By Simon Demetriou
Dark magic and bright stars
If Harvey Weinstein and his ilk were actual monsters rather than figurative ones, it might make the abuse, sexism, homophobia, exploitation and dehumanisation that seems to have marked the history of Hollywood easier to understand. In Siren Queen, Nghi Vo creates a fantasy version of Hollywood’s golden age where dark magic underlies the three studios that dominate the world of film. In this Hollywood, where most view ‘immortality as a thing for men’, the women trying to achieve their own piece of immortality have to face the potential for a kind of predation that goes far beyond what recent scandal has uncovered.
Siren Queen is a powerful coming of age story, related as a memoir by the first person narrator whose real name we never know, but who comes to be known in the text as Luli Wei – a stolen name assigned to her by Oberlin Wolfe, monstrous head of Wolfe Studios. Luli begins as a second generation Chinese immigrant living in her parents’ laundry. She ends as both the Siren Queen – the title of the film that finally makes her a star – and one of the queens of Hollywood, blazing a trail for other non-white and queer actors who shelter in the warmth of her fire.
The Friday night fires are one of the recurring fantastical elements of the novel, part of a semi-illusory, paganistic dreamworld that exists only within the confines of the studio lots every Friday night. Here, stars tend fires surrounded by the acolytes who they mysteriously call to and permit to find them. Within these ethereal and sometimes nightmarish spaces, studio heads and their chosen ones engage in ‘hunts’ for something unnamed and possibly unknowable.
It is during these nights that the young Siren finds love with a young starlet, Emmaline, before sacrificing that love in the name of friendship. When Luli helps her roommate (a Swedish cow-tailed monster called Greta who was shorn of her tail and led to LA bound by an enchanted rope) fight for her freedom and the man she loves, Luli not only alienates Emmaline, but puts herself in Oberlin Wolfe’s line of fire and risks the immortality she craves.
As the end of her contract nears, and the knives of the men she has crossed get sharpened for her impending exile and possible destruction, Luli’s stardom hangs in the balance. Yet it is the fact that she never wavers in her determination to retain independence in her choice of the roles she plays, both on screen and in life, which ultimately redeems Luli and turns Vo’s novel into a story where hope arises even when mixed with the darkest of magic.