Entertainment & the Arts: Friday, February 16, 2007

“Ten Days in the Hills” by Jane Smiley

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Hollywood has bedeviled novelists since its inception. Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, is yet another example. Smiley’s strengths are many, she is smart, insightful, observant, and yet she is lost in la-la land.

One of the problems may be that Hollywood is a place of surfaces, where style is substance and glitter matters. It is not a coincidence that the three best Hollywood novels, Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust,” Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” and Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays,” were all written in sharp, focused prose. “Ten Days in the Hills” is soft and fuzzy.

Early on, Smiley spends about 500 words describing a kiss. This, I suppose, was intended as the literary equivalent of a close-up shot, but any studio executive or script doctor would have told her that it was too soon in the romance for a close-up and, besides, lengthy close-up shots are strictly for indie flicks or porn videos.

“Elena closed her eyes, which shut out the brightness of the room and relocated her back inside her sense of touch. The sensation of his lips on hers flowered along her cranial nerves, which she imagined fanning outward from her lips over and around her head like a spider web, and within that web was a darkness whose life she could better sense when her eyes were closed … ”

I could hear the studio executive shouting, “Cranial nerves? There’s nothing sexy about cranial nerves! You’re slowing down the story! Cut!”

Modeled after Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” where a group takes shelter in a villa outside Florence during the Bubonic plague, here the action, such as it is, takes place in a Hollywood mansion where the characters take shelter the morning after the 2003 Academy Awards during the start of the Iraq war.

The house belongs to Max, a 58-year-old Oscar-winning director; and his visitors over the 10 days include his current lover, his ex-wife, their daughter, his agent and a Buddhist therapist. What follows is talk, sex and remarkably varied descriptions of pubic hair.

Movies and the war are two of the most frequent conversation topics, naturally. One of the characters relates that Michael Moore, the filmmaker who won Best Documentary, seemed surprised that he was so roundly booed for his boorish Bush-bashing at the podium.

“Who’s to say they were booing his remarks about Bush?” Max says. “Maybe they were booing his remark about having Canadian financing.” This line has more truth and wit about the movie-business mindset than the entire remainder of the book. Despite the title and marketing, this is not actually a Hollywood novel. Instead, Smiley has written another family drama and this one happens to be set in Tinsel Town, but might just as well have taken place in Northern California, where Smiley lives.

If you go into this book knowing it is 10 days of talk and sex, and that the perspective is more from the hills of San Francisco than the hills of Hollywood, you will likely enjoy Smiley’s leisurely musings on relationships, spirituality, war, art, and even movies.

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Mark Lindquist