Stacey D'Erasmo

The novelist on our tendency to elide the truth

Catherine Barnett

Stacey D’Erasmo’s fifth novel, The Complicities, published this fall by Algonquin, is an investigation of the human tendency to look away, to justify oneself, to tell stories. The novel is narrated by Suzanne, a forty-nine-year-old woman trying to remake her life after leaving Alan, her charming flimflammer husband who spends time in prison for a white-collar crime Suzanne describes as “Bigger than a breadbox, smaller than Chernobyl.” Reinventing herself as a masseuse in a run-down town, Suzanne tries to tell her own story by understanding his, but she, too, is an unreliable narrator. She resists accepting her own complicity and plays loose with the facts. Compelled by a kind of lonely yet enlarging yearning—less, I think, to do with jealousy or regret than with an elusive commitment to truth—Suzanne also recounts the lives of Alan’s second wife, Lydia, and of his estranged mother, Sylvia.

The novel asks questions that reverberate not only across the lives of its characters but also across our current culture of complicity: “How could you have made such a big mistake?” “What had I been doing all this time?” “What is restitution? Don’t we all, all of humanity, owe the earth something?” “You didn’t know? Who are you kidding?”

catherine barnett

Catherine Barnett What is your informal working definition of complicity?

Stacey D’Erasmo If you look complicity up in the dictionary, it means the state of colluding with a crime, and it comes from the Latin complicare, “pleated together.” In the novel, I wanted to get at what happens when you’re involved in something that you know is not right and yet you are, with full agency, going along with it. You may not be the primary actor, but you’re an actor. You have agency and you’re in some way betraying your own conscience.

CB Apologies happen infrequently in your novel. Why are the characters so reluctant to apologize, and what would you say is the relationship between complicity and apology?

SD It’s the most basic thing: you can’t really apologize unless you actually think you did something wrong. In order to apologize sincerely, you have to feel that you have something to apologize for. And that’s what Suzanne doesn’t want to deal with.

My interest in questions of complicity has come from what I’ve seen, over and over, especially in the last decade: just stunning examples of horrendously bad behavior, pathologically bad behavior. Yet, in almost every case, everybody around them knew what was going on. I think the January 6th hearings should be called “Complicity: The After Party.” Show me any of those people who say “I’m sorry. I helped create this, I’m sorry.” I want to see Ivanka Trump say to the man who was bashed with the fire extinguisher, “I’m sorry, this was in no small part my fault.”

I’m also thinking of Weinstein, Epstein, Madoff—situations where literally battalions of people knew something wrong was taking place. What are the internal conflicts within them? What did they have to do to try to square themselves with themselves as they were hurtling along in these scenes? As a writer, these characters interest me.

CB I admire the way your characters are flawed, which makes me want to see how they will—if they will—come straight, do the right thing. But I’m often unsure how to feel about them, especially Suzanne, who keeps denying her role in the crime at the center of the novel. Am I supposed to believe the denials, or take them with a grain of salt?

SD Oh, with a big grain of salt. Suzanne doesn’t want to know what she knows. In an odd sort of way, I have empathy for her in the torment of her denial. And there’s a lot of denial going on.

Past a certain income threshold, you have to know that you are getting over at the expense of others, right?

CB Because she’s our narrator, I feel like I have to like her.

No, you don’t. She’s a soul in torment. I don’t excuse her, but I feel for her. But this is to me the highest compliment: that you didn’t know how to feel about these characters. Yes! I want it that way, and I want it that way because I truly and deeply believe that we are all very mixed creatures.

So with Suzanne, whether or not I like her isn’t exactly the point. I’m fascinated by her.

CB Maybe part of your empathy is that you think she’s trying to believe in her own innocence?

SD You have to look at the difference between what she says and what she does. What she says is, “I didn’t know.” But what she does is leave her husband, go somewhere else, and then get involved in what we might call helping, healing others. She becomes a masseuse. She tries to help rescue a beached whale, whose presence in the novel is equal parts metaphor and narrative fact. Much of the book finds Suzanne paying homage to (or seeking redemption from) the whale, whose death and decomposition both torment and compel her. It’s as if she is trying to make amends while not admitting what she has to make amends for. I didn’t know until long after I’d finished the book that Ghislaine Maxwell set up a marine mammal charity; I have no idea why. I thought, well, that’s perfect—she’s not going to cop to what really happened with all those poor girls and women that she abused and exploited, but she’s going to give money to the dolphins. That kind of split happens quite a lot. In the novel, Suzanne is saying, “I’m going to be this good citizen of the planet,” while unable to admit to what happened in her past. She doesn’t intend her way of telling to be a confession, but the reader begins to understand that in a backwards way it is a confession.

