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Acts of Service Is a New Kind of Queer Novel

Photo-Illustration: The Cut. Photos: Angalis Field

When 27-year-old Lillian Fishman set out to write her debut novel, Acts of Service, she thought she would be telling a queer story — by the end, it became a book about heterosexuality. Her acerbic and self-punishing narrator, Eve, is a queer woman in her 20s, tepidly navigating the city and a stagnant-but-stable relationship with her girlfriend. In Eve’s private moments, she takes hundreds of faceless nudes and stores them on her cell phone. Her life’s purpose may be a mystery, but she knows — and is invigorated by — the purpose of her body: “I was meant to have sex—probably with some wild number of people,” Eve says, in the novel’s first few pages. She suspects her desire is even more “savage” than a body count: “Maybe … I was meant not to fuck but to get fucked.”

On a night of isolation, Eve uploads three of her anonymous nudes online. A woman named Olivia bites, but when the two meet up in person, Eve learns it’s not Olivia who’s interested in her — it’s Nathan, Olivia’s boss and secret bedmate. The three enter into a polyamorous sexual arrangement in which boundaries run loose and cruelty and pleasure overlap.

The novel that ensues is razor-sharp hedonism, and Fishman’s characters lean into the granular pleasures of sex at the expense of a moral compass. “There’s a lot of pushback about using the word love to describe the way Eve feels about Nathan, or naming Nathan as the catalyst and hero of the transformation that Eve undergoes,” says Fishman, who’d rather tell you a truthful story about these three characters than an idealized one. “But it comes from within, it’s Eve’s own journey, and that’s what’s feminist about it.”

Let’s start with how this book came to be. 

Trying to write a second book now makes it clear to me how long Acts of Service was percolating before I started working on it. I was inside it for three years, but there were five years before that where the questions circling in the novel were very urgent to me, and I was talking about them with everyone that I met. It started out being more about the relationship between Eve and Olivia: I was trying to get out how it feels to be seen doing something you’re ashamed of by other women, and the new context that’s given to that feeling when you’re a queer person. It’s not just like you’re being witnessed by another woman who’s a rival or a stand-in or a friend, but also someone that you theoretically have a relationship with that you want to live up to, in some way.

That book started there, but it became a book about a relationship between Eve and Nathan. And I didn’t want the book to be about Nathan or heterosexuality. Those are things I was avoiding and was uncomfortable with, and I certainly thought of myself as a queer person and as a person who would write a queer novel. But that center announced itself to me, and I’m happy it did. The book is about Nathan and needed to be.

What made you uncomfortable, specifically?  

Around bisexuality and queerness in my life, and in the way we talk about it as a culture, there’s this framing of sexuality and romance as beyond gender. There are lots of taboo and discomfort around bisexuality because it’s so based on traditional binary concepts of gender. Eve’s attraction and her interest in this experience is based in a very conventional framework. That’s what bothers her about it, and what drives the thematic meat of the novel. All of the of positive conversation I’ve encountered around bisexuality is like, You love who you love! as though gender is sort of subsumed by attraction to a person, and the book I was trying to write was about how sometimes that doesn’t happen, and in fact, that structure that disturbs you is the thing that attracts you.

How had you seen queer experiences siloed in fiction before, and what conventions were you writing against? 

It’s not that I’ve seen it siloed. I’ve been thinking of how I watched Desiree Akhavan’s show The Bisexual when it came out in 2018. The show grapples with some of the same things Acts of Service is grappling with, which is basically how it feels to disappoint yourself and the queer community by realizing that you want to explore this mainstream desire that you feel very self-critical about and almost disgusted by. Even bringing Acts of Service out now, I do get sort of the exact sort of pushback that I was giving myself when I was working on it. I was worried about writing the things that Eve sees in Nathan that attract her. I’ve had readers say Eve’s desire doesn’t feel queer, because she’s so critical of Olivia. There’s also pushback in the framework of, This isn’t what queer desire or queerness looks like. And I don’t think that’s wrong. That doesn’t even really bother me because I don’t think the book is primarily a book about queerness or queer experience.

Speaking of the ways that heterosexual desire is fraught for women, and how it’s particularly fraught for queer and bisexual women — those tensions come through in the ways Olivia and Eve relate to each other. Can you tell me more about cultivating their arc? 

Ultimately the novel is Eve’s and belongs in her voice. Olivia is still a mysterious character to me, both the way she goes about that central relationship and her degree of disinterest in Eve, and moreover, her disinterest in the ethical questions Eve is anxious about — her disinterest in being a person that other women approve of at all. I admire that in her character, and it also alarms me. I don’t think I would have known or been able to really evoke that. I don’t think there’s a different way the story could have gone, because fundamentally Olivia is only interested in Nathan. She’s present because Nathan asked her to be. She does what he asks, she wants to please him, but she’s also not independently interested in Eve and never would be.

You write so lucidly about polyamory. What was it like writing this three-way relationship? 

It really excited me. The scenes that came most easily to me were the ones between Olivia, Nathan, and Eve. I tended to write them very quickly, and I could feel that I was working out some ideas I had about sexuality in those conversations on the page. My favorite type of writing is writing in which you can really feel someone working it out in front of you and it doesn’t feel pre-digested or pre-plotted. And those scenes felt that way to me. The great struggle in writing the book was trying to build out the structure of the novel around them, and making sure that the other parts of Eve’s life worked and lent depth to that relationship.

Eve was someone I wanted to stay on the page with for a long time — she doesn’t shrink away from vanity and follows a compass of pleasure instead of moral goodness. Were there any characters who inspired her? 

Isadora Wing from Fear of Flying and Eve Babitz’s narratorial self. Those voices feel like strong thematic parallels because they’re so fearless about their own pursuits, even at other people’s expense. But those are very funny, lighthearted books and essays, and Eve, the character, is much more serious, much more angst-ridden and neurotic. I have to say I don’t think she’s like me at all. I think that I’m much more fearful and cautious as a person, and I think something that was fun about Acts of Service was letting Eve take after Nathan as much as she wants to. And she can’t fully. I think the best parts of the novel are where she overcomes her own apprehensions and her own cowardice.

Throughout the novel, and especially toward the end, Eve makes a number of realistic but uncomfortable choices. You write through her decisions truthfully, even when they’re not necessarily moral decisions. What do you hope readers will take away from that? 

It was important to me not to villainize or exonerate any of the characters. In the end, I have a lot of tenderness for Nathan, and Eve does too. Her degree of tenderness is questionable and should be taken with a big reliability grain of salt. People have been having an emotional reaction to the book, which has been exciting to hear. The ending has also made people angry. It’s certainly not morally pat, and it might not even be morally fair. But some people are happy to see something that feels true to the characters’ experience; something that feels forgiving.

Acts of Service Is a New Kind of Queer Novel