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Hollywood Decameron

Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills


Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable novel, A Thousand Acres, dramatizing the lives of three sisters and a tyrannical father holding a terrible secret, a plot that parallels Shakespeare's King Lear. It worked well for the major characters, but the device wore a bit thin for the minor players. Smiley has also written other fine novels, including Moo, a delicious satire on the academic scene.

Smiley has just had Ten Days in the Hills published and again, uses a literary source for inspiration: this time, Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. For those unfamiliar with the book, the characters in Decameron are hiding from the plague and tell stories to pass the time. Smiley's characters work in the film industry and camp in the Hollywood Hills for 10 days to talk between lively bouts of sex. Smiley's main character is Max, an Oscar-winning director. He and his lover, Elena, lie in bed and start one of many discussions about life and movies, the war in Iraq and their dislike for President Bush. The discussion ends with some vibrant sex. Soon, other guests arrive, including film star and Max's ex-wife, Zoe Cunningham. She brings her lover for more conversations and more sex. Max's agent arrives, as does Max's daughter, Isabel. A neighbor even drops in.

The novel is episodic, and what worked well for Boccaccio's series of tales doesn't always work for Smiley. The conversations may tax the attention span of a reader lacking extensive knowledge of movies, and the sex, though titillating, becomes predictable. As a major writer, no one describes sex in a more graphic, yet sensuous way than Smiley, and she tends to use proper clinical terms in describing women's body parts but profane terms for her male characters. Her witty dialogue sparkles, but there is simply too much of it. Many references to George Bush and the war in Iraq have already dated the novel.

The whole book could be summed up in Max's desire to make a sexual version of My Dinner with Andre, a celebrated art film about a serious dinner conversation between a famous writer and director. Max's film will have actors portraying him and his lover discussing the meaning of life in bed, not at dinner. They will talk and talk and have lots of sex. Max is offered a chance to direct a remake of Taras Bulba, but he remains serious about his sexy if plotless "art" film.

Perhaps Hollywood's alluring history is too much for writers to resist. Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates both wrote books about Marilyn Monroe. Smiley handles the familiar material well, and Ten Days has garnered generally positive reviews. Only one reviewer suggested the novel would work better if cut considerably. Certainly, Ten Days as a short novel would carry more power. Hemingway has a character in a short story cry out, "Can we please, please, please stop talking?" For film enthusiasts who understand the power of film, or readers who can simply enjoy Smiley's sexy if talkative diversion, the book will provide pleasure. To appreciate Smiley's literary gifts, however, A Thousand Acres is the one to read.