Book Review: “Complicit” by Winnie M Li
The Wail of a Siren
Last month, I published a review of Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen, a work of speculative fiction where a young Asian American girl gets propelled to A-list status of sorts as an actor in Hollywood during an alternate 1930s. Winnie M Li’s Complicit is sort of like reading the inverse of Siren Queen. Li’s book is a more realistic novel set in the not-so-distant past and features a young Chinese American woman who is struggling to make her name known behind the scenes as a producer. What both recently published novels share is a touch of the sinister: the price that women of color have to pay to get noticed in the film world. In the case of the protagonist of Complicit, who is named Sarah Lai, the price she may have to endure is a sexual assault from the executive producer and financier of the film she is working on. Telling her story to a New York Times journalist some 10 years after the fact as the #MeToo movement crests circa 2017, the story weaves a path that shows just how difficult it is for women to break through in the film industry. And that’s not to speak of the things they may have to suffer through for their wishes to be fulfilled: a plum starring role, credit at the end of a film, a decent salary, and on that list goes.
Complicit is, thus, a crucial novel — even if its setting predates COVID and now feels a bit on the dated side (though the topicality, for sure, will — for better or for worse — never date, alas, as I’m sure that there will always be some man willing to take advantage of a woman sexually as long as humanity continues to exist). It works as a primer for the film industry if you don’t know how films get made — though having a bit of knowledge of either film theory or the business side of the entertainment industry would be helpful before embarking on reading this rather lengthy thriller. (Which is, by the way, not meant to either be a condemnation or a compliment, but an admission of fact. The book is more than 400 pages long, but the pacing is certainly breezy if the thought of reading something of that length may put you off.) This is the harrowing story of one woman’s rise and fall through the film industry — and I don’t think I’m giving anything away there because when we do meet Ms. Lai at the outset of the novel, she is an almost 40-year-old working as a lowly scriptwriting professor at a no-name community college in New York City.
This is not an easy novel to read. Readers of either gender are probably going to squirm at some of the less-than-savory depictions of what goes on in Hollywood behind the scenes from the after-parties where champagne flows freely and there’s coke to be had (and I’m not referring to the soft drink) to the on-set meltdowns by childish male film directors between takes. This is an illuminating look at how Hollywood works and the author has had some professional experience working on films in England — which forms the semi-autobiographical basis of this book. This is an unflinching and uncompromising volume and Complicit’s subject matter is often hard to engage in due to the horrific assaults that it details — though not too explicitly, thankfully. Still, as laudable as the work is for its subject matter, it doesn’t quite rise above its mainstream pulpy origins. The titles and plot outlines of the films Lai is working on seem hokey at best, the dialogue between characters in the work is sometimes corny and the overall feel of the novel is trashy. However, these are not necessarily criticisms. Hollywood is kind of a hokey place, it seems, after all. And, another thing, the accessibility of the work does make the violence seem more bearable to read about, and Li does a masterful job of not dwelling on the negative. Li shows us that — even when it is churning out really silly films — Hollywood does possess a simple kind of magic that allows people watching its movies to be transported to other places than their troubles for a while. Even if, sometimes, those places — as is the case with this novel — can be quite troubling, too.
Overall, and not to sound too harsh, Complicit is not going to be mistaken for a major work of art or something that is going to win awards. While this may sound like a criticism, it is not meant to be one. It is probably important that the novel has been written the way it has been. This is a story that simply needs to be told and put in front of as many readers as possible. To that end, it makes some concessions that may be an affront to those readers who prefer their literary experiences to be a bit more elevated in terms of presentation. For the most part, aside from a passing reference to Battleship Potemkin, Complicit is going to disappoint that type of reader. However, for the everyday moviegoing public who may be curious as to how power is distributed between women and men in the film industry, Complicit is going to be a revelation. Thus, this is not a novel for the elite. This is a novel for the hoi polloi. So if you want to be challenged without expending too much in the way of brain cells in pursuit of a decent, but unsettling, story, Complicit may be the novel for you. And it may, at least, make for an interesting pairing with the other book I talked about in the opening paragraph. Read about the song of a siren in, well, Siren Queen, then read Complicit: the siren itself of something very wrong with the structure of the entertainment industry that will need a lot of work to fix. Either or both would make for very interesting reading, even if both defy easy categorizations and expectations.
Winnie M Li’s Complicit was published by Simon & Shuster / Atria Books / Emily Bestler Books on August 16, 2022.
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