Putting the Ethics of a Messy Threesome on Trial￼
Lillian Fishman’s novel "Acts of Service” unpacks the power dynamics of a sexual relationship
In Lillian Fishman’s debut novel, Acts of Service, a queer barista is struggling to craft a meaningful, real life that balances her ethics with her desires. Despite being in love with her long-term girlfriend, Romi, Eve ends up in a sexual relationship with Nathan and Olivia. She is equal parts compelled and disturbed: Olivia is in love with Nathan. Nathan is Olivia’s boss. And yet, Eve can’t quite condemn the two—the obvious pleasure they provide one another, the attention to which Nathan caters to Olivia, and their total disinterest in the morality of the arrangement challenges her every belief system.
As Eve works to appease the couple, making herself easy, unobjectionable, desirable, a self-critical stream of consciousness begins to haunt her every hook-up. She feels deeply concerned for Olivia, and her newfound role in facilitating this dangerous dynamic. She feels ashamed of the both of them, two queer women who struggle to conceal their indifference towards one another and total absorption in Nathan’s sexual power. And mostly she feels disgusted with the absolute pleasure succumbing to compulsive heterosexuality and the male gaze affords her.
In a community of women she loves and respects, Eve cheats on Romi, tunes her roommate’s concerns out, and undermines her own anxieties over Olivia’s vulnerability. What is it about Nathan that’s so intoxicating? And how can her desire for him coexist with her politics, her belief that cold, educated white men in well-appointed rooms are “out of style,” and knowledge that he manipulates without consequence? Does being aware of power dynamics mean anything if you still succumb to them? Does knowingly entering a trap make a difference?
The novel unfolds as a kind of disquieting trial, cerebral and emotionally honest. Eve is prosecuting Nathan and Olivia’s relationship and thus implicating herself. In turn, she must defend her ongoing decision to follow her feelings, to allow herself pleasure. Ultimately standing trial, in her own mind, before the queer community—to which she owes her sense of place and sense of morality—the experience proves as uncomfortable as it is insightful.
It stands then, that we readers might be the jury. In bearing witness to the psyche of a woman cracked open before us, her every shame, doubt, and secretly harbored longing empathetically exposed, and balancing it alongside nuanced philosophical and political interrogations of desire, I can only imagine the verdict will be split.
Lauren Hutton: At the very start of the book, we find out that Eve is looking to believe in something “unimpeachable,” and queerness becomes a kind of faith for her. Could you talk about what it means for queerness to not just be an identity, but for it to also be a kind of ethos or a governing logic for a life?
Lillian Fishman: The set of anxieties that I had about the social world must have emerged from coming of age as a queer person and it manifested as Acts of Service. But to me, it wasn’t really a story about sexuality or sexual desire or female sexual agency at all. Those things aren’t really central to my worldview. It’s more that I think for me and a lot of my peers, you’re coming up in a society that really emphasizes individuality and freedom. It’s hard when you don’t have a religious background and, for someone like me, you don’t even have—which a lot of people in our culture do—a structure that’s given to you by your family of achievement, or purpose, or family loyalty. I grew up in a lovely family where the emphasis was on pursuing whatever interested you and having this total freedom and independence, which I really appreciate, but it did feel as though there was no structuring ethos in how to approach the world. And I think what Acts of Service is really about is being in that vacuum and encountering this very strong ethos about how to live, which actually isn’t about sexuality at all. It’s just come out of a marginalized sexual community. Frankly because there’s this marginalization of sexual identity, it becomes a community that has values that go far beyond sex; it has to create its own laws. I think Acts of Service was really just about responding to that. It is, of course, about sex, but less so to me somehow.
LH: No, I think that makes a lot of sense because there was a line that was really interesting to me about how our generation uses complexity as the paradigm through which we live. We’re sort of trying to think intersectionally about everything and I definitely relate to that, that almost choice paralysis you’re describing. And I think in Eve, one of the ways that manifested is that she’s so attracted to certainty. So whether that’s the total goodness she at least perceives in Romi or whether it’s the obviousness of the power dynamics in a heterosexual interaction, she’s very attracted to absolutes. Do you think that’s a product of a generation that is living with so much uncertainty and a way to kind of seek a reprieve from that constant state of doubt and anxiety?
