Thursday 19 April 2007

Ten Days in the Hills

Jane Smiley

There’s a lot of sex in Jane Smiley’s new novel. No, let’s be precise – there are a lot of penises in it. One pops up acting all ‘nonchalant’ on the very first page, and over the next 448 pages various ones manage to pop up (or not) at inopportune moments. Hell, one even gets to act and dance in a film. In fact, if Charlize Theron or Hilary Swank were looking for another Oscar for playing an unusual figure with a varied emotional range, they could do worse than playing one of these little fellas.

This needs saying, because reviews have so far emphasised the amount of sex in the book, yet have deigned not to mention the disproportionate focus on the male member. Saying so is more than flippancy, for Ten Days in the Hills is an update of Boccaccio’s very bawdy and sexually explicit Decameron, set in contemporary Hollywood – an industry where the appearance of even one limp todger qualifies a film for extreme art-house status, while a pair of exposed breasts make a blockbuster. The American film industry’s schizophrenic attitude towards sex inspires one of the characters, Max (an Oscar-winning director on the slide), to make his next film a warts-and-all depiction of a middle-aged unmarried couple making love for two hours. His agent is horrified, telling him his idea has ‘everything an American audience despise – fornication, old people, current events and conversation’. He avoids mentioning the unmentionables, but you get the drift.

The self-knowing joke is that the same charge could easily be levelled at the book. Although Hollywood loves to satirise itself, it is difficult to see how Ten Days could ever be filmed, even discounting the troublesome erections. One imagines this will not upset Smiley, as the Decameron has so far only been attempted on screen by Pasolini – and, well, suffice it to say a bit of fornication never bothered him. It doesn’t bother Max’s step-son either, who graciously lends his (dancing) organ to a student film that is trying to make a statement about the sexual politics of Hollywood cinema. Only it never becomes clear what that statement is.

In fact, the book is filled with people trying to make some statement or other, but never really saying anything. The action starts the morning after the 2003 Oscars, and four days after the invasion of Iraq, when ten characters hide themselves away, telling stories to each other to pass the time. Smiley’s chief conceit is that while Boccaccio’s characters were drawn together to escape the Black Death sweeping Europe, these pampered, spoilt Hollywood-types are only trying to hide from the blanket media coverage of the war, which makes all of them uncomfortable in ways they can’t put their finger on. Max’s liberal, Gore-supporting girlfriend Elena even worries that his continuing impotence is a result of anxiety or guilt over the war, while his daughter frets that her movie star mother is going off the rails.

The plot has all the elements of a fairly straightforward satire of LA vacuity and insularity: a kooky New Age guru, a bratty vegan daughter, a cranky ageing conservative, a shady Russian billionaire and a gossiping old woman. Of course, invoking a masterpiece of Renaissance literature, rich in allusion and allegory, is a fairly heavy-handed step to take to tell us that Hollywood-types are shallow, self-absorbed and sex-obsessed. Yet it is here that Ten Days starts to come alive. Smiley treats all her characters with the appropriate amount of tenderness and compassion, having fun with their absurdities but never making it possible truly to dislike them. Even Paul – who suggests that the tension between a mother and daughter is the result of a feud going back to their previous incarnations, centuries earlier – is allowed some of the most piercing insights into those around him.

The book has been criticised for its meandering structure: it is filled with pretentious philosophising, idle gossip about Hollywood’s golden greats and current stars (such as in my opening paragraph), analysis of familiar movies such as Sunset Boulevard or The Seventh Seal and, of course, the sex scenes. Yet all of these things serve to mirror the hot, lazy atmosphere of the characters’ lifestyle (making it an excellent holiday read), and the political ennui to which they are all subject. In any case Smiley’s prose is crisp and clear, vaguely reminiscent of the pared-down simplicity of Anne Tyler, making sure that the luxury on display never becomes suffocating. Some of the characters may be crashing bores, but that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting to read about.

What is more troubling about Ten Days is that one suspects Smiley’s sympathy for her characters goes too far, so that she implicates herself in their self-obsession. The daughter of Zoe, the pampered movie star, wails to her that ‘It always has to be about you, doesn’t it?’ But with her awkward insertion of anti-war polemic, the constant spectre of global warming in Bush’s America, and the elevation of the suffering experienced by Delphine (the poor Jamaican mother of Zoe) to that of a humbling example to them all, Smiley achieves the feat of making these events all about you, the reader. It is also difficult to tell whether Elena’s substitution of her antipathy towards the war (and her sense of powerlessness) with an increasing acceptance of her obsessive-compulsive personality traits is satirical or not – although she is guided to this conclusion by Paul.

Even so, these criticisms are only really valid if one approaches the book primarily as a satire, which I don’t believe it is. It is a well-crafted novel by an experienced and gifted author, constantly leading you down false paths and teasing you to make quick, and misleading, judgements. Classicists will have fun with the allegories (John Updike has suggested a Trojan war metaphor, while global warming stands in for the Inferno allusions in Boccaccio) and there is a plethora of beautiful phrasing, witty observation, compassion for the failings of mortal minds and unexpected film trivia to engage the mind even of a reader with only a passing interest in the lives of the beautiful people.


Fiction

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