by Robert WeibezahlFebruary, 2007
Jane Smiley brings the 'Decameron' to LaLa-Land in a novel of ideas
Many serious writers from Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Norman Mailer and Robert Stone have written novels based on their experiences in Hollywood. Some, like West, managed to wring masterpieces from the sordid stuff of filmdom. Jane Smiley, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel <i>A Thousand Acres</i> was turned into a star-studded, if less than stellar, screen melodrama, takes her turn at this perennial subgenre with her latest, <b>Ten Days in the Hills</b>. If the circumscribed world she creates bears little resemblance to the quotidian reality of the movie business, Smiley can be forgiven. For, despite its billing as a tale of Hollywood, <b>Ten Days in the Hills</b> is really something far more ambitious nothing less than a novel of ideas modeled on Boccaccio's canonical <i>Decameron</i>.
So the swank house in the hills of west Los Angeles where the novel is set is a stand-in for the Tuscan villa in Boccaccio's original, and while his medieval Italians were seeking refuge from the plague, Smiley's contemporary coterie has descended on the home of Max, a has-been director/screenwriter, as a kind of psychic refuge during the first days of the invasion of Iraq. The other guests at the impromptu house party include Max's lady friend, Elena; his ex-wife, Zoe, a breathtakingly beautiful and talented singer and actress; his daughter, Isabel; and Zoe's Jamaican mother, Delphine. Among the men are Max's agent, Stoney, who has been carrying on a secret affair with Isabel since she was 16; Elena's 20-year-old son, Simon; Max's childhood friend, Charlie; and Zoe's current boyfriend, Paul, a New Age therapist/guru.
During each of the 10 days that transpire during the course of the novel, two or more of these voluntary exiles engage in some manner of explicitly detailed sexual relations. The rest of the time, they all gather to talk, and talk some more about the war and politics, about their past and present lives, about movies they've seen and dreams they've had. Some of these narratives, like the fables and folktales of the <i>Decameron</i>, are meant to be morally instructive, others merely entertaining. Beyond the sex and the talk, nothing much else happens, and in the hands of a lesser writer, this lack of storyline would mean certain death for the narrative. Smiley manages to engage the reader and keep the pages turning.
This sense of engagement is no less surprising when you consider how self-absorbed and ineffectual most of the characters appear on the surface. Elena is a well-intentioned, news-junkie liberal who frets about Bush's bellicose policies from the safety of her privileged perch, while Charlie is her conservative counterweight, spouting ill-thought-out platitudes about America being under siege. Isabel, all moral seriousness teetering on the edge of self-righteousness, is a poor little rich girl, while Stoney, as his name suggests, is an aging slacker who knows he'll never measure up to the expectations of his late power-agent father. Zoe, charming to a fault, is used to the attention that beautiful people command, and Paul seems little more than an airy-fairy user. And yet we grow to like these characters (well, most of them) or at least come to understand the sources of their individual perspectives and humanity. This, too, is a tribute to Smiley's skill as a writer, making us care about these people even if we can't quite relate to them. Since ultimately the book is not really about Hollywood, Smiley may have chosen her setting because the film business, built on storytelling, is the rare industry that affords some, though only some, of its denizens the flexibility to spend 10 unstructured days luxuriating in philosophical conversation. Maybe, too, she figured Hollywood types are more credible as sex-obsessed egoists than, say, New York stockbrokers or Midwestern academics would be. No matter. The ideas hashed out in this thought-provoking, entertaining novel are germane to the current debate, and even if Smiley has the benefit of hindsight when imbuing her characters with a certain prescience about how badly things would turn out in Iraq, her dissection of these matters is no less valid. Embodying that old '60s adage that the personal is political, <b>Ten Days in the Hills</b> is a trenchant testament to the confusing, volatile times in which we live.
<i>Robert Weibezahl's novel</i> The Wicked and the Dead <i>is set in a somewhat different Hollywood.</i>