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The Common Review
Sunday, April 22nd, 2007
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Ten Days in the Hills: A Novel

by Jane Smiley

Organ Meats, Rumpled Sheets

A review by Daniel Born

Being a gifted writer means never having to say you're sorry -- at least when it comes to borrowing. Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres (1991), employed Shakespeare's King Lear as narrative scaffold for her tale of an Iowa farmer and his three daughters. In Moo (1995), Smiley showed she could write academic satire every bit as hilarious as that of Mary McCarthy or David Lodge, employing the usual conventions of departmental turf wars and lusty graduate assistants while giving her version another Iowa twist. She chose a Midwestern setting, establishing at the center of her feckless university community a 700-pound experimental hog named Earl Butz.

Smiley's new novel is set not in the Iowa cornfields but in contemporary Hollywood, California; still, she is in top form at adapting literary precedent to her quirky intent. Ten Days in the Hills borrows the scheme of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, with a cast of moral bankrupts who get tossed together in a couple of posh Los Angeles locations where they will talk, eat, sleep, and copulate toward a conclusion that only the most perverse Hollywood screenwriter could imagine. Max, a 58-year-old burned-out film director, fantasizes coming out of his late-career doldrums to direct My Lovemaking With Elena, a sort of My Dinner With Andre (1981), except that it will feature porn technique juxtaposed with high-minded conversation about current events. The aforesaid Elena-- Max's current lover and a bestselling author of "self-improvement guides" (Here's How: To Do EVERYTHING Correctly!) -- has other ideas: obsessed with the crisis in Iraq, she would like to see a film featuring Jennifer Lopez as a gung-ho American soldier who, in a firefight, will have the beautiful bottom half of her body damaged beyond recognition. The rest of the merry crew that join Max and Elena for a 10-day vacation include Max's former wife, Zoe, a film star whose narcissism is matched only by her daughter Isabel's eco-pedantry, and Elena's son, Simon, a witless UC–Davis undergrad who brings to mind the screen personality of Ashton Kutcher. Although Simon seems to bear the brunt of Smiley's strongest moral condemnation, he does have a brilliant comic moment in the takedown of Zoe's personal coach and gigolo, Paul. The latter is a tendentious charlatan, a New Age hack who practices yoga and recommends that his various female clients eat more "organ meats." Right.

The novel's numerous dialogues crackle with energy -- when Smiley's characters speak, whatever their grotesque flaws, we listen. All of them are awash in film, and they bring the art of pitching a movie to a high level indeed. The biggest pitch of all comes from a Russian mogul named Mike, who wants Max to film a remake of Gogol's novel Taras Bulba (1850). When he invites Max and his posse to spend several days in a pleasure palace on the order of Kubla Khan, we learn what Max's willpower is made of, and also how loyalties and artistic visions are bought and sold in the Hollywood hills.

Not only has Smiley skillfully employed Boccaccio in this excellent adventure; she also has her way with the genre of the Hollywood novel -- one that has always functioned as a commentary on the idea of America itself. This particular form, like the "condition of England" novel popular among British Victorians, sparkles gorgeously on the surface, but the light comes off the sharp edges of broken glass. However voyeuristically we peer into Hollywood's abyss, it is difficult not to feel that we are somehow looking at ourselves. It's an altogether pleasurable -- and sobering -- experience, the kind Boccaccio himself might instantly recognize.


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