CB I was thinking about the difference between conscious and unconscious complicities. What are some unconscious complicities that you see us participating in?

SD One of the biggest ones in this country, which we all know about, is the phenomenal wealth gap that now exists. We’ve all seen the statistics that since the 1980s the wealth gap in this country has metastasized. Past a certain income threshold, you have to know that you are getting over at the expense of others, right? Systemic racism is obviously a huge area of complicity, a net in which we’re all caught.

I feel it’s important to zero in on when you feel your hand’s in it—right? That’s hard to do. Those are places where we would rather have things be unconscious.

CB Do you separate yourself from these kinds of actions, choices, truths?

SD Absolutely not. How could I? What is difficult to come to terms with about power is that it is (as Foucault explained) diffuse, incredibly sticky, pervasive. It is neither easy nor simple to operate ethically within big systems of power, which is what we’re all in. One of the reasons I’m not really interested, as an artist, in the Big Bad Wolf is that the Big Bad Wolf is not the power system; the Big Bad Wolf is, let’s say, the worst actor in the power system. We like to make power individual. That way we can say, “Well, the Big Bad Wolf is bad, but the rest is good, so all we need to do is kill the wolf and then we’ll all be good.” But of course we know that’s not true. In this sticky web that we’re all in, behaving decently is no small task. No small task at all. It is not just one person; it is not just one institution, it is not just one night; it is a very, very deep system. It makes me think of The Matrix, as a pop culture example. Try getting out of the Matrix. What are you going to do?

I’m very fond of Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant fable, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Everything is lovely in Omelas, but this state of affairs depends upon one condition: there is a child in a basement, completely tormented, and as long as that child is tormented, everything in Omelas is great. Everyone in Omelas takes the bargain, but at the end of the story, some of the citizens walk away, out into the wild. You can see the metaphor. In the world as it is, it sure as hell is not just one child in the basement. And the thing about the story is, you know, where are they going to go?

CB In the novel’s opening paragraph, Suzanne says, “Besides, facts only take you so far. And even facts look different next to other facts.” This vibrates with questions of “facts” and “truth” in our moment.

SD She’s self-justifying, right? What I would say in our actual moment is: how many more facts do we need? We have bales and bushels of facts. The oil companies knew about global warming in the 1950s. They had the facts. The facts are not the problem—it is the use and misuse and concealment of facts that is the issue, and again, going back to the idea of complicity, it’s not just one person concealing those facts.

CB What about approaching the issue of complicity from another angle—whistleblowing?

SD Obviously this is a book of the not-whistleblowers! Recently I did an event with the journalist Eyal Press, who wrote Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, about who does America’s dirty work in places like slaughterhouses, and Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, about people who essentially did the right thing under extraordinary pressure. He makes clear that being a whistleblower—even just not being complicit—is very, very hard and generally comes with a very high price. In the movies, the whistleblower is heroic and the judge at the end bangs their gavel and compensation is triumphantly awarded to victims. But in real life, whistleblowers suffer greatly. Financially, spiritually, emotionally. Being a whistleblower entails not just one heroic act going against the prevailing power systems; it is a choice that sends you down a much different path for years and years. You have to be prepared for significant loss. Press makes the point that part of that loss could be the loss of your community, which can be more heartbreaking than any sum of money you might ever lose.

For a very topical example, look at Liz Cheney. What I find incredibly moving about her is that she did something that almost no one does—which is that she changed her mind, she paid the price, and she took significant meaningful action.

There is a kind of sinister beauty in both the sound and meaning of restitution, which is a legal term.

CB Can you think of writers who are models for you in that way?

SD I think of writers who had tremendous integrity, who didn’t go along, who followed their own paths, despite the cost. Adrienne Rich, for example, who won the Yale Younger Poets Series while she was still in college and then hit all the conventional marks: the marriage, the children, the prizes. But then in the ’60s and ’70s she made choices, both personally and professionally, that weren’t valorized: the increasingly “confessional” poetry, her lesbianism. She took a major hit, on all levels. Or Gwendolyn Brooks, who really broke her life in half in the 1960s. Her style went from being very accessible and much lauded—she won the Pulitzer in 1950, when she was 33—to being incredibly dense and often difficult, after she attended the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk in 1967. Both Rich and Brooks were very successful when they made choices that they knew would lessen their cultural power. How many people ever do that? It’s so rare. I think that is very inspiring. And not easy, not easy at all.

