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Jane Smiley has never written the same book twice. Her novels give no clues about what she'll do next. Readers who discovered her, as I did, when A Thousand Acres made a big buzz, and who then went back and read the earlier books, such as Barn Blind and Ordinary Love and Good Will, were disappointed by the academic comedy of Moo; where was that awful gravity? Ms Smiley has said that she enjoyed writing Horse Heaven more than any other of her books, and I think it shows: that's the desert-island Smiley that I'd choose, not A Thousand Acres, powerful as that adaptation of King Lear is.
The new book, Ten Days in the Hills (Knopf, 2007), is said (by the author among others) to be an adaptation of The Decameron. Where Bocaccio sends ten wealthy Florentines into the hills for ten days to escape the Black Death, Ms Smiley conjures a house party in Pacific Palisades for the duration of the invasion of Iraq. If you ask me, the comparison is about as substantial as an air freshener. While I'm sure that The Decameron provided some sort of inspiration, we needn't tax our brains tracing links. It's enough to consult what Ms Smiley has to say about the older book in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.
As in many great novels, the treasury of detail in The Decameron defies analysis, or even sufficient appreciation. The reader (and it is a reader - The Decameron is too long to be recited, too detailed to be filmed except in an abbreviated form, too various to be dramatized, too huge to be painted) can only appreciate each brilliant turn of phrase or each exquisite irony or each perfect set piece and then move on to the next, allowing them, afterward, to coexist imperfectly but delightfully in the memory, until her enjoyment is renewed with another reading.
I've read parts of Ten Days in the Hills several times, always with slightly greater pleasure. It is full of brilliant turns of phrase, exquisite ironies, and, most of all, perfect set pieces. It is almost a suite of set pieces, an object lesson in just what the term "set piece" means. The subdivisions of each chapter (one for each of the ten days) involve unchanging arrangements of characters, like scenes in of MoliŤre's plays. While there is a sense of cumulative development, there is no advancing plot line, just the vagaries of several relationships. There is a huge amount of conversation - a gold mine for historians and sociologists of the future, but engaging enough to read right now - and a great deal of somewhat graphic sex. For all that, Ten Days in the Hills is one of the most placid, unexciting books that I have ever read, and I mean that as a compliment. It effortlessly achieves the suspension of contingency so laboriously sought by the experimental fiction of the Fifties and Sixties, while remaining just as effortlessly readable as it is suspended. There's a way of seeing it as a post-American novel - if one could say that without antagonizing brittle egos.
Of the ten characters who gather at the home of Max, the fiftyish director who's still famous for a big Seventies movie, five share their points of view throughout the book; another has a moment at the forefront but is otherwise a character who excites strong reactions in the others. These six - Max; his lover, Elena; his daughter, Isabel; his agent, Stoney; Isabel's mother, ZoŽ; and ZoŽ's spiritual guide, Paul - form three couples of varying stability, and only one of them is unfaithful in the course of the novel. There are, in addition, two elderly ladies, Delphine and Cassie; an old friend of Max's, Charlie; and Elena's son, Simon, all of whom have stories to tell, too. There are no children and no servants. On the seventh day, the action shifts from Max's comfortable but idiosyncratic multilevel house in the hills of Pacific Palisades to a literally fabulous, brand-new mansion, in which many of the great rooms of Europe have been recreated or suggested, for the pleasure of dodgy Russian plutocrats, at the top of Bel Air Drive. These are Ms Smiley's ingredients, and it's up to you to make the best of them.
Many readers will find Ten Days in the Hills long-winded, simply because narratives of this scope have become utterly uncommon. The much, much longer Les Bienveillantes, for example, by Jonathan Littell, has a terrible unifying focus. The lack of focus in Ten Days in the Hills - another way of describing its "long-windedness" - is meant to be a virtue, and unless you are capable of relaxing into the narrative, the novel will irritate you. As Ms Smiley follows the complications of her three couples, she leaves out nothing of interest. When they're not having sex, they're telling and listening to stories, sometimes stories about stories. The following passage comes from a very long discussion that Max and Elena have about the evils of the Bush Administration. I tell you that because you wouldn't know if I didn't. While they're talking, Max is "shooting" the naked Elena with an unloaded movie camera; he wants to remake My Dinner With Andrť, only with a a man and a woman making in bed instead of two men sitting at a table.
"Well, I have several ideas about that. In the first place, movies that I make are stories. Even when I try to make it as compelling as possible, I know they are stories and the audience knows they are stories and the actors know they are stories. The thing about a story is that it affects you if you want it to, but you can take it or leave it. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous. Have you ever been to a meeting?"
She shook her head.
He was warming up now, he though. "What they do at meetings is tell stories. You aren't allowed to give advice or tell people what to do. You're encouraged to tell your own story and leave it at that. The reason they do that is because alcoholics can be volatile and sometimes take offense. Telling stories is the least offensive way to communicate, because it's the least coercive. So that's one of my defenses. Another is that most movies are bad and most audiences are too sophisticated to buy most movies. I would like to have made a string of movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, that feel so real while you are watching them that they replace all your own feelings and opinions, but i haven't. Even the guys who made that movie haven't. Michael Douglas went on to make Wall Street. Wall Street was kind of hokey at the time, and it's even more hokey now. What happened on the set of Cuckoo's Nest was that everything clicked. Thee script clicked, the set clicked, the actors clicked, Forman, the director, clicked. It was like conducting a sublime performance of the Ninth Symphony. It was probably Nicholson who caused the click. He got along with everyone, and it seems like he's the energy center when you look at him on screen. But they all clicked. DeVito, Chris Lloyd, Scatman Crothers. Louise Fletcher's performance gets better every time you look at it. When you watch William Redfield, who died after the movie came out, you know that he hates Nicholson's character, and for the moment you can shy, and you hate Nicholson's character, too. When the doctor comes on, who was the real doctor at that hospital, you can't believe what a good job he is doing playing the doctor! That movie is the only thing in the entire world that makes me want to be someone else than myself. I would like to have been Milos Forman just in order to be part of that. But guess what? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came and went. It is not life-changing for most people who watch it. It's a story. It may be the most perfect movie ever made, or one of them, but you can still take it or leave it. You can still get up, walk away, and make up your own mind about mental institutions, psychotherapy, electroshock, and even frontal lobotomy, not to mention euthanasia. So I don't see what I do as coercive. In fact, I see it as objective. I offer something for the audience to contemplate, and even though we look like we are being madly active in making our offering, really our offering is as passive as a big stone lion on a pillar. Take it or leave it. And when a movie doesn't jell like that one does, it isn't at all hard to leave it.
As I say, that's just an excerpt. If you are a brisk reader, it may make you impatient. You may wish for a few telling lines that convey Max's ideas about successful movies. But Ms Smiley is not interested in summaries of ideas. She clearly believes that the stuff of one's mind is more a fine network of connections than an endless table of contents. Here, you follow Max from AA to a famous film, and then you follow his thoughts about various aspects of that film - the fact that its makers could not repeat it, the importance of "clicking," the skill of certain of the actors - and then finally you follow him to the observation that even the strongest film in the world is not guaranteed to change any minds. The paragraph captures in microcosm the sense of how much there is to take in this world, and how much of it we have to leave.
Ten privileged Americans, perched high above our national city of fantasy, spend ten days in conversation of one kind or the other. There is a rather unthinking Republican in the group (Charlie), but the atmosphere is decidedly liberal. That's perhaps another way of saying that getting along is not particularly prized in Max's house. Long arguments consisting of exchanged stories are indulged. Something happens, but not to the ten central characters. A friable relation comes to a peaceful close. The final pages, in which ZoŽ drives down out of the hills with Paul, are wonderfully valedictory even though they only lightly refer to what has gone before. Now that I've read it, Ten Days in the Hills is my idea of a big, beautiful book. And I've no regret in predicting that Jane Smiley will never write anything like it. (February 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press