Lillian Fishman’s Acts of Service is a brutal, labyrinthine novel about a young woman navigating a maze of sexual expectations of herself and society. When Eve, a young queer woman in a long-term relationship opens the door to a complicated affair that challenges her identity as much as her boundaries, she has to examine and reflect on the ways in which we reflect on what it means to serve, to submit, to explore, and to live up to the mores and boundaries of where our own identities lie reflected in the society we live in.
Fishman has written a novel of incredible sensitivity to the rules of relationships – regardless of the intense sexual aspects of the novel. A story such as this needs a backbone of strong characterization and temperate lenses through which we experience the story, especially because of the ways in which we societally interact with (and consume) stories of submission, domination, manipulation, misogyny, and misandry. This piece is very much aware of this as a trope, and Fishman achieves a very genuine portrait of what real life in relationships such as these are – sans blindfolds, vampires, and helicopters, obviously, but very much with the sweaty awkward Brooklyn basements where you aren’t sure where your shirt went or where the bathroom is. Furthermore, Fishman has an incredible adeptness at leading the audience into the queer aspects of the story. Of course, I don’t mean the scenes of gay love, but of the complicated and fluid language of sexuality in general – the expectations of our lovers, the expectations of our culture, the roadmap whose lines are barely visible and whose tracks cross, crisscross, and disappoint one another at every turn of our own journeys in life. The delicacy with which Fishman writes Eve’s narration allows for interacting with her actions with an intimacy that only a master writer could attempt – and even then – ultimately lack the authenticity in her pages.
This novel is a character driven literary narrative that is centered on the humanity of sex, needs, and relationships, and in that sense, Fishman is awe-inspiring and successful. I was there, I was just as confused, and I was embracing of the world I entered.
My only problem with the piece, ultimately, was the plot. I felt as though the final three chapters were contrived. Not lazy, but maybe out of place. I could have anticipated what happened to Nathan. I could have anticipated Eve, Roni, and Olivia’s final assessment of their lives – and even the reaction of those examining it. But it seems like the labyrinth straightened out too neatly to the goal, and the changes I expected character-wise didn’t happen at all. It felt too easy, too clean, and too forgiving. And I don’t even mean Nathan, I mean for all of them. Making a #MeToo moment part of a romantic, well-developed piece (and this isn’t entirely a spoiler – it seems it is coming from any of the people orbiting Nathan from the beginning) doesn’t make it feel any more authentic… It feels… Meh. Maybe it is because I read this and am reviewing this while the abusive Amber Heard is getting her you-know-what handed to her in her day in court, but Nathans gonna Nate. Nathan indulgers are gonna indulge…
…and if the biggest lesson is that this is part of our humanity, and that’s okay for people that consent and enter into it entirely, I agree. I mean, there are some characters that are true victims of the indulgers (that would be a spoiler)… But, as long as you aren’t hurting others, there are no rules. It’s okay, and that’s what people want sometimes. But do the characters I spent time with change over the course of the novel in a satisfying or relevant way? Do they learn anything, or simply accept it after justifying it? That is a question I do not have the answer to, and perhaps that is my reservation and frustration. At the end, it was Olivia talking about her work that resonated with me the most, and if I think about that too much it might undermine the rest of the book’s other character development and vibrations… She develops, she is worthy of empathy, and she is the one most emotionally responsive to everything, to me.
I enjoyed this book because of the dimensionality of the characters – they are real, real, real, and Fishman is truly an incredibly perceptive writer in capturing and presenting it to anyone that picks the book up. Structurally, as invested as I was, I didn’t entirely enjoy the end. Regardless, a beautiful piece that gilds this relationship in such a manner that as dark and haunting as the interpersonal politics are between our characters is, we capture its events as closely as the characters do, and that is more than anyone could ask for.
See-ming Lee from Hong Kong SAR, China, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons