The story of our own complicity with malevolent forces is difficult to tell, in general, at this time. It’s unpopular, even dangerous, to have mixed allegiances, tangled motivations, dirty hands. And yet, given the highly complicated nature of things like power, money, and cultural capital in this world, to name a few, who can claim unblemished virtue? Does anyone get paid by a university that once owned slaves, still invests in fossil fuels, or contributes to student debt? Show of hands. The main character of my novel complicities has mixed allegiances and tangled motivations. She’s a bit of an anti-heroine, but my goal was to make her blind spots uncomfortable.
complicities was not an easy book for me to write. It centers around Suzanne, the ex-wife of a financial criminal, and how she does it, or more accurately, disregards her own significant complicity in her ex-husband’s crimes. After her conviction and incarceration, she struggles to build a new, cleaner life for herself, but her blind spots lead to ever greater consequences.
When, for example, she comes across a major whale stranding and acts, that action ends up causing significant damage to others. It was a difficult book to write, because I was writing about things I didn’t know much about: white-collar crime, how restitution works, whale strandings, construction debt, gambling I spoke to lawyers, marine mammal rescue experts and a subject matter expert.
She’s not a villain, but she’s not a victim either. He’s a creature of half-awareness and denial who isn’t entirely incapable of empathy either.
But the hardest part was the darkness I knew I had to go to. complicities is significantly darker than my previous books and it’s much more concerned with what human beings owe to each other – literally and figuratively – and how incredibly intertwined we are, even when we think we aren’t not or that we do not want to be.
Suzanne is a first-person narrator, but it’s where she meets other people, especially her ex-husband’s second wife and her mother, that the novel really takes place. She also encounters the environment, class, and various types of brutality, then makes choices and decisions. She’s not a villain, but she’s not a victim either. He’s a creature of half-awareness and denial who isn’t entirely incapable of empathy either.
I found it interesting to note that there have been books by and about men that deal with complicity – two by Kazuo Ishiguro, Leftovers of the day and Floating World Artist; by Roberto Bolano At night in Chile; The sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, among others, but in these novels the crimes are mainly geopolitical and involve oppressive or genocidal regimes. There are a few recent ones written by and about women—Rosa Liksom’s Colonel’s wife, about a Finnish woman who becomes the lover of an occupying Nazi; and Catherine Chidgey Sympathy from a distance, which features the wife of a Nazi commander in charge of Buchenwald who “doesn’t know” what is going on there. I know these two because I’ve blurred them – they’re great, but, again, they have to do with these really massive historical contexts.
Suzanne is not the wife or mistress of a Nazi or a double agent, as in The sympathizer, but something much closer to home in our modern world – someone who profits from unethical and even criminal behavior, but refuses to see themselves that way. Instead, she digs her heels in and tries to green her identity. She is, at one end of the spectrum, Ghislaine Maxwell (who, coincidentally, actually started a marine conservation charity); or, at the other end, the dean of a university who looks away for years as the powerful male professor preys on students, because it benefits her to be in his good graces.
In order to make the book uncomfortable for the reader, I had to make it uncomfortable for myself. I had to really walk in Suzanne’s shoes and find the places where I would be inclined to let myself go.
It’s not the favorite cultural story for women these days, or maybe ever. Far more popular are stories of female victimization, not female collaboration. Or maybe a villainess or a total sociopath, like in a popular novel like missing girl. I’m very sympathetic to women who’ve been through something terrible, and I try to steer clear of sociopaths, but as a writer I’m interested in exploring stories in which mentally stable women have a free referee and how they use it. .
Agency includes the ability to make the wrong choices, for the wrong reasons. It was very important for me to write a female character who is not a victim or an innocent spectator, but a complex, mixed-race, fully responsible adult. In other words, a woman not so different from, well, many of us, of all genders. What do we know and what do we do with what we know? It’s an uncomfortable affair.
In order to make the book uncomfortable for the reader, however, I had to make it uncomfortable for myself. I really had to walk in Suzanne’s shoes and find the places where I would be inclined to let myself go. The thing about the big bad actors that we’ve all seen so much of in recent years is that they’re often so extreme and inhumane that they’re sociopathic. In terms of interiority, there is none there. Right next to them, however, there are always people who aren’t sociopaths, people who are allied with bad actors, but who still think, feel human beings. They know, and they keep casting the wrong actor anyway.
The heart of this uncomfortable place, for me, was love. Suzanne loved her ex-husband, loved him especially because she knew when she married him that he was a thief, loved the good life they were making for their family with stolen money. His second wife, Lydia, loves him too, loves the reasons he tells her lies, loves the injuries that sent him into crime in the first place, she says.
It wasn’t Suzanne’s greed that I could relate to—in a weird way, she’s not that financially greedy—but her attraction to a criminal who felt right at home. I understood it too well. In my day, I loved drug addicts, cheaters, and liars, and I was never confused as to who they were. I was only confused as to who I was, why I was there and how I benefited. We’d like to think people are complicit for cold, clear reasons — access to power, financial gain, belief in a corrupt social order — but complicity can also be inextricably linked to love, identity, and even love. ’empathy.
Every novel I write teaches me something, and this one keeps asking me questions that I can’t easily or quickly answer. Even though, in the end, I made particular decisions about how things were going to go for my characters, I still feel uneasy when I think of them, especially Suzanne. It would be easy to send her back, but I can’t.
complicities by Stacey D’Erasmo is now available through Algonquin.