CB Throughout The Complicities, the characters—even when they’ve participated in, contributed to, and benefited from the inequities—keep trying to insist that things should be fair. What do you make of this contradiction?

SD Sometimes I think the characters are right and sometimes I think the characters are wrong. Alan’s mother, Sylvia, says, “Look, you know, everything’s run by somebody’s mob.” And on some days, I would agree with her on that point. Alan’s second wife, Lydia, says, “I thought we paid our debt,” but she’s overlooking the fact that if you don’t pay the restitution, you haven’t paid your debt. And it is actually true—what really breaks some white-collar criminals is not the jail time but the legal demand for restitution, which tends to be such a lot of money they often can’t repay it all. So they’ve taken something they can’t give back.

This may be where some of my root empathy for the characters comes from. They have unleashed forces that are out of their control now.

CB I love the lyric moments in the novel. In one of these moments, it’s as if Suzanne is trying to comfort herself with what could almost sound like a lullaby, though the meaning of the words is definitely not soothing:

What is restitution?
What is restitution?
What is restitution?
Money drowned in water.

SD Perhaps there is a kind of sinister beauty in both the sound and meaning of restitution, which is a legal term. People are told in courts to pay restitution all the time, and if you don’t pay it, it quickly piles up, accruing interest. The ever-widening circles of damage done are really what can’t be paid back; for instance, think of something like climate change. If every industry, every country, every airplane, every individual, did exactly what they need to do starting today, even if they go above and beyond the Paris Accords—the damage is still going to reverberate for centuries. The way that debt grows, like something organic, is part of what the characters in my novel are up against.

CB The novel is divided into three main sections: “The Whale’s Breath,” “Whalefall,” and “The Whale’s Bones,” each of which has a title calling our attention to the beached whale, a creature whose suffering and death compel Suzanne to take dramatic steps. When I imagine the whale’s “enormous eye, so eerily human but so much bigger, enfolded in flesh … half-closed,” I’m reminded of Rilke’s poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with lines that could be spoken directly to Suzanne: “there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”

SD When I began writing the novel, I had this very strong image of a woman in Suzanne’s position—that kind of life, that kind of husband—being in the presence of a stranded whale. She watches it decompose. The whale is not just one thing. The way in which Suzanne has to keep showing up for the whale as it decomposes works in tension with everything she doesn’t want to know; she’s just going to go and watch this ever-expanding rot. She doesn’t know why she’s doing it; she’s just doing it. There’s something really human about that. I didn’t know until I was deep into writing the book that whale bones seep oil for decades. Decades. The reverberations do not end.

CB The most vivid part of the whale is that eye.

SD Yeah, Suzanne longs for, and yet doesn’t want, the whale to look back at her.

CB Toward the end of the novel, Suzanne says, “we all kind of wanted to be special.” What does it mean to you, to her, this “being special”?

SD People will do a lot of cruddy things to themselves and others for a little bit of magic, and to feel special—and I include myself in that company. Greed is only one part of it, as is an otherwise unattainable beauty that people gravitate toward. It’s crack. I’m sure that you and I have both been in rooms where X amazing and powerful cultural figure is behaving badly, maybe even really badly, and people are letting them get away with it.

Do I, for example, believe that Susan Sontag was a beast? Yes. Yes! I believe she was ruinous to people. Was there a time in my life when as a figure she meant something important to me, providing an oxygen in scant supply elsewhere? Yes. Yes! And if when I was twenty-five, I had been invited to a dinner party where she was chewing off the hand of the person next to her, would I have called her out? Probably not. And I want to emphasize that everything we’re talking about, everything I was trying to write into in this book—I have these demons within myself. I am not excusing myself from these deeply human, deeply complex conditions. And if I can’t reckon with that, in myself, what does it matter who I “cancel”? You can cancel until you’re blue in the face, but our own profound and very complex yearnings cannot be canceled. This is where novels happen.

Catherine Barnett is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2022 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other honors. She teaches at New York University.
Originally published:
November 7, 2022


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