Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Five days in the hills

A. O. Scott beat me to it, but we're in agreement.

I made it halfway through Jane Smiley's latest--day five of ten endless days--before giving up. Hockeyman exhorted me to finish. Was I not a serious reader/blogger/would-be critic? I guess not. I found myself doing all things I do when I don't like a book--putting off reading it in favor of rereading other, favored novels, paging through magazines, leaving the book idling on the coffeetable.

Ten Days in the Hills is set in the Hollywood Hills, specifically in Max's house. Max is an ageing producer. Along for the ride is girlfriend Elena, their respective children, a childhood friend, an ex-wife and her squeeze, the ex-wife's mother, and the ex-wife's mother's friend. Oh, and Max's agent Stoney, who has been sleeping with Max's daughter Isabel since Isabel was sixteen.

The book is modeled on a medeval text called the Decameron, wherein ten wealthy Italians hang out at a villa and chat. A lot. The Decameron is set in 1348, so one might forgive the lack of what modern readers seek in traditional plots. But Smiley has no excuse. Ten Days is a lot of people tossed into a very nice house with inadequate explanation for being there--they are not, after all, hiding out from the Plague, as the Decameron folk were, and all have envious lodgings elsewhere. Zoe, Paul, Delphine, Simon, Cassie, and Stoney all live nearby--Cassie, Stoney, Delphine within walking distance of Max's capacious abode. So why the hell are they all camping out in the house? With nothing to do but talk about Iraq and have sex? The premise rapidly collapses, and stays that way for 449 pages.

I wish I could say something nice about this book. I loved Moo, A Thousand Acres, Good Faith, Ordinary Love and Goodwill. The Greenlanders was terrific. I could even deal with her horse books. Smiley is a true talent, and as she grows older, we readers who appreciate her work want to see the kind of depth we're getting from Atwood, Oates, Munro, et al. This book seems indulgent--an opportunity to rant against the war, something she has ample opportunity to do in her blog (I even link to it!!)--and to write endlessly about sex.

I have no idea why Smiley spent so much of this novel depicting people in the act. How many descriptions of erections can one write, or read, without going numb? I don't mean to sound prudish. Moo had a chapter called Who's in Bed with Whom worthy of being taught in MFA programs across the land. But the amount and detail of sex here is, like the dialogue, ultimately pointless, exisiting just to exist. And Smiley is capable of so much more.


Blogger Frances said...

I've been on the fence about reading this book and now you and the others have convinced me to leave it alone. I really liked Smiley's early work - I was obsessed with A Thousand Acres -- but haven't loved anything past Moo. Well, I liked parts of her book on the novel. Too bad. The description of the characters sounded good, but I guess they don't do anything.

March 05, 2007 4:10 PM  
Blogger Barking Kitten said...

Hi Frances-

I agree. It's hard not to love Moo when you work in academia...but Lidie Newton didn't do it for me, and the later stuff was okay, but nothing near her earlier work. We can only hope she comes to...though politics and horses may be the literary death of her.


March 05, 2007 8:23 PM  

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