As far as [love] 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...Even in the most corpeal scenes, dialog animates the psychic dynamism between [Olivia, Eve, and Nathan]...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.
Eve, the narrator of Lillian Fishman's Acts of Service, keeps an Eve Babitz quote taped to her wall that she and her roommate reference constantly: 'Any time I want, I can forsake this dinner party and jump into real life'...In this novel, the 'dinner party' is a threesome, between Eve—a New York City barista with a 'perfect body'—and a soigné couple, Olivia and Nathan..The book is smart in its triangulations and tensions, and on the question of how a certain set of politically minded young people are supposed to live now...Unfortunately, despite the nod to Babitz, her mischievousness and humor are mostly absent in this book...The sex is loaded with gravitas...Rooms are portentously underlit.
... extraordinary ... a work of ferocious moral and sensual intelligence and a masterly defence of sex for its own sake ... Fishman’s elegant novel ventures an alternative sexual ethic, one unconstrained by conventions but nonetheless fiercely attentive to what we owe one another ... In an age of resurgent puritanism, Acts of Service is a rare and much-needed sex masterpiece.
I feel so strongly about this book, I truly think this is the best book I have read this year. A piece of art. The author managed to capture so perfectly the thoughts of sexuality, gender norms, and expressionism in a woman in her 20s. I admired her pushing the boundaries to talk about topics that are considered taboo, such as polyamory, infidelity, and manipulation. The writing was so beautiful, the characters were all so addictive, yet so horrible, and I just couldn’t put it down. Majority of the text is thoughts that the main character has, rather than action, so if you don’t like that, this is not the book for you. I feel like I could recommend this to any girl my age that is vocal about sex, feminism, and love. Truly a book I think everyone should read. I never like to re-read books, but this is a book I can definitely see myself re-reading. I am dying for a sequel, or at the very least, another novel by Lillian Fishman.
Nathan’s unlifelikeness is unlikely to bother the expected reader for this kind of thing — heteropessimist stories about how men are bad — because it’s always going to be satisfying to read stories where a representative of the person driving you mad is humiliated, rejected, vanquished and pinned flat to the page. This is, I guess, why men mad at their wives made American postwar literature by writers such as Updike and Bellow a thing. If Fishman or any of her peers (like Raven Leilani and her much-hyped but also ultimately empty Luster) could write as well as those canonised misogynists on subjects like the spiritually deadening effects of the modern world, we too could overlook their inability to see the opposite sex as people. But, alas ... Rather than interrogating the self or society Fishman and co easily project deficiencies on some immoveable external structure, absolving their characters of all guilt ... If you are going to write fiction that offers lazy answers to age-old quandaries, at least have the decency to put it on the first page so we don’t have to wade through endless 'Oh, no! I desire a man. I am so abject' nonsense. Or at least write some better sex scenes to keep us entertained along the way.
The trio is electric, their banter beating with the rhythm of the calculated and charming ... Fishman has achieved the notoriously difficult task of writing sex that is neither depressing nor painful to read, sex that strikes a balance between the erotic and the individual, often alluring in its specificity, the delight of strange, shared tendernesses. The quality of attention in these scenes easily sets the heart racing, not merely because it is openly erotic but because Fishman so clearly articulates the push and pull of a sexual encounter, the shape-shifting of desire as it moves between bodies ... is on some level yet another book about a bisexual woman besotted with a man she might otherwise find objectionable. For Eve, queerness is defined primarily through a slew of loosely held political convictions ... the bisexual mind is made out to be both uniquely conflicted and singularly perceptive, as if it were not innately human to interrogate desire. One would think, from this slew, that only bi girls ever worry over who and what we want ... at times, Eve seems a parody of the reflexivity-trapped narrator, churning out version after version of the cyclical chant 'I want him, but I shouldn’t, but I want him, but I shouldn’t ... The dialogue is strangely stiff, overly direct, awfully repetitive ... The portrayal of Eve’s absorbing anxieties would make for excellent satire if it weren’t taken so seriously, if any other character could pierce through her strange and moralizing ways. Yet even as Fishman needles us with awareness, her cast inevitably endorses Eve’s narrow view of the world.
The setup has promise – there is plenty of fun to be had in lampooning contemporary purity spirals – and I did briefly wonder whether Fishman’s novel was going to evolve into an elegant satire. But already the writing at this point has a humourless and slightly score-settling tone. For Eve, pleasure-seeking with Nathan is a deliberate sin against shallowly appropriated queerness ... her overintellectualized solipsism is grounded in a class privilege and cultural malaise that both she and Fishman fail to critique ... The denouement offers a few promising set pieces. Nathan has been accused of sexual misconduct at work and needs Eve as an alibi. There follows an interesting interrogation by the prosecution’s lawyers, which might have formed the basis of a clear-sighted and mature examination of #MeToo. But Fishman isn’t really interested in looking at the world in this way: her story seems to be aiming at allegory, but ends up in an uncomfortable halfway house between that and realism, in the end achieving neither ... curiously unsexy sex. There is nothing very new here and the result is thus quite boring. I was already aware that desire and politics are often misaligned. I was already aware of the difficulties of sloughing off my own oppression. And, rather than all the philosophizing, I longed for the fleshy descriptions of Anaïs Nin, the fantasies of Nancy Friday or even the thrilling nihilistic misanthropy of Ottessa Moshfegh – to be taken inside the body, to enjoy the physical pleasure of desire. Acts of Service made me yearn for writing that is erotic as well as neurotic ... My problem with novels in which wealthy, beautiful characters lounge around post-coitus and discuss the meaning of their desire isn’t who they sleep with, and in what way, but how disembodied they tend to be. In Fishman’s world the physical self is something to be observed rather than enjoyed. Everything is freighted with so much meaning that it becomes impossible to be sensual. Above all, the author seems to forget that hungry bodies don’t all have the same attitude to desire, and neither do traumatized ones, or impoverished ones, or fat ones, or disabled ones, or queer ones. For all her characters’ agonized reflections, Lillian Fishman makes no attempt to get us under the skin of individual desire, so all we can do is watch, voyeurs in the spectacle of Eve, who, like so many millions of women before her, gets off, and is to an extent dependent, on submissive heterosexual sex in order to parse her sense of self.
Reminiscent of Sally Rooney's work, this challenging—and often disturbing—exploration of sex, bodies, narcissism, and a culture that no longer values sincerity is tonally darker and rife with cruelty...When Nathan tells Eve that he knew just what she wanted without asking, she is struck not by the intimacy of the statement but 'the soft hush of certainty' in his words...But is this submission to a man what she really wants—or is it what she's been convinced, all her life, that she deserves?...An evocative exploration of desire and sexuality, this dark debut will cause readers to question the very nature of consent.
Fishman's alluring if punctilious debut poses questions about sex, sexuality, and power via the story of a young woman's exploration of desire...Eve, 27, a bisexual waitress living in New York City who had previously chosen to sleep exclusively with women, posts some nudes on an online message board without her girlfriend's knowledge...When a woman named Olivia messages her and asks her to meet up, Eve does, and she is soon embroiled in a torrid affair with the upper-class Olivia and Nathan, a tall, hetero, 30-something investment banker Olivia was already sleeping with...Eve begins to question the power dynamics of the threesome after she learns that Olivia works for Nathan...She also wonders about the politics of her heterosexual lust...The prose is smooth and smart, and the sex scenes elicit maximum titillation, but the result, which conforms to contemporary sub-dom lifestyle dynamics as the narrator explores her conflicting desires, ultimately feels more tame than transgressive.