If a writer invented a fictional Harvey Weinstein, with his hulking frame, crude manners and lust for power, he would be so obviously monstrous that he would seem like a symbol of toxic masculinity rather than a believable character with human feelings and understandable motivations. No wonder novelists prefer to draw on real-life scandals, which give them a chance to explore power dynamics and social forces that are difficult to render in words without becoming didactic. Readers, in turn, love these books because they satisfy our desire to peek behind the curtain and see the messy human element that everyone’s competing PR campaigns are trying to hide.
But there’s another reason we get hooked on these stories: we want them to end. We want resolutions and lessons learned, we want good to triumph and evil to be punished.
The backlash to #MeToo grows ever-more unpleasant in real life, but in fiction this war between the sexes is neatly contained. Former film producer Winnie M Li’s second novel, Complicit, tries to render in fiction various real-life Hollywood accusations of rape and assault to answer the lingering questions: how did this happen? And why was it allowed to go on for so long? As the title implies, these terrible things happen because assorted minions, peers and hopefuls decide that staying silent about what they’ve experienced or seen is more likely to help them get ahead.
In Complicit, the big baddie is Hugo North, who made billions in the real estate market, and now invests in a small female-run film production company, transforming it from a scrappy enterprise into a company with real heft and power overnight. The action of the book is relayed in flashback by Sarah Lai, who gets hired by the company as an intern fresh out of Columbia, and slowly ascends to associate producer. She’s a stranger to the film world, and survives her unpaid position not via a trust fund but by working at her immigrant grandparents’ Chinese restaurant and living with her parents. This is quickly becoming a trope in novels about the creative class, the hardworking outsider who, because they are lower class, are more “authentic”. Lai, and Li, reinforce this by contrasting the cinematic illiteracy of industry insiders, who confuse Eisenstein with Tarkovsky, with Lai’s hard-won film fandom, as she name-drops mid-level obscure films like Wings of Desire.
Because Lai achieved her success by graft rather than family connections or looks, she is disgusted with the women who flirt with the leathery billionaire North in the hopes that he will jump-start their Hollywood careers. When some of those aspiring starlets emerge from his hotel room crying, she thinks nothing of it and continues to push the pretty girls she finds so contemptuous into his path.
Parts of Complicit are admirably cynical. North is a slimy amalgam of figures like Weinstein and assorted other nasties; he is obvious about his predation instead of covert, which denies his staff the ability to claim ignorance about his behaviour. There’s also Thom Gallagher, an ambitious Ronan Farrow-ish young journalist with a powerful family name, amassing fame and fortune by telling the stories of “embittered, regretful women, surveying the psychological damage caused by the past”. Young women also throw themselves at and fawn over him, for different reasons than over North, thanking him for his “important work”.
Sarah’s boss is Sylvia, an ageing woman in a youth-worshipping industry, who swings between being maternal and fearing her young protégé will usurp her. Everyone is doing what it takes to get ahead; damn the collateral damage.
But in the end, the sharp, sour shell melts away to reveal an overly sweet centre. Everything is easily solved by media attention, even though we know that so many of those real-life career-making exposés ended in naught.
Weinstein’s imprisonment is an anomaly. Of all the men outed as predators during the #MeToo heyday, most evaded justice, or quietly went back to work, or retired in comfort. The story starts with the potential to be a biting noir on a par with Sweet Smell of Success but ends up feeling like a potential vehicle for Julia Roberts.
Of course, that might be the point. If you want that Hollywood adaptation money, you have to tell a story they want to hear. And Hollywood loves a happy ending, no matter what the cost.
Fiction: Complicit by Winnie M Li
Orion, 464 pages, hardcover, €19.50; e-book £6.99
© Telegraph Media Group Limited (2022)
Telegraph Media Group Limited