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Front row at the talkies

Hollywood novel depends on a hyperverbal cast of characters

Jane Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for 'A Thousand Acres.' Jane Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for "A Thousand Acres." (ELENA SEIBERT)

Ten Days in the Hills
By Jane Smiley
Knopf, 449 pp., $26

In 11 novels over the past quarter-century, Jane Smiley has combined a good-natured, ardent curiosity with a vast narrative intelligence -- both about how the novel should work and about the particular architecture she creates therein. The best of her fiction delivers whole worlds entire: the heartbreaking, high-stakes realm of horse racing in "Horse Heaven," the melancholy regret of "The Age of Grief" and "Ordinary Love and Good Will," an Iowa farming family stumbling through life in "A Thousand Acres." Even when she sacrifices a greater depth to her own cleverness, the result can be splendidly satirical -- take her brilliantly rendered send up of academe in "Moo," or her portrait of the all-American dream of real estate in "Good Faith." Time and again she has confirmed her place in the high hills of American fiction, thanks to her brains, her wit, and her emotional resonance.

Little of which is put to good use in "Ten Days in the Hills," a long-winded, sexed-up Hollywood novel that seems as infatuated with its own volubility as it is exasperating. Smiley has borrowed from Boccaccio's "The Decameron" to jump-start her story, much the way she drew from "King Lear" for "A Thousand Acres"; Boccaccio's medieval classic is a set of interlocking tales from 10 refugees who have left the city to escape the Black Death. Here the contemporary scaffolding is a group of movie people and various hangers-on who hole up together at a couple of mansions in west LA in late March of 2003 -- the morning after the Academy Awards, and days after the US-led invasion of Iraq. Their reluctant host is a 58-year-old director named Max who's waning in every sense of the word -- he can't summon the requisite virility to make a movie or to please his lover, Elena. But he can still talk dirty, or talk dirty with metaphors (about war and power and movies, always movies), and so he does -- in one average-sized paragraph at the start of the novel, I counted 12 uses of the word "penetration." And let's face it, that's not even a very sexy word.

But if Max is all hat and no cattle, that doesn't stop him from dreaming; his current fantasy is to make a feature-length film, mostly fleshy close-ups, called "My Lovemaking With Elena." And yes, he got the idea from "My Dinner With Andre," which "Ten Days in the Hills" closely resembles, at least so far as solipsistic dialogue is concerned. Because there's very little action to speak of (beyond sexual athletics, which are plentiful), the main social interaction for the group is conversation; because they are only thinly fleshed out beyond their interchanges or their inventor's satirical viewpoint, the talk itself is cheap. "What do you want to do today?" Max asks Elena at the start of the novel. Comes her quick and thoroughly implausible reply: "Hide out from the war." Oh, OK , honey -- want some sparkling water with that overly delicate political conscience?

One of the problems with the novel is that its conceit (that a group of privileged go-getters have wandered onto this ship of fools for 10 days) is more convenient than it is realistic. Besides Elena and Max, we have his 23-year-old daughter, Isabel (back from New York and searching for the meaning of life) ; Elena's son, Simon, who's on break, maybe permanently, from UC Davis ; and Max's ex-wife, Zoe Cunningham, a half-Jamaican pop celebrity whose commanding beauty can stop traffic, even in LA. There's her guru-boyfriend, Paul, who is such a finely depicted snake-oil salesman that he may be the most interesting character in the novel. (When Zoe recounts a dream during one of their paying sessions, he closes his eyes, stumped, then asks: "Did you know you were once a god?") There's Stoney, Max's agent, who, at 38, is wildly in love with Isabel, and Charlie, Max's right-wing friend from back east, who provides plenty of political fodder for Elena's position on the war. Two older women are no doubt meant to represent Cassandra and the Oracle of Delphi: Cassie, an aged provocateur who runs a gallery and who wants to be buried with her handbag, and Delphine, Zoe's inscrutable Jamaican mother, whose promise as a character is held out but never delivered.

"Ten Days in the Hills" zigs and zags through each of these characters' dramedies, full of sound but very little fury, trying to locate its moral center in (besides the idyllic Delphine) Elena, whose outraged sentiments about the war turn out to be a highly sensitized form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. (This is one of the more cynical revelations of the novel.) But the points driven home are pedantic; the characters who espouse them, hollow -- or so farcical that we don't really give a damn about them. One recurring theme, which has the cast moving to a fancier place down the street, is an effort by a group of wealthy Russian financiers to snare Max into remaking Gogol's "Taras Bulba" -- another story about war and religious hatred, the point of which defeats itself. Amid the sparkling talk of the novel (which goes on among opulent settings and fine vegetarian dining) are shaggy dog stories and rehashed film plots and a few political tirades; interestingly, Smiley has given one of the most credible voices on the war to Charlie, whose support-our-troops stance is at least heartfelt. This moment is indicative of one of Smiley's great gifts as a writer, which is her generosity of vision -- she has created a straight man with a thoroughly sympathetic point of view.

The blow-by-blow sexual explicitness of "Ten Days in the Hills" enhances the feeling of the French farce; there are even a couple of Russian maids -- Monique and Marya! -- who appear after hours to offer special services. Writing about sex is a slippery slope, of course -- it can fail in a variety of ways, and when it succeeds, the spotlight is inevitably cast upon the author's intent. Certainly Smiley has mastered the technical challenge; for sheer gasps and thrusts and pillow-talk, she rivals John Updike. The question, though, is -- toward what end? We already knew she deserved a place on the field with the pros. Her mastery here of sexual realism gives us a more intricate group portrait -- Zoe shags Simon, Isabel shags Stoney, and Paul seems to be having phone sex -- but it's a portrait whose individual components don't amount to much. "Ten Days in the Hills" is full of endless pages of amusing conversation about myriad subjects, most of which confirms the author's range and intelligence but does little to engage the reader. At one point in the middle of the novel, at the end of a long night of movies and bickering, Paul considers that he is adrift on "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." Boy, do I know what he means.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at