Ten Days in the Hills

Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills is an easily skippable novel—not in the sense of being easy to ignore altogether, although it is that too, but in the sense of having interwoven character threads with some of those threads more worthwhile than others and too many scenes that consist of unformed and poorly reasoned argument, chiefly over Iraq but occasionally over love. That so much of Ten Days in the Hills is skippable might be a problem for a review, were it not for how the novel’s extraneousness conveys whether it should be read.

When Ten Days in the Hills came out I bought it chiefly based on Jane Smiley’s reputation, as she wrote two wonderful novels—Moo and A Thousand Acres—along with at least one dull novel, Good Faith. Since that impulse purchase, Ten Days in the Hills has sat around till I began foraging for something light and easy while I digest To the Lighthouse. Alas, however, Ten Days in the Hills is light even when it tries to be serious—only at one moment, during a late declaration of love, does it feel like it has some heft—and too heavy when it tries to be light, and not in a positive way like Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

As an exercise in seemingly endless self-reference, Ten Days in the Hills succeeds like the first phase of the Iraq invasion. About ten characters unintentionally gather during March 2003 in the Los Angeles hills as the Iraq war begins. They’re movie types and L.A. wastrels, so they have nothing better to do than tell stories and sleep with one another. The positive news it that Jane Smiley writes unusually good sex scenes, although “unusually good” doesn’t mean “good” in an absolute sense, as I’m not convinced that it is possible to write a good explicit sex scene. The negative news is that most of the novel consists of navel gazing, which is sometimes more interesting and sometimes less so, as in this long bit of dialog:

You want to make a Hollywood movie about an unmarried couple with grown children talking about the Iraq war and making love, with graphic sex? You know better, so this must be a joke. It has every single thing that Hollywood producers hate and despite, and that American audiences hate and despise—fornication, old people, current events, and conversation. You might be able to do it with Clint Eastwood, but unless the girl was forty years younger than he is—

Instead of a movie, we get a book about often unmarried couples with grown children talking about the Iraq war and making love, with graphic sex. A lot of the novel is, I think, a joke, but one that grows old before the punchline, if there is a punchline. Certainly there’s too much movie talk, all of which is more about the book we’re reading than the movies they’re discussing. I’m sure the Iraq war is supposed to function as a metaphor for something, though I’m not sure what that something is. Still, Ten Days in the Hills has its moments, as when a college student describes a ludicrous, idiotic movie idea some of his friends propose and then we find that “it occurred to Stoney [a movie agent] that he should find out who these kids were and see if they had representation.” Many scenes are very L.A., and I’m not surprised that the dust jacket says Smiley lives in Northern California. The crowd she runs with must have its share of conversations like these:

“Okay, how many regular vegetarians?”
Zoe’s hand went up, then Paul shrugged and put his hand up.
Only Isabel.
“Anyone lactose-intolerant?”
Delphine nodded.
Max’s hand went up. Cassie said, “What about Charlie?” and Stoney realized he wasn’t present. Max said, “If he isn’t, he should be.”
“Okay, let’s see. How about hot-pepper-intolerant?”
No hands went up.
She said, “Do you care, Elena?”
“No okra.”
Cassie wrote that down, then said, “I don’t like lamb. Hmm.” She showed the list to Delphine. “Simon likes everything?”
Stoney nodded.

As satire goes, it’s pretty good, but with 450 pages, including debate about Iraq at the quality of what I heard in dorm rooms at the time. I’m tempted to quote it—the novel debates, not the dorm room ones—but my capacity for sadism just isn’t that high. Fortunately, when you skip pages, you read quickly and can blast through the Iraq debates, but you’re also reading a book you want to skip large chunks of. Two characters even comment on this:

“That’s Weekend. That’s only one movie. And it’s French. French movies are a special taste. What would you watch?”
She flopped back on the bed. “Nothing. I would read a book. Books move a lot faster.”
“There’s a revolutionary idea.”
“Well, they do. You never have a shot in a book of two people walking down the street in real time, step step step. That drives me crazy […] And you can’t speed it up. You can cut in and out of it, or you can cut to another scene, but otherwise you’re just stuck, because if it moved faster they would be running and that would look weird. If I’m reading a book, it takes a few seconds for my eye to pick up the lines of dialogue that in a movie take much longer to say, and once my eye has picked it up, I can go on to the stuff I’m really interested in, which is what the characters are thinking or whatever. I think books move a lot faster even than a movie everyone thinks is fast, like The Matrix.”

I agree with her analysis and began applying it to Ten Days in the Hills, lightly at first and then with steadily more ruthlessness. This made some characters hard to follow, but fortunately they’re almost all unidimensional, making your own dramatis personae reasonably easy to construct. I will say that Isabel, a 23-year-old who delivered the book philosophy just quoted, and Stoney, her much older lover who is also the agent quoted in the first blockquote, are the strongest characters, and it’s not an accident that I used their quotes as examples. Nonetheless, they can’t sustain a book, even one with its moments of wonderful humor and deep satire, and too much of Ten Days in the Hills is random commentary instead of what Isabel calls “stuff I’m really interested in.”

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