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Tinseltown Scheherazades

Ten Days in the Hills A Novel Jane Smiley Alfred A. Knopf: 452 pp., $26

February 11, 2007|Tara Ison | Tara Ison is the author of the novels "A Child Out of Alcatraz" and the forthcoming "The List."

HERE'S a story for you:

"A group of ten young people over the course of ten days" comes together "in a luxurious retreat from the horrors" of their chaotic society. They discuss "everyday concerns, and uneasiness about, on the one hand, money, and on the other hand, God." This narrative offers "celebrity named characters in several stories.... It observes contemporary manners and ideas," and the tales the characters tell "of mutability, of jokes and tricks and miracles, prepare them for their fates as well as distract them."

Thus Jane Smiley summarizes Giovanni Boccaccio's "The Decameron," as she analyzes the origins of the modern novel in her illuminating 2005 study, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel." The compilation of well-known tales was a common literary design in Boccaccio's day, she tells us, but "he took the old material and worked it in the fire of current events."

Smiley keeps the flame of Boccaccio alive in her new novel, "Ten Days in the Hills," reheating this by-now-tepid narrative device: Lock up 10 people, bound by ties of blood, friendship, lust and happenstance, in a room and see what happens, what stories of miracles and tricks get told. In doing so, Smiley forges a blazing farce, a fiery satire of contemporary celebrity culture and a rich, simmering meditation on the price of war and fame and desire.

Instead of 14th century Florentines fleeing the Black Death, we have an assemblage of Hollywood types (and an out-of-towner or two), gathering on Monday, March 24, 2003 -- the morning after the Academy Awards and mere days into the Iraq war. The setting is the Pacific Palisades home of Max, 58, a renowned film director perhaps beginning the downward slide to career obsolescence, and his devoted, 50-ish girlfriend, Elena, the author of a series of self-improvement guides, the latest of which is called "Here's How: To Do EVERYTHING Correctly!" Soon on the scene are Max's cranky daughter, Isabel; her longtime secret lover, Stoney, Max's current agent and the son of his late agent, who is still in his father's shadow; the gorgeous Zoe, Isabel's mother and Max's ex, a half-Jamaican movie star/diva; her lover/guru/therapist, Paul; Zoe's wise-woman mother, Delphine; Delphine's best friend, Cassie; Elena's funky, amiable 20-year-old son, Simon; and Max's longtime friend Charlie, a right-leaning East Coast blowhard, adrift after the recent breakup of his marriage. They hang out, prepare food, argue (money, God), watch movies, work through old grievances and start up new ones and make a lot of explicit love.

Everyone has an ostensibly reasonable purpose for showing up and remaining together, but in truth they have all sought out one another (and this device). If we create our selves through the stories we tell, these characters are all fumbling to draft their personal narratives, craving both to hear and to recount the familiar plot lines once again, in search of definition, comfort, home.

And oh, do they tell stories! Life histories, experiences, travels, tales of obscure saints and offbeat sex and schoolyard struggles, of movies seen or acted in or pitched: These are storytellers telling stories about telling stories. Anecdotes about celebrities and films (real and fictional) are mixed together in a kind of literary Photoshop or Bob Zemeckis-style computer graphics, and it's easy for both readers and characters to cross that blurry line.

For Max and Stoney, the telling of stories is empowering; Stoney wants Max to "come back" with a big-budget remake of "Taras Bulba" that would validate Stoney's own role in life. Max wants to let go of his former blockbuster glory and turn his now more intimate life into art; the movie he wants to make is "My Lovemaking With Elena," an exploration, in the style of "My Dinner With Andre," of the "real connection that a man and a woman have." Isabel and Stoney are figuring out how to tell the story of their love affair (or whether there even is a story there). Zoe awaits her next cinematic incarnation to tell her who she truly is. They're all aware of their Scheherazadian tendencies, but they know no other way to connect -- or perhaps there is no other way, or better way. As Max says, "Telling stories is the least offensive way to communicate, because it's the least coercive."

Infiltrating this retreat, however, is the plague of the Iraq war, which, for these characters, is a story that's been a long time in development and just recently released. The war creeps into their meals, walks in the garden, sex, ultimately becoming a presence in the household, a character both alluring and repulsive, the unwelcome guest everyone knows will disrupt their lives but no one can agree how to treat. Elena is desperate to escape the hermetic setup for a trip to Starbucks to get a glimpse of the New York Times; Stoney prefers everyone to think he sneaked off to the gym rather than to an hour of CNN.

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