Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jane Smiley's "Ten Days in the Hills" Book Review

I agree with early reviews (Feb. and Mar. 2007) posted [on Amazon US] by "One Man's View" and Lynn Harnett and Ellie Reasoner which summarized the plot and the book's highs and lows. My wife, who works in Hollywood at a far less elevated status occupationally, financially, and geographically than the denizens of the pleasure palace who amble and couple in sight of the Getty Museum, admired Smiley's ability to convey how films emerge in a director's mind. Certainly, the liveliest part of this often stultifying narrative emerges when Max and the Russian producers discuss how Taras Bulba could be remade for contemporary relevance without losing its period flavor. When I read Smiley's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel," (see my Amazon review Feb. 25, 2006, hardcover) the one book she inspired me to find was-- Gogol's "Taras Bulba." This "epic novella" (!) as filtered through the imaginations of the film devotees here displays well the power of the image and the word and how the two combine on screen.

However, the rest of this novel, like certain movies, appears to sluggishly move as if in real time. The conversations prove often interminable and unmemorable. And, what's with Zoe and Simon? This episode remained unresolved and puzzlingly off-stage. Now, my wife wondered if this unevenness reflected Smiley's own subtle depiction of the banality of these limousine liberals. (I note the exception of Charlie as the designated mouthpiece for the war, although not even Smiley appears to bother with creating sympathy for her straw man stuffed only for rhetorical purposes-- and he's trundled in from ghastly New Jersey.)

The stories do at times appear engaging for a page or two, but as they lack the organized ritual that united the tellers of Boccaccio's Decameron, they drift about often aimlessly and on the fringes-- there's really no plot other than whether or not Max will agree to make "Taras." The retreat to the hills to flee the start of the second Iraqi war appears flimsy. It's not as if the bombs are dropping on L.A. There's no plague or zombies to cause these privileged sycophants to hole up in first Max's manse and then the Russian mansion.

Smiley could have created a better novel out of this material. If she had focused on "Taras" vs. "My Lovemaking with Elena" as competing projects and moved the characters earlier (rather than 2/3 of the way through) into the hilltop Xanadu, she could have used the potential of the lavish rooms and the curious staff there to enrich the mystery represented by Mike, not to mention the offstage Avram Ben Cohen-- whose name hints at spiritual symbolism abandoned, as does guru Paul's quest.

The most gracefully handled parts of the novel come very late, probably for many readers who will never make it that far. Elena's thoughts of kisses, the relationship between Isabel and Stoney (the best character for he's recognizably rounded whereas some like Cassie, Delphine, and Simon appear stock figures), and especially the underplayed denouement between Paul and Zoe manage to convince you that these are-- finally-- characters that resemble people we could relate to, even if they got on our nerves. The problem is Smiley appears delighted by her imagination.

When Arianna Huffington's thanked in Smiley's acknowledgements, and when Smiley notes there the value of endless hours of director's commentaries on DVD's, this does betray the author's own leisured status. Blame for the noblesse oblige tone may also be attributed to Smiley's own detachment in her Carmel Valley ranch from the little people who never get to stay with limousine liberals in the Palisades or Bel-Air. This is not an "ad feminam" fallacy. Smiley, by including such nods, shows that she's part of the system rather than its critic. There's nobody present among this novel's chosen few from the "below the line" folks who toil making movies. Or, the average folks who watch them. Tellingly, this omission's rarely admitted by anyone in these 450 densely printed yet generally blithering pages. I realize that Smiley wishes to keep us in the sunny heights rather than in the smoggy flats of L.A., but we tire of her characters who rapidly wear out their welcome.

This novel appears never to have been edited, and rambles on at least half as long as it should. Dishes served, movies viewed, relationships recounted, sex detailed: the minutiae of daily life plod on relentlessly but too rarely artistically. The author's supposed to pare down and refine the plot; this novel reads more like taped transcripts.

Politically correct UCSC undergrad Isabel does make one remark I can agree with: It's easy to believe in universal love when you live in Santa Cruz and own a sailboat. This blinkered perspective appears to have limited both Smiley and her characters. This novel serves as an blithe testament to the intermittent beauty of sex, film, and narrative. But it also channels the astonishing vapidity of the minds and bodies of the affluent who preach to the rest of the world their sanctimonious attitudes. The fact that I may agree with much of what Smiley's humanism represents does not blind me to the failure of her fictional representation of these morals in an artistically sustained delivery.

(Posted to Amazon US today. The novel has received generally harsh reviews by the 44 previous critics. Many readers of Smiley's earlier novels expressed disappointment.)

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