nathan slaps Olivia feels hot in one moment, only to become cause for concern in the next. Eve’s private thoughts interpret many scenes with her feminist, anti-capitalist critique of everything, from Olivia and Nathan’s workplace dynamics, to their avoidance of safe words. This constant teetering between pleasure and angst over what Eve feels and what she thinks creates a momentum that relies on exceedingly eccentric complications rather than any expectation of resolution.
If the entanglement feels a bit forced at times, literary references offer an entire story of their own that tells what these people want from each other. Eve tapes an Eve Babitz quote on the wall that says, “Anytime I want, I can forsake this dinner party and jump into real life.” Nathan invokes James Salter to describe his cock entering her, “Like an iron bar into water.” Olivia reads (rereads?) a worn out copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. A novel about judgment and redemption, Eve recalls. It’s also a novel about theatrical performance and improvement.
By the end, a vague legal battle Nathan finds himself in over unspecified misconduct allegations feels like less of a surprise than an escape from a disintegrating plot. Eve’s realization that “It seemed to me now that freedom was the strength and the space to follow what moved me” ultimately frees her from the judgment she’s feared all along. The profound simplicity of this change in perspective leaves room to wonder whether the enormity of the drama has been worth the cost. In a final interrogation by a lawyer who seems to shame Eve for condoning and even encouraging Nathan towards whatever crime he is being accused of, the only thing Eve seems certain about is that she is the recipient of a kind of gift. Not enlightenment exactly, but progress in learning how to trust her intuition in a world of messy contradictions. For all the complexity, there is ultimately a kind of clarity in Eve’s self-assured vanity when she says, “We love what disturbs us if it chooses us and tells us how we matter.” It’s a freeing outlook on life, even as it adds depth to the complexity of the act.
Acts of Service
Published May 3rd, 2022
Joe Stanek graduated from West Point and has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He writes about war and military culture.