LF: Yeah, of course. I think when we encounter a really firm, uncompromised certainty in a person, or a society, or a cult, or a wellness community, we know that it’s false. I have an automatic suspicion where I’m like, I know that this sort of completist approach to the world has holes in it, but it is really a relief to accept it for some amount of time; to just relax and ask yourself, what would I do if this was something that I accepted wholeheartedly and I didn’t have to question my decisions or think about whether or not I, the only guiding principle in my life, approve of them, you know?
LH: Definitely. I was in Costa Rica a few months ago and had this slow sinking realization that I was walking through a cult and I hadn’t realized it at first. It was like this very vegan, white, wealthy, fake empathy, wellness community, and their certainty was such a weird, surreal thing—definitely something you’re suspicious of. But you’re also watching people take such pleasure in it that you wonder, maybe they are thriving.
LF: No, I know. I’m always resistant to this type of thing, but I’m always intoxicated by it. I think in a way where people around me are wiser to it than I am. The most recent iteration of this is that I’ve been reading a lot of stuff not about crypto and NFT use, but about people who are deeply committed to crypto and NFTs. And it’s a very extreme version of it where when I listen and read about this, no part of me ever says to myself, I should get into this. It’s clear to me that I’m not interested in that and that, in fact, I think it’s very flawed. And yet I look at these people and I know that they’re worshiping a false God, but I’m jealous. I wish that I had your belief and that I could be you. And Eve feels that way about Nathan deeply. She knows that it’s a false God scenario, but she’s like that would be so freeing and exciting and relaxing all at once.
LH: Yeah, I see that a lot in her relationship to ambition, too. I think we’re used to seeing characters and people who are either ambitious in an idealistic sort of way. I want to be an artist. I want to do something meaningful. Or, a sort of totally bought into the mechanics of capitalism kind of way. I want to be a crypto bro. I want to be rich. And Eve at least says of herself that she doesn’t have ambitions. Why was it important to her character that she wasn’t traditionally ambitious?
LF: I think when you read the novel through to the end and you consider it, it is pretty clear that she is ambitious in her own ways. There’s a hunger for an experience. There’s an ambition to be a charismatic, intelligent force. But I think she has so much guilt about the position that she occupies as someone white who comes from privilege. All of the avenues for ambition which are so justifiable and even admirable in people who are making a life for themselves from less are, when applied to her, sort of shameful and greedy. She’s really aware of that. And of course, there are plenty of people who have her exact identity or aren’t gay even, or come from more money, for whom there’s no shame in that at all. But based on her community and her politics, there’s a lot of shame in that. And so I think she needs to separate herself from the identity she was given in that gesture of rejecting traditional ambition.
But I also think for me as a writer, it was really important to distinguish her project and Olivia’s project, because they’re in comparable positions, right? They’re foils to each other in their relationship with Nathan and as queer people who are engaging with the same problem. For Olivia, there’s so much justification in her making art. Her relationship with Nathan, even when it’s potentially unethical, is given a sort of purpose and generosity by the fact that she’s turning it into art. Olivia doesn’t feel that she needs a justification, but Eve views the art as a justification for Olivia’s behavior. And by the end of the book, I needed Eve to come to believe that she doesn’t need to be transforming the experience or offering it to anyone else in order for it to be justifiable and valuable.
LH: Yeah, I definitely was very intrigued by that dynamic in which being given an identity and economic status that asserts that her life and body are inherently valuable, she’s kind of working to compensate for that in an ethical way. Thinking more about morality, because that’s what’s guiding those choices, I found Eve so earnest and such a likable character. I am thinking specifically about her concern with being good to Olivia, even when Olivia doesn’t necessarily return those concerns and isn’t fixated on Eve’s comfort and happiness in the situation. I was wondering if you could speak to what’s fueling that inner monologue? What shapes her desire to be good, especially to women?
LF: It’s really interesting that you perceive Eve as earnest and even likable, because a lot of people are having the opposite response to her. They’re like, Eve is so difficult to relate to and her vanity and the way that she responds to Nathan and cheats on Romi, all of these things make her really unlikable. Of course, I believe she’s a flawed character, but I also see her as deeply earnest and not at all jaded. She’s not functioning from a place of cynicism; she’s functioning from a place of genuine searching even when she makes mistakes.
LH: So what’s driving that desire to be good? Is that an offshoot of a post #MeToo world where we’re so concerned with workplace dynamics in particular? Is it the historic and societal policing of women’s morality that’s conditioned us?
LF: I think that it’s the internal foil of the training we’re given to compete with other women. Eve’s vanity is emerging from that very early socialization. In the scene where she has the fantasy of being in the line up and being chosen among the naked women—that’s sort of her deepest shame point of being cognizant that at an innermost level, she wants to be compared with other women, received favorably, and have other women be—this isn’t the primary goal, but the inevitable consequence of that fantasy—devalued in comparison to her. That impulse in her to constantly be anxious about other women, especially Olivia, is a strong desire to compensate for that gut level socialization. A strong desire to prove not even to them, but to herself, that in her real self that she’s thought about and constructed and her values that weren’t just given to her against her will, that she really does prioritize people’s well-being. Her concrete articulable goal isn’t to live in a world of men who worship her and shit on other women. Of course, that’s related to #MeToo and socialization; it’s her trying to be the person that she wants to be but doesn’t believe that she is.
Her story is, in a way, one about being released from her anxieties and also from her politics, for better or for worse, by falling in love. Not in a traditional sense and in a very intentionally mediated sense, but it is a story about being released from an idea she has about herself because an emotional experience overtakes it.
LH: See, this is also why I find her so earnest and why I would object to people who think she’s unlikable. It’s that interrogation and desire to reject misogynistic narratives that she’s been given. It feels like people don’t like her because people don’t like women.
LF: I think people don’t like her because she is so honest about those qualities of internalized misogyny. She allows those qualities to emerge with frankness, even though she’s so ashamed of them and trying to escape them. Whereas the relatable thing in a novel is for a woman to be sexually insecure and self-critical about her body and to think that other women are more valuable than she is. We expect that even exceptionally beautiful women who other people envy, which Eve isn’t, feel self-critical and insecure in comparison to others. It’s not even just that that’s what we expect, because there is a version of the sexually free agentive woman that we really admire. We’re like, isn’t it so amazing this woman isn’t insecure about herself? But that can only exist without comparison to other women. We only admire that woman if she’s like I love myself because of my flaws. And I love other women for their flaws. And I’d never even thought to compare myself to another woman because I’m so secure.
LH: Which is a falsity.
LF: Of course. And that’s one of the biggest pieces of pushback that I got from queer readers, was that that comparative framework Eve has about herself sexually is very unqueer by nature. And it is. When you have relationships with women as a woman, you do have to put aside or overcome or reject or radicalize the urge to compare yourselves because you can’t exist sexually in that space where comparison isn’t possible in the way it is in heterosexual relationships. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be overcome there.
LH: I thought it was genius to structure this book as kind of a metaphorical and then potential literal trial. Eve feels at once witness, defendant, and prosecution within this relationship. Was it inevitable for you that this ended in a legal dispute? When did that idea solidify?
LF: No, it was an idea that I had later on, but I immediately knew it was right. I had been looking for a way that Eve would be forced to reckon with these arguments she’s having internally, and the arguments she’s having with [her roommate] Fatima, and the arguments she’s having with Nathan and Olivia in a context in which it wasn’t a friendly argument. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t private. I needed there to be a venue where she had to actually engage with her role socially and in a larger context.