Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley

This novel by Pulitzer-prize winning author Jane Smiley says on the back cover that it's rated "R" for "Ravishing."

More like rated "S" for "snooze-fest."

I vaguely recall reading A Thousand Acres, Smiley's mid-western take on King Lear, but I couldn't remember if I had liked it or not. The jacket synopsis seemed to indicate that it was set in Hollywood, so I prepared myself for a bit of gossipy guilty pleasure. But from page one, it became very obvious to me that I didn't want to spend ten minutes in the Hills with these characters or this story, much less ten days.

One of the characters, a yoga-practicing, vegetarian guru by the name of Paul, sums it up pretty well in the book:

"A certain thing occurred to Paul. It was that he sympathized with Charlie. He thought, "I am wasting my time here." It was as if he had somehow embarked on a cruise, something he had avoided all his life, and suddenly here he was, far out in a sea of languor with a group of people who on land could be avoided, and were therefore fine enough, but here, on this cruise, were insufferable. He sighed. They made him sigh. It was not precisely that they were boring, but more that they caused the expansion of time, so that every second, every moment, swelled to infinity, he himself, in his body and his consciousness, swelled to infinity, and he realized that his long path of exploration, that grand peregrination he had been making for fifty-five years had led to this room, that pointless movie, his old and oblivious antagonist, Max, the view of the eternal Getty Museum dimly white across the hills, the sight of Cassie once again opening her mouth to tell another tale. He groaned and closed his eyes. It was as if he could remember every thought he had ever thought, and every one of them was futile."
Geez--talk about insufferable! Run-on sentences galore and one begins to wonder if Smiley received some kind of monetary bonus each time she used a comma. The book is set in the Pacific Palisades (not in "The Hills" as the title would suggest because "The Hills"--other than being a vapid and insipid MTv fauxility show--refers to the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles) where a group of ten of the most one dimensional characters hunker down in the luxurious home of Max, fading movie director, to escape the newly instigated Iraqi war. Other than debating the war, eating, watching movies and having strangely unerotic sex, these people do nothing.

The book is written in the third person, but switches focus in a way that makes it difficult to connect with any of the characters. Initially, I thought that with ten people and ten days, Smiley might devote a day to each character's point-of-view. But two of the characters never see the spotlight--and, in fact, are so peripheral it's difficult to figure out why Smiley bothered to include them in the story. After a week of stultifying boredom, Smiley inexplicably transplants her group to an even more lavish setting to spend the last three days. Although we get an influx of new characters, nothing new happens there, either--just long, tedious descriptions of the overly ornate decor and pools and gardens.

We get stories and more stories about people or events, but nothing happens during the ten days. The characters carry on stilted conversations that sound like speeches instead of natural dialogue. They even think in stiff, speech-like thoughts. The movie industry talk sounds like the work of someone who has READ about Hollywood, rather than actually experienced it. Smiley doesn't spend time on the inner lives of her characters either--instead we get painstaking descriptions of the mundane:
"Want a drink?" said Simon, "A beer, maybe? I saw some Negro Modelo in the refrigerator."
Charlie nodded. Simon went to the refrigerator and took out four beers. He kept one for himself, passed one to Max, another to Charlie, and the last to Stoney. They looked good, thought Paul, though he hadn't had a beer in five years. At the sight of them, Zoe got up and went to the refrigerator herself. She brought back two large bottles of Pellegrino and set them, with glasses, on the coffee table.
Aaaarrrggghhhh! Neal Stephenson can digress for pages on the proper consumption of Cap'n Crunch in Cryptonomicon and I'm riveted, but this paragraph by Smiley makes me want to scratch my eyes out. She set two large bottles of Pellegrino WITH glasses on the coffee table? Really?!!! How fascinating! Another example of Smiley's tortured prose:
"She isn't strange. She's ideal." Isabel said this without any self-consciousness, just saying at last what she always felt, but Stoney's head swiveled around and he grinned at her, as if she were joking. She saw that he saw immediately that she was not.
She saw that he saw? Oh my god--I cannot believe I made it through this book. Maybe it should have been rated "E" for "Excruciating" or "G" for "God-awful." Throughout the book, one of the characters refers to the movie, My Dinner with Andre. Fitting actually, since the book is very similar to that movie. Just a lot of blah, blah, blah and yada, yada, yada and not much else